This week I did something I rarely do. After reading about THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING in the NYT Book Review, I downloaded it immediately and started reading. I usually sit back for a bit and think about the book, and how much I’m dying to read it vs. the books already in my too-tall stack. So an impulse purchase for sure.
I’m not so much fascinated by writers and their drinking, but I’m forever curious about my favorite writers — William Styron, William Faulkner, John Cheever, Raymond Carver — and the lives they led while writing, and how those lives informed their work. There is, of course, the theory that their personal lives do not matter one bit, that only the work matters, and I certainly subscribe to this. The work stands alone; it’s about the work. But my curiosity about the writer remains. It’s rumored, for instance, that Styron rarely edited his work, that he wrote one sentence at a time, rolling it over and over in his head, and that only once the sentence was perfected would he write it down on his yellow legal pad. What effect, if any, did his drinking have on his work, and also on the way he worked? It’s said that John Berryman felt inspiration was like a death threat, that writing made him fall apart. He used drinking as a stabilizer, to reduce what he called “the fatal intensity.” Without alcohol, is it possible that Berryman would not have been able to write at all?
I was at a writing conference recently when a young man asked a famous writer if he drank, and what he thought of writers being drinkers or addicts. Famous Writer laughed and said, (I paraphrase), Writing well means walking the line of wild creativity and staunch discipline. If I drink, my writing makes no sense, not matter how easy it seems in the drinking-moment. And how does anyone write, or even think, with a hangover?
Laing’s book opens with a scene of Cheever and Carver during their short tenure at Iowa, driving to a liquor store in the middle of winter, and Laing does a fantastic job of bringing these men to life. “Here’s a thing. Iowa City, 1973. Two men in a car, a Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days. It’s winter, the kind of cold that hurts bones and lungs, that reddens knuckles, makes noses run. If you could, by some devoted act of seeing, crane in through the window as they rattle by, you’d see the older man, the one in the passenger seat, has forgotten to put on his socks. He’s wearing penny loafers on bare feet, oblivious to the cold, like a prep school boy on a summer jaunt.”
Laing’s research is spurred by this thesis: “I wanted to know … what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.”
Yes. The effects on the body of literature. I can’t wait to read on, to see what she discovers.