Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Alcohol and "Flow"

"Walker Percy said it was because of the re-entry problem. You spend all day embedded in your fictional world, well, how do you return to Earth? To return to actuality, a lot of writers have a couple of drinks, sometimes more. But it's a law of diminishing returns. If you don't moderate, you have to quit, and that's the sad story." Jim Harrison, interviewed for The Globe & Mail by Rebecca Caldwell.

For the past two weeks, I've mulled over this analysis of the writer's relationship with alcohol. It's the first time I've heard "re-entry" named as a source of writer’s anxiety. "Writer's Block" is the more common bogeyman, and numerous writers frankly admit that a little lubrication gets the ball rolling quite nicely, thank you. Extreme practitioners of this school of thought (call it the Bukowski/Burroughs/Rimbaud model, if you like) ascribe to the notion that even if alcohol finally ruins the most prodigious talents, it's worth the risk if it somehow facilitates the early production of The Next Great Novel. It's the prerogative of youth to studiously ignore Harrison's words regarding the law of diminishing returns, but one hopes they can at least pay some heed to William Styron, who claimed it was fine if you wrote drunk, so long as you were sober when you edited.

This mode has never posed much of a temptation for me: the few times I've put pen to paper while under the influence have yielded some spectacularly embarrassing results, usually in the form of sentimental prose that lurches toward the maudlin. This business of using alcohol to soften re-entry, however, resonates with me. I've written some fiction - a novel and a few dozen short stories sit restively in the drawer - and can attest with Anne Lamott that the worst aspect of writing is everything that surrounds it. Distractions, getting started, finishing, editing and publishing (admittedly the latter aspect is to date something of a rarity) can induce considerable misery, but these dark specters disappear entirely, along with every other concern, when the words flow. In fact, "Flow" is the term psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses to describe this state of consciousness, a condition he portrays as both desirable and productive.

I can see his point, but perhaps my level of emotional maturity hasn't yet grown to better accommodate "flow." It is an undeniable thrill to be in "flow," but like any high, it leaves you with a rough ride back to earth. I do my best to regularly allocate a specific period of "flow time," but good luck trying to pull me out of it when the kids return from school, demanding afternoon snacks and help with their homework.

I think Harrison is right to point out that moderation is finally, for those of us who reside in the Land of Plenty, the challenge of our life. We can enter "flow" any number of ways: writing fiction or writing code, reading, cooking, playing basketball, tending to business - you name it. And it's a delightful state of mind to be in, but I question whether it contributes as much to a person's character as Csikszentmihalyi claims. For better or worse, our "character" is what responds to impertinent interruptions, and it requires a head that is moderately clear of intoxicants.

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