Melissa Hathaway is spreading the word about how the arts can help fight addiction. She has written the following guest blog article specifically on how writing can have healing and cathartic qualities. Since this is something I believe strongly in, I was happy to have her share on the blog today.
Literature, Drink, Drugs: How Writing Can Help Fight Addiction
by Melissa Hathaway
People often talk about the cathartic, therapeutic effect of writing. If you're being bullied in school or are having problems in your relationships, you are encouraged to write your thoughts down in a diary. Cancer victims also write throughout their illness: letters to their loved ones, blogs and diaries about how they feel during their treatment, even novels that describe their journey and encourage other sufferers. But little is shared about the positive effect writing can have on those battling with addiction: whether that is an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, or even food. However the effects writing and literature can have on addicts can be incredible. One of the twelve steps to dealing with alcohol or drug addiction is to write a list of all the people you have hurt or harmed as a result of your addiction and attempt to make amends to these people wherever possible. This is a technique used across the country: from support groups in New York, all the way to rehab centres in Iowa. These are just a few examples of how literature (or writing in its most basic form) can be used to help overcome addiction, or form a kind of therapy for those that need it. But what about the other end of the spectrum? What of writing made better because it was written by an alcoholic or drug addiction that has enhanced writing?
A History of Literary Addiction
It isn't a new phenomenon that literature and addiction go hand in hand. Some of the most famous, lauded, and talented writers of the past 100 years have been addicted to either drugs, alcohol, or both. Perhaps the most famous literary alcoholic was Ernest Hemingway, who once said "a man does not exist until he is drunk." However despite rumors to the contrary, Hemingway once revealed in an interview that he never drank whilst he was writing: when he had a pen in his hand he was able to refrain from having a tipple. Maybe this is an early example of writing helping to overcome addiction! One man who certainly didn't stop drinking whilst he was writing was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The famous words of F. Scott Fitzgerald have applied to several authors, but they also applied to himself: "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you." Despite his success in the 1920s, Fitzgerald spent much of the 1930s as a crumbling alcoholic, and died by the end of 1940 as a result of alcohol related illnesses. One of the most famous drug addicts and writers is Jack Kerouac. He often incorporated his addictive experiences into his works and they changed how he wrote (the spontaneous prose he was famous for was a drug-induced style of writing). There are many more examples of famous addicts, and even how their experience with addiction has enhanced their literary output. Are there examples of former addicts writing literary works (novels and poems, rather than lists and letters) that have helped overcome addiction?
Using Your Experiences To Influence Your Work
Former opium addict Jeet Thayil was nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, which is called Narcopolis. Thayil used his experiences of being an addict to inspire his novel, which is about addiction in the bleak underworld inhabited by drug addicts in 1980s Bombay (the time Thayil was in the city and an addict himself). In an interview, when asked how he felt about looking back on his addiction, Thayil responded "I look back at it with yearning. It's a bad thing!" He also surprised by saying that his experience of writing the novel was the opposite of cathartic: instead it filled him with bad, negative feelings, and left him missing the excitement of the addictive period of his life. So can writing help you overcome addiction? Can sitting down and pouring your soul into a novel help heal the gap left when you no longer have drugs in your life, or does it draw you back into a life you'd rather forget? In short, the answer is that it depends on your personality and whether you're ready to let go of your addiction. The only way you can save yourself from addiction is if you decide to help yourself: and what better way to do that than to pick up a pen and start writing?