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When The Guardian Goes All PSA

For the past few years I’ve been totally enamored with The Guardian, especially for its books coverage and blogs. Then today, Stuart Walton has to take everything down a notch with his odd public service announcement for writers everywhere.

Eloise Millar’s compendium of great literary cocktails raises the interesting question of whether intoxicants can ever be an aid to the writing process. Some may claim that the creative juices only start flowing after a certain critical level of saturation has been reached. Can this be so, or are we looking only at another of the ways we find to sublimate our requirement for altered states?

The answer after the jump.

Apparently, the answer is categorically no:

Any attempt to convince ourselves today that drinking might be conducive to writing is, however, self-delusion. We now know that, like many other intoxicants, alcohol has an initial stimulant effect on the key neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which contribute to the familiar feeling of well-being that the evening’s first drink delivers. It also acts on a neurotransmitter known, sweetly enough, as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is an inhibitory agent found throughout the brain. GABA plays an important role in the memory function, which includes assisting the brain to discard the material it doesn’t need to retain. Alcohol’s stimulation of the GABA receptors enhances the inhibitory action of this chemical, which is why it becomes harder to remember your PIN number, your colleague’s name, and finally your own address, during a particularly determined session.

Thanks for the science lesson Stuart! But he goes on:

The question arises as to whether other less cognitively debilitating intoxicants than alcohol might aid the writer’s task. Cocaine, perhaps, won’t reduce you to the horizontal Malcolm Lowry position, but it hardly facilitates thought processes. What it does instead is call attention to itself, which is after all why it seems like a good idea in the first place. But you won’t find yourself focusing more intensely on those Second Empire crinolines while your central nervous system is under stimulant attack. It frankly can’t be bothered with such mundanities.

When all is said and done, writing is, to those professionally engaged in it, a form of work. And if you expect to be able to lubricate the process with Shiraz, the truth is that you aren’t really taking either the writing itself, not to mention the possible dysfunctional drinking, seriously.

OK, this all smacks of the overly personal—hi Stuart, meet Robert Olen Butler it’s a good message for children and aspiring writers everywhere. I guess.

Seems to me though that this is a personal thing. Some classic books have been written “under the influence,” so to speak. And granted, only 1 in a million alcoholics become the next Hemingway, but take away alcohol and half of all great Irish writing is eliminated from literary history.

That’s the problem with this PSA-type nonsense. Nothing is one size fits all, no matter what paper prints it.



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