My theory of the tortured artist is to be an artist, you don’t have to be tortured. But it helps.
I am in graduate school. Because I have nothing better to do, I wanted to prove my thesis. As research I observed some people and asked some questions about drinking and drugs and art. All of the people who appear in this study are of legal drinking age. Also I have changed their names. Also everything below is made up.
I began by reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was hard, difficult, and took me a couple hours. And then, to confirm my data, I watched the movie. Then I watched Pineapple Express because it’s hilarious and also about drugs.
But let’s start with Hemingway. People take you more seriously if you open with Hemingway. Professors love Hemingway. Throughout my life, I have heard Hemingway referred to as an “alcoholic,” which qualifies him as a “tortured artist.” I should admit that I know more about alcoholism than I do about Hemingway.
Alcoholism is “bad.” Hemingway is “good.” The ability to hold two conflicting thoughts in one’s head is a sign of intelligence.
One theory says that Hemingway would not have been Hemingway without alcohol. The Hemingway we know is so thoroughly dripping with ethanol that it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t wrung out and poured into a frat boy’s red Solo cup when he died. On the other hand, we don’t know. What if Hemingway could have written more and better without alcohol? Maybe he would have written even more books, better books. Maybe he would have become the first woman President. Who knows.
And who, exactly, would want to read Hunter S. Thompson stripped of drugs? Actually, what would be left of Hunter S. Thompson if he were stripped of drugs? Maybe he would be a house-husband with a collection of novelty ties from his children and nothing interesting to say.
When I started applying for my MFA, I started asking questions about being a tortured artist. I grew up in a nice house with loving, understanding parents and a consistently kind older sister. I’ve only been on morphine once in my life, and I threw up. (That’s maybe a short story but not a novel.) I get migraines from loud music. I have allergies. I had whooping cough. In short, I am never going to be Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson. My soul is tortured by nothing worse than congested sinuses. So either I can’t be a writer or I have to believe that one can do without the drugs. But let’s be honest. I bolster my confidence by asking myself questions like, “If in order to write anything worth reading, you have to become a depraved human being—should you really be a writer?”
You don’t have to answer. I know it’s a personal question.
The answer is yes.
And just to prove it, I researched a typical graduate student party:
“But I just find Carolyn Kizer to be so much more political than Carolyn Forché. Forché is, essentially, concerned with the private sphere of domesticity.” –John
“I really think if their poetry fornicated you would have a perfect word-baby of the political and the personal.” –Andrew
“Andrew! DRINK DRINK DRINK FLIP YOUR CUP FLIP YOUR CUP!” –Susie
Andrew chugs a beer and flips his cup in 7.9 seconds, winning the boat race for…
“TEAM AWESOME! …so as I was saying, I find that both Kizer and Forché transgress geopolitical boundaries…pass the lighter?” –Andrew
Hours later, like all good writers and graduate students, John takes notes of his social interactions.
“eating marmosets is like having sex with fruit
I need new shoelaces white no.39
the anemones the sea anemones
having fruit is like sexing marmosets”
John has passed out.
“I’m feeling inspired tonight.” –Andrew
“But we’re going dancing! Are you still coming dancing!?” –Susie
“Yeah. I’ll just drink a little bit but not get too wasted and then go home and write when I’m buzzed. I write really well when I’m buzzed.”—Andrew
After a few more drinks at the bar:
“Andrew! I LOVE THIS SONG!”
“Hang on. I’m texting myself a poem.”
Original art by Ilyse Magy.
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