The Trip To Echo Spring; Why Writers Drink

echoSpringThis book is a beguiling mix of biography, travelogue and memoir, that focuses on the life and work of six of America’s finest twentieth century male writers: Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver, crazy mad drunks one and all. Olivia Laing works her way around their geographical locations in a long peripatetic journey across the USA, musing on the relationship between literature and booze, thinking back over the lives of her authors and the works they wrote, remembering how her own childhood was distorted by drunken adults, and refusing all the easy answers.

En route, we learn a lot about alcohol addiction, some of which is fascinating. For instance, neuroscience has discovered that the pleasure of getting drunk inscribes itself on the human brain with an especially potent mark. And so regardless of what vile behaviour and dreadful consequences drink produces, the urge to return to it in times of stress never abates. The belief that it is the font of all pleasure is so very compelling. The more a person drinks, the more withdrawal symptoms he or she will experience and so the anxiety that they seek to quench with alcohol becomes even more acute and intense when they are sober. In this way, drunks are made: alcohol so quickly becomes a vicious circle, it’s no wonder getting dry and staying dry are particular difficult things to do.

Notably, all the authors Laing examines had severely troubled childhoods, which left them with legacies of extreme anxiety. Poverty, bad parenting, hostile, aggressive families, suicides, denied sexuality, it’s pretty much a roll call of all the dreadful things that can happen in ordinary first world families. This seems to be at the root of the obsession, much more so than artistic creativity itself. In fact, that creativity might be a destabilising force is something that Laing dismisses quite vigorously. Discussing John Berryman, the academic-poet of enormous brain, huge ego and quite stupendous drinking problems, she refers scathingly to a note written about him by Saul Bellow. ‘Inspiration contained a death threat,’ Bellow writes. ‘He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart. Drink was a stabilizer. It somewhat reduced the fatal intensity.’

This, Laing declares, ‘was a foolish thing to say. The poems weren’t killing Berryman.’ She is very clear that drink was not a stabilizing force, but a method of self-destruction: ‘Alcohol might have quietened his near omnipresent sense of panic on a drink by drink basis, but on a drink by drink basis it had also created a life of physical and moral disintegration and despair.’ It seems much more in this account a question of personality and upbringing. Alcoholics are among those people who have an ‘external locus of control’, which is to say they don’t feel personally responsible for what happens to them, but tend instead to blame circumstances or be superstitious. They also tend to be mired in denial – about what’s happening to them, why it’s happening and what ought to be done about it. And they lack the faith in others and themselves, the trust in life, to give up their addiction.

What seems to emerge, then, is the sense, faintly miraculous, that these men managed to transcend their issues with alcohol sufficiently to write the works they did. That they managed to hang onto some functioning part of self-awareness and perspicuity, not to mention awesome wordsmith skills, to create their novels, poems and plays.

In this beautifully written book, the literary analysis, the biographies and the research on alcohol are the best parts – and they come together in impressive and powerful ways. But I don’t completely agree with the dismissal of creativity as a source of trouble. To be creative may well be one of our greatest skills and our sharpest pleasures, but the need to be creative, the drive to find ways to talk about the messy, paradoxical human condition, comes from some place of damage. You don’t have to be an alcoholic to write, but the factors that push people towards alcoholism are also in part those that push them towards writing. Well, I think so, after the past year or so of research into writers and their ways. There are the occasional exceptions, like Goethe, for instance, who seemed a fairly jolly sort. But the happy, balanced writer is not the norm. Still, Laing’s subtle and careful deductions about her writers are always insightful and sensitive.

I find that the more literary a book is, and the more ambitious in scope, the more flaws it can contain and yet still be a very good experience. So if I say that the travelogue elements, while gloriously written, don’t seem to add anything to the overall value of the narrative, this isn’t a reason not to read it. Equally I found the memoir element, which makes up a very small part of the book, to be unsatisfactory. Olivia Laing begins well by locating her motivations for the whole enquiry in the experience as a child of her mother’s alcoholic (and female) partner. This is the reason why she chooses only to study male writers. But having shown this much vulnerability, she is not about to show any more. After that she bounds through her story like a good head girl, getting all the answers right in the literary quiz, showing herself to be a competent and keen traveller, having a lovely few days bonding with her mother over Carver’s grave. I rather felt for her poor old authors, suicidal, hopeless, paranoid, defecating in corridors, hallucinating, beating their partners. I understand it must be very hard to write about people who are still alive, but having gone so far, I would have preferred it myself if Laing had had the courage to show her own scars. Still, this is a fascinating and intelligent book, and a very necessary investigation into the mysterious world of creativity.

27 thoughts on “The Trip To Echo Spring; Why Writers Drink

  1. Excellent review. It sounds as if the writer has a certain bias but that the book manages to transcend this. I think that true creativity often springs from people who have some kind of dysfunction and maybe they’re more susceptible to alcohol than others. It makes them more difficult to live with but we benefit from the works of art!

    • Well I agree with you – that’s pretty much what I think too. I’ve been reading up on writers’ lives for over a year now, and so far, I’ve never met a bunch of more complex and paradoxical people, and easy to live with they are not! But the suffering seems to be part and parcel of producing literature. I wonder whether you have to magnify the pain in some way to understand it and to find the words for it.

  2. Very interesting review. This one’s on my list for the paperback editon. I’ve recently finished Lawrence Osborne’s (no relation) The Wet and the Dry in which he explores the realtionship between drink and Islam, while using his visits to Islamic countries to give his own liver a rest.

    • What an intriguing book that sounds! And interesting, too, that alcohol should be at its basis. I’m loving the creative non-fiction that’s coming out lately. I am a fan of the hybrid texts, which mix a bit of all sorts of different genres together.

  3. I just started this book yesterday. I was hesitant to read it because of my preconceived notion that the author has some sort of agenda that might be heavy-handed, but so far I’m finding it really engaging.

    • Ooh do you mind my asking what you thought the agenda would be, and why you were tempted into preconceptions? Only this is the sort of book I’m currently trying to write and so I’m most curious to know how to avoid the pitfalls! And I think you’ll be fine with this one – it’s really very interesting and beautifully done.

      • Sure, I hope this helps!
        The book hasn’t been released yet in the US, so the only info I have about it is the wee bit the publisher supplied. There is a line in the publicity info (“she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery”), which made me think of something that might be preachy or self-absorbed. I thought, perhaps, instead of being more about the authors she selected, it might become the author’s own self-examination that travels the realm of indulgent.

        So far, though, I’m happily surprised. To me, memoirs or memoir-esque books always run the risk of becoming weepy, sentimental, self-indulgent or all of the above.

        Although, I’m only at the beginning, I like what I’m reading so far.

  4. I think Laing and I would get on pretty well, not only because it sounds like a really interesting book, but because I agree with her about alcohol not being a boost to creativity. I’ve known a number of alcoholics and it was always a wonder that they functioned as well as they did. So it also seems amazing that the writers she profiles managed to be as successful as they were. Makes me wonder what more they could have accomplished had they not be alcoholics!

    • I’m sure you’d like the book. The first one she wrote was about a walking trip she took that combined the history of the river Ouse with the story of Virginia Woolf (who drowned in the river). So I think you’d find her a very interesting author!

  5. Such an interesting review. I agree that creativity comes often from a wounded source but the difference is that it leads to greater awareness and peace, or can. Alcoholism adds a new layer of wounding.

    • Lilian, I do agree with you – I think very much the same. The right sort of creativity can be very soothing and grounding. I had a therapist who used to talk about ‘indulgences’ – things like alcohol or crap tv or whatever we think will provide comfort but in actual fact only makes things worse. Real comfort usually requires a little discipline, a purer purpose, and insight.

    • This is perfectly true, BookerTalk. I remember reading an article by the excellent Joan Acocella on writers’ block. She was looking at American authors primarily but pointing out how often alcohol was the cause of it. It does seem to be the scourge of writers.

    • Yay! I cannot wait to hear what you think of it, so I hope you get to pick it up soon. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it – it’s a really interesting book, and beautifully written.

  6. I am really interested in your thoughts on creativity because you seem to me a creative person – do you think this comes from a place of damage? You seem very well balanced to me.

    • Aw bless you. The kind of character I have – thin-skinned, over-sensitive, bookish, introverted, left me feeling very ‘wrong’ somehow when I was growing up. I seemed so different to other people, and I worked hard to look like everyone else (which just made me feel anxious!). That marginalised position I felt I inhabited certainly motivated me to a) read a lot and fall in love with literature and b) think a great deal about the problem of the human condition – and those things have definitely come together in a desire to produce art. It’s sort of an old habit and in a way a bad habit of mine to want to look balanced all the time – alas, it’s not always true!🙂

  7. I’ve been looking forward to your review of this, because I enjoyed ‘To the River’ so much. I do think that Laing is an interesting and perceptive critic, she writes/wrote good reviews in the Observer too.

    Funny that I’ve just been reading Black Milk, the author of which also pulls back from showing too much vulnerability (as you know!). Of course, I haven’t read this (yet!) but perhaps Laing wasn’t terribly keen on including the more personal stuff, but felt she had to do it to show her bias, as it were. You know, like anthropologists who have to put themselves in the picture. Oh dear, I haven’t drunk enough coffee yet this morning. My brain doesn’t work.

    Anonymous – very interesting point!

    Back under my rock…

    • No you make perfect sense to me. Even more so, perhaps, because I’ve just spent three months on a writing course trying to avoid the personal (half the time without even realising I was trying to avoid it)! So reading this I was in the curious position of understanding why Olivia Laing might not want to talk more about herself, and realising why, for the sake of the book, it might be good if she did. Black Milk is another really good comparison where the same thing happens. I can understand the urge to smooth it all over and make it funny and not so important after all, and then at the same time, it would have made a better book if Shafak had found the courage to show some vulnerability. I think you’ll really enjoy this one, though, because I liked it more than To The River – definitely a writer to watch.

  8. I just finished reading this book, and I agree with your assessment, particularly about how the memoir parts aren’t all that satisfactory. I kept expecting her to explain more fully why she didn’t write about women. Yes, the alcoholic women in her life are a very important part of her history, but does that really sufficiently explain why she can write about alcoholic men but not alcoholic women? The conclusion could make sense, but only with more development. But yes, the other parts were very well done and well-written.

  9. Pingback: The Trip to Echo Spring | Of Books and Bicycles

  10. Just makes me think if alcoholism is a particularly pervasive issue with the writing career, how it compares with other professions, and why it is so. This sure is one important work to at least draw our attention, and maybe a sense of understanding too.

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