Just finished reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. When I was younger, I found it very easy to romanticize that particular glittering shard of the literary world — New York in the 20s, Paris in the 20s — because I, too, wanted to throw back martinis and chainsmoke and have affairs with dangerous and stylish people, preferably the kind with interesting European accents, while still managing to stay focused and disciplined enough to churn out brilliant novel after brilliant novel.
It took me a surprising number of biographies of writers from that period to finally note a pattern of, to quote the back copy of Bathtub Gin: “penaces paid: crumbled love affairs, abortions, lost beauty, nervous breakdowns…overdoses and even madness.” To this I would add drug addictions (morphine quite popular at the time, and who could blame them), alcoholism, depression, loneliness. Which brings to mind an observation that my husband E once made about the movie Scarface: the first half of the movie, which traces Tony Montana’s rise to power, is much more fun than the second half, which concerns itself with consequences. Ugh. Blah. Consequences.
I don’t buy into the myth of some kind of connection between mental instability and artistic prowess. I don’t believe that a novelist is more inclined to melancholy or depression than, say, an accountant or a stockbroker. I think the bleak times are part and parcel of the human experience, of the world we create for ourselves. Some of us are just better equipped to articulate that bleakness with a bit more flair and volume. And I certainly don’t believe that you need to be suffering on some level or other in order to produce good art. God, when I’m moody, the last thing I want to do is produce anything. I’m off somewhere, reading. I’m at the movies. Stories have always been my drug of choice.