The Zero Point

Warren Zevon, whose songs celebrated (and mocked) violence, was an alcoholic who cleaned up his act.

I will never understand why the sober but no less brilliant singer songwriter never returned to the success he had during his drunken, drugged up days of  “Poor Pitiful Me,” “Excitable Boy,” “Lawyers Guns and Money” and “Werewolves of London.”  The Wind, his final album (recorded while he was dying of cancer) is an achievement unequaled by any in his generation.

I had the privilege to interview Zevon after he turned his back on alcohol. I asked him why it became a compulsion. His answer was that for a while alcohol “worked”–it would loosen him up and help him forget his fears and anxieties. Alcohol brought him quickly to that “zero point” where he could begin composing, walk on to a stage or record a song.

But, after a while, it took more alcohol to bring him to that zero point. He said he’d spend a whole day drinking and sometimes never reach that loose, comfortable, forgiving state that was necessary for him to work.

He wasn’t specific about when he realized that drinking became an obstacle, but he did say that, having dried out, he had more energy, was more competent in his dealings with people and had more control over his emotional life.

I’m fortunate in that my addictions have been mild. I have gone through periods where I’ve kicked caffeine–the headaches, drowsiness, grumpiness, moments when my brain just didn’t function the way I wished it could. I had my coffee this morning and I don’t regret it, though, when I exercise, or write for long periods of time, I notice that, as high as caffeine may lift you, it can leave you lower than zero.

I never liked tobacco: one puff was all I needed to put the cigarette down and never try it again. I’m even luckier that, though, as a child of the 1960’s and ’70’s, I was around many “controlled and dangerous substances,” I never became dependent on them. In fact, I had a good excuse not to indulge, when I noticed on the morning after a binge, I couldn’t add a column of figures.

In many ways, addiction is the signature disease of our global, market-driven, consumer society. The entities that make things want us to be so thoroughly hooked on their products that we buy them, to the exclusion of others.

In a world in which “choices” are the source of our values, fate, morality, the people we love, the way we love, and the stuff with which we surround ourselves,  addiction becomes a preference that dominates all others. We are told in our very commercial mass media that we need stuff in order to start our day, feel good, be healthy, impress people, be liked, be a success, achieve our dreams.

Are some addictions good? If so, I have been addicted to that lightbulb that goes off in my head when I learn something cool, or when I experience the world in a new and meaningful way. I am an autodidact: a person who teaches himself. I read history books and biographies. I listen to recorded lectures of college courses. When I travel, I research a place before I go, so I can understand the narratives that can make a street corner, a rock outcropping or an old house more than just passing scenery.

I know, from conversations with an addiction therapist who is in my writer’s group, that kicking compulsive substance abuse is more than breaking a habit. Just about everything we do (and some things we don’t!) changes the chemistry and physiology of our brains. It can be genuinely painful, and seem impossibly difficult, to ween ourselves off the things that once got us to that zero point.

Keith Laumer, the science fiction writer who influenced me in my college days, told me he couldn’t live without what he called “the Beautiful Thing,” that aesthetic uplift you get from experiencing the sublime. Keith found the Beautiful Thing in sunsets, Puccini operas, cruising off-road trails in his green metal-flake Cadillac convertible (which ended up in a lake with Tosca gurgling from the sound system–another story), good food, good writing and watching flames climb over the pine logs in his home’s fire place.

As a creative person, I am regularly confounded by the fear of beginning. I don’t know why it happens, but it does. I sit down in front of the word processor and a creeping, skittish anxiety takes hold, with a voice that says that whatever I’m about to do will be rejected by agents and editors, or just plain no good. I, too, want to feel confident and loose enough to get to that zero point and jump in.

More than that, after I jump in, I just want to swim, effortlessly, in comfortable water. I don’t want to spend hours chewing over a passage, trying to make it better. I don’t want to stop short and realize that I’ve made some serious mistakes, or I forgot to do something I should have done and now I have to tear it all down and start over again.

I’ve heard that the benefit of being a hack writer–and some of the most popular, most beloved writers of the last two centuries could be considered the kind who just pumped the stuff out and didn’t look back–is that you don’t have time to care too deeply about what you do: you need the money, or the deadline is approaching, or the writing is a compelling fantasy in which you create a world in which you compensate for everything you like.

A great example of a truly masterful hack is Raymond Chandler–Keith Laumer’s favorite writer. In “real life,” Chandler was a short, shy, pudgy drunk who lived with his mother. Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective hero, was tall (until Humphrey Bogart played him in The Maltese Falcon), muscular and a sucker for pretty women, who were either seducing him, or in the kind of trouble only he could get them out of.

I’ve had moments as a journalist when I didn’t have the luxury of approaching the zero point. I had to write the stuff fast for a deadline.

But, with novels, I blew deadlines because I worked really hard to make the books as good as they could be. One novel took ten years to finish Was it any better than a book that took only one year?

Agatha Christie rarely spent more than a few days writing a mystery. Yes, she wrote to a formula, but what she wrote remains delightful. Her stage whodunnit, The Mousetrap remains the longest continuously running play in the history of English theater.

I know many strategies to get to the zero point, and all have failed me at one time or another. What I don’t know, but am intrigued by, is the notion that a way through may involve more of what Keith Laumer found.

And that is, instead of looking for a method, or a substance, to avoid the metaphorical stage fright that presages most creative activity, why not just appreciate it more?

Is it possible to appreciate, or merely accept, the fear of failure, and the anxiety of not being good enough, as part of a greater process that brings new things into the world?

I’m old enough to give it a try.








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