Writing Is Not an Altered State

Anne Lamott used to seek inspiration in “drugs, alcohol, and poetry.” But writing her novels has always been more like arduous manual labor than an ecstatic high.
  • Transcript


Question: Before you went sober, did you feel that drink or drugs provided spiritual insight? 

Anne Lamott: I can mostly say that the writers that I know that have continued to drink or use, their lives are just kind of disgusting messes right now, not to sound judgmental.  But I mean they’re heartbreaking.  And certainly drugs took me to places; they were like portals.  It’s kind of a cliché, but they were like portals to altered states of consciousness into ways of imagining the world, or seeing a world beyond this world, or seeing a world beyond this world that I might not have gotten to unless I discovered meditation and a very deep, intense spiritual path based on contemplation and meditation. 

But you know, I was young.  I quit drinking and drugs when I was 32, so I cycled through relatively quickly.  And no I don’t think I would have this spiritual sense of exuberance and profundity that I—not that I have, but through which I understand the world if it weren’t for drugs, alcohol, and poetry.  I can honestly and genuinely say those three things.  But at the same time, probably 90% of the time, I was stoned.  I was so wah, wah—I was like an idiot.  I was just stoned.  I would always wake... and drunk.  I was drunk every night from about 18 on.  But I loved Methedrine, for instance, and I loved cocaine.  I took possibly too much LSD, and I loved prescription drugs, and the non-habit-forming marijuana.  But I’d get good and tanked up and I’d start to write, like you do if you’re a writer and so I’d stay up really late scribbling like mad, like the Unabomber.  And then I’d wake up in the morning and it would just be pathological.  It would just be tragic, really.  It would be scrawl.  And yet 10% of it might be stuff that was really great.

And so the proportions weren’t excellent, but the fact is, I think it was just the natural order of things.  The natural course of my life.  My family tends to be pretty alcoholic and drug-addicted.  Both of my brothers are clean are sober also, and a long time, 20-plus years.  And I think drugs are part of the magical possibilities of youth and I wouldn’t be here if I had continued with it.

Question: Is writing itself a kind of altered state?

Anne Lamott: For me, being a writer is not an altered state.  It’s very ponderous, and very—it’s like being a shoemaker.  You know, shoemakers stick to your last and you stay there working over your last, and it’s pretty drudgy in a lot of ways.  But for me, reading poetry and reading the great works of the canon that we were reading in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and ‘80s was mind altering.  I mean, you know what it’s like, people blow your mind with what they are able to catch and present, and I would say that most of the writers I have loved and been influenced by and had been blown away by were drunks and drug addicts and, you know, I love the Beat poets.  I love Allen Ginsberg as much and in the way that I love Virginia Woolf, or Auden. And a lot of the people I loved the most were suicides.   So, I am drawn to people that are not going to shy away from the very dark, scary stuff of the human condition and in a lot of cases people need alcohol or drugs to create poetry and poetic pose that can take you so far out there where you are still able to recognize yourself and then to bring you back home where you’re not the same person you were when you left.

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen