The Hemingway Defense – The Role of Substance Abuse in Writing

In his work The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson discusses the relationship between art and madness. He has said, “genius and disease, like strength and mutation, may be inextricably bound up together”. The lives of many great American novelists seem to support this theory; in the lives of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway we find evidence of writer’s block, poverty, and some kind of chemical dependency.

Is it true that great artists are all off their rockers, and the stimulants are needed to focus, or calm that madness into artistic genius? Is this common alcoholism found in famous writers a result of their messed-up childhoods, or a reaction to early success? Is it writer’s block, the simple need to loosen up, or some necessary ritual in order to clear the channels of communication with the muse?

“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time,” wrote modern novelist and bestseller Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing. King spent a long while both as an addict and clean, and has continued to sell books throughout his career. In his memoir, he wrote about his experience with addiction.

“I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I ‘just liked to drink.’ I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense… [which] goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.” – Stephen King

King presents the Hemingway Defense as a way to refer to this madness that many people assume is innate in great artists. Even many of the artists themselves seem to believe this is true. Writing about his experience about a decade later, King seems to have a pretty good handle on both his addiction and what affect it had on his attitude. He admits to writing The Shining, Misery, and the Tommyknockers as a result of what the drugs and alcoholism were doing to his life. “[T]here’s one novel, Cujo, which I hardly remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”

King went through an intervention staged by his family and friends. Speaking about his wife, King wrote: “She said that she and the kids loved me, and for that reason none of them wanted to witness my suicide”. He asked for two weeks to consider it, a move that he later compares to a man standing on a burning building and given a means of escape via helicopter; asking for time to consider it. He claims that Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse from Misery, helped him make his decision in the end. “Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer…I decided…that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.”

It didn’t come to that. King has remained clean since, and continues to write and publish novels. Somehow, King pushed his way past the Hemingway Defense after casting off his problems with substance abuse. How do we know this? He was able to write. Perhaps the question then turns from “could he write?” to “how well could he write?” Can we measure the success of his novels during the addiction, as opposed to afterward?

In Tony Magistrale’s book Stephen King: America’s Storyteller, he discusses the success of King’s novels published between two different gaps of time. The first consists of novels published between The Shining in 1977 and Misery in 1988, which coincides with the height of his addiction. The second period includes novels published while he was sober between The Tommyknockers in 1988 and Wizard and Glass in 1997. Ten novels were published in the first period, and eleven in the second. The statistics state that during the first period – the addiction period, each published novel stayed on the New York Times list for an average of 11.6 weeks greater than during the second, sober period of time. This suggests that King’s career took a noticeable turn for the worse when he sobered up.

Can we conclude from this that King was wrong, and that there is some truth to the Hemmingway Defense? Magistrale suggests that there may be other reasons for this change; such as King’s desire to try new things as a writer. The second period is filled with publications like The Green Mile, which attempt to shrug off the atypical Horror genre. Any attempt of an author to publish under a different genre label from where they were established is a marketing and shelving issue that divides energy. Most authors in this kind of situation publish under a pen name in order to avoid issues from cross-shelving books. As an example, if an author publishes under both the Horror and Science Fiction genres under the same name – and if furthermore, the author sells about 100,000 books per year in Horror and 50,000 a year in Science Fiction – the bookstore may make the error of only stocking Horror books to match the Science Fiction sales figures. Multi-genre publishing also divides audiences: “The Times statistics may reflect the disappointment of a large segment of the King readership that expected from him a consistency in genre and style of fiction.”

It is notable that in the nineties, several of King’s publications were adapted for the cinematic world. Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne, Apt Pupil, The Green Mile, and The Shining all saw adaptations for the screen. “Not only were these films incredible successes financially; they also brought King the kind of critical recognition that his own fiction seldom garners.” The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Misery all were nominated for, and won Academy Awards and Golden Globes. We begin to see that Stephen King’s creative efforts payed off as his stories began to reach wider audiences, as opposed to only the Horror readers.

Stephen King doesn’t make excuses for his time as an addict. Although the Hemingway Defense is employed by all types of artists, King characterizes that tendency as part of the behavior of an addict. “Any claims that drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim… for an addict, the right to the drink or drug of choice must be preserved at all costs”.

What of the sales statistics? They suggest that even King found more success as an author during his addict days than since. His new novel Full Dark, No Stars was released this month, November of 2010, and is already finding success in bookstores and on websites such as Amazon and Audible. The question of sales figures becomes superimposed by the author’s legacy, which so far he has been able to extend another two decades; possibly as a direct result of cleaning up. In any case, it is clear what Stephen King thinks of the Hemingway Defense. “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

So did King find it difficult to continue writing as he sobered up? He admits that he did:

“At the start of the road back I just tried to believe the people who said that things would get better if I gave them time to do so. And I never stopped writing. Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there… Little by little I found the beat again, and after that I found the joy again. I came back to my family with gratitude, and back to my work with relief…” – Stephen King

The way King puts it; he was very close to pulling a Hemingway at the time of his intervention. If that had happened, it would have placed The Tommyknockers as his last published novel. The book is about aliens who could take root in someone’s mind, and start “tommyknocking around.” If this had been the case, then perhaps his “last” novel would have been seen as a great literary statement about the affects of drugs in his life, made ever more potent by his suicide. Instead, we have King with us today. He has enjoyed a good marriage, a rich life, and has continued to write and publish. The memoir On Writing inspires writers everywhere, and works like The Green Mile have earned him respect from the literary crowd that he never could have won through Horror novels alone. Stephen King has proven that genius, skill, talent and hard work can and do exist independently from the disease of addiction.


One thought on “The Hemingway Defense – The Role of Substance Abuse in Writing

  1. Drinking might lower your inhibitions as a writer, but I doubt it would actually make you a better writer. I think the key here is never stopped writing, no matter how difficult it was.

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