A Little Dab Will Do You: Marijuana and Literary Composition by Tim Brown
Tim W. Brown is a 37-year-old writer living in Chicago. He is the author of two novels, Deconstruction Acres (III Publishing, 1997) and On Sangamon (Spectrum Press, 1992). Employing cannabis for creative work and to disinhibit the imagination, he finds that limited use does not negatively affect productivity, but serves to reduce the drudgery of routine chores, and results in the author’s greater freedom of thought. He becomes fabulously entertained by the work itself.
I wrote the better part of two novels under the influence of marijuana. However, I would never claim that marijuana inspired me to write. I never experienced any sort of drug-induced epiphany during which an idea or image occurred out of thin air. Nor have the words come tumbling out of my head in an inspired frenzy á la Jack Kerouac, who, spurred by benzedrine, wrote nonstop for several days at a time. Indeed, I distrust stream-of-consciousness composition. I believe that writing should be a conscious act; otherwise, trash is the result.
While writing my first novel in the late 1980s, I began my attempts to explain the relationship of marijuana to literary composition. Knowing of my predilection for pot, friends and acquaintances asked me if I wrote better while high. No, I answered, marijuana does not make you write better. Early in my writing career I learned that when I smoked pot and wrote with no particular topic in mind, the results were embarrassing. I would jot down a number of profound impressions that unfortunately withered when exposed to the next morning’s sober light. Thoughts were disjointed, images were blurry, handwriting was illegible.
Next, my interrogators asked, “If you don’t write better when stoned, then do you write worse?” The answer was also no, for the writing I produced was reasonably good. And you don’t have to take my word for it – both novels were later accepted for publication, circumstances that furnished third-party confirmation of the high opinion I held of my work.
The final question asked of me wondered whether there was any benefit at all to be gained from smoking pot while writing. I believed that there was, and it had to do with the nature of prose writing.
I’ve always considered prose writing to be task-oriented. Especially in regard to extended prose pieces like novels, it’s a genre demanding the long view. This characteristic distinguishes prose from poetry writing, which truly does require a flash of inspiration that could come, in other writers’ hands, I suppose, from smoking marijuana. Occasionally I write poems, but the experience is markedly different from writing prose. I tell people I can only write a poem “when it rises from my lap”, meaning the spirit of poetry lies in spontaneity. Prose, in contrast, is defined by drudgery – sitting at a desk all day, every day, sometimes for years, grinding out a single work. Novel writing assumes above every other art form the longest delay in gratification. The poet can write a poem over a period of two or three weeks and have confidence it will be published in a journal within a year. The novelist starting a new project recognizes that he could be more than five years away from seeing his book published.
What to do then to sustain interest? What to do to make the same story and characters appear fresh to their creator day in and day out? Smoke marijuana, naturally. I determined that the algebra was really very simple: pot consumption makes the writing chore more fun, just as it makes mindless chores like washing the dishes, clipping the hedges, or vacuuming (or pleasant pastimes like conversing and listening to music) more fun. Of course, since writing requires more brainpower than these tasks, care should be taken not to consume too much pot to the point of debilitation. Like hair care products, a little dab will do you.
In the 1990s, my theory about the relationship between marijuana and writing expanded. The fun aspect continued to hold sway when a glib explanation was required. But it did not sufficiently explain how the experience was made more fun. Where did the sense of fun originate? I thought more carefully about the subject while working on my second novel.
One hint lay in my interpersonal behavior when I am high. Simply put, the drug makes me much more outgoing. By nature I am shy and taciturn. I often must repeat myself to be heard, and I usually don’t speak to other people unless I’m spoken to first. However, after smoking marijuana, I metamorphose into a social butterfly. I exchange pleasantries with people in elevators, I joke with other shoppers in line at the grocery store, and I strike up conversations on the train platform. My self-consciousness disappears, as though it were exhaled along with marijuana smoke.
Like alcohol, marijuana is known to lower a user’s inhibitions. Lowered inhibitions lead stoned people to utter pseudo-profound thoughts without embarrassment and to giggle hysterically during what the straight world considerers inappropriate times. Similarly, writers under the influence are more likely to take chances with writing than straight writers, because their self-censoring mechanism is disabled. They dare to be outrageous, unpredictable, innovative, whereas others remain timid, stiff, formulaic. Marijuana does not put ideas in one’s mind; rather, it frees the mind to pursue ideas.
Specifically, marijuana inclines the writer to improvise with the ideas at hand. This insight did not occur to me until my wife worked at The Second City, home of the famed sketch comedy troupe. The Second City is known as a greenhouse for comedians; alumni include Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Martin Short, and many others. Exposure to the culture of The Second City provided me with examples of the improviser’s art, which paralleled my own experiences as a writer.
Much of the philosophy behind improvisation originated with Viola Spolin, who for many years offered acting workshops centered around improvising games. Games she devised continue to be played on stage at The Second City, with a live audience watching and participating. During a typical improvised scene, cast members ask audience members for words, ideas, or images from which a comic scene is improvised. Usually, the actors follow a prepared plot line and plug in audience suggestions at key points. Thus, from night to night, the story is the same but the details differ. In the case of the “Improv Set” occurring after the formal show, skits are made up wholly from scratch based on audience suggestions. Gifted improvisers are able to combine seemingly unrelated materials into a funny, coherent comedy skit. The most promising improvised skits are then revised and eventually incorporated into a new revue.
If you substitute the words “writer” for “actor” and “novel” for “skit”, then you have a pretty good description of my writing process. I start with general ideas of plot, character, and setting. These provide a skeleton, which I flesh out with details arrived at through my day-to-day writing routine. Smoking marijuana causes my mind to wander far afield. Words appear on the computer screen in a free-associative process where disparate elements that my mind seizes upon drop into place, resulting in unexpected plot turns, quirky characters, and settings off the beaten path. Next, I revise my work. Ironing out the problems in my writing is as difficult as ironing a mile-high stack of shirts. Marijuana removes some of the drudgery from this chore.
I should emphasize that I know where I am going with a piece of writing at every single moment; I simply arrive there in roundabout fashion. The writing choices I make are conscious, if not exactly deliberate. Throughout the process I am fabulously entertained: I laugh with gusto at a funny passage, smile from pride at a clever phrase, or bug my eyes in surprise at an unexpected dose of truth. In short, the fun I experience while writing stems from flexing the imagination, which I believe is unchained by smoking marijuana.