Me and Mary Jane: Marijuana’s Influence on My Fiction by Anonymous
The author is a fiction writer and teacher of literature, writing, and film at a four-year college in New York. His fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in Fiction International, Boston Book Review, American Book Review, Gulf Coast, New Delta Review, and numerous other venues.
Sometimes I ponder — and since I’m signing my name to this, I might as well go in for the whole ounce — whether I might be a marijuana addict. I don’t think I am. But from my time as a cigarette addict I know that there is something called “the voice of the addiction.” With cigarettes, as I was trying to liberate myself from them, this voice would say things through me, things like, “I need cigarettes when I’m writing.” Or with coffee in the morning, or after dinner. Under the spell of addiction, I thought this was my own voice, my own choice, the exertion of free will manifest in a preference, or at the very least a chosen crutch. As I discovered through the painful tedium of giving them up, cigarette chemicals made me lie to protect them. Nicotine wore many masks, and that of artist was among them.
So if I write about cannabis and the positive effects I’ve seen it have on my fiction, can I trust this isn’t another chemical mimicking my voice in order to keep me hooked?
I believe I can. That is, marijuana operates differently. I’ve always had more choice as a consumer of grass than I had as consumer of tobacco. As a result I can speak without illusions (to the extent that anyone can ever speak without illusions) about its effects, positive and negative.
For one thing, I have, like other burners of the illegal weed, seen the well run dry. My main supplier will be out, my backup supplier, my doper friends can’t even spare a joint, everybody shrugs their shoulders — thus I will be forced to give it up occasionally for a week, two weeks, even a month or more. I have also done this voluntarily. I’m a marijuana fan, but I’m no mindless sycophant. It’s common knowledge that prolonged extensive exposure contributes to short-term memory loss especially when, uh … what was I saying? Oh yeah — I’ve always tried to keep my liaison with Mary Jane mutually respectful. I smoke very small amounts usually, and have done so, on and off, for more than half of my life to date, starting at age 14, with a break at age 17 while I dated a girl from a strict family (whose father was a New York City cop), but resuming again in my second semester of college at age 19 (with a new girlfriend) and continuing until now, aged 36. I smoked it while earning my Ph.D. in English and while writing the stories that would earn me a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the most lucrative public fellowship for an individual artist in the United States. Of course, I had to sign a “no drugs in the workplace” declaration in order to get the money and for the year of my fellowship honor that declaration (and you’ll never hear me say I did otherwise).
A funny thing happened, though, when I tried to write fiction without my bud Mary Jane, then and at other points in my writing career. It got dull. Not incompetent or without interest, but dull all the same. Good thing I had a full-time job the year of my fellowship. I didn’t have much time to write anyway.
I’m not making this up — my fiction is just not the same without Mary Jane’s perfume at my lips. More than once, it has happened like this: I’ll sit down to write, with best intentions and a plan of what I want to accomplish, but when I turn on the tap nothing will come out. I’ll try to force a few lines, but they’ll be wooden and uninspired. Then I’ll toke. Without even trying to brainstorm any more, I’ll be awash in clean ideas and sharp images. My imagination will be freed to bounce any which way.
I swear I’m not making this up. It’s not that I find it impossible to write without pot, of course not. But my fiction is much better with it.
The difference is not what you might expect. Marijuana does not release in me fountains of imagery, long, flowing rivers of metaphor, giddy explosions of linguistic bombast, nor wild imaginings of far-off Xanadus and pleasure palaces therein. I think that this stereotype of the pot-smoking writer is a hangover from the Romantics’ association with opium in the 19th century, be it Coleridge’s fantastic “Kubla Khan” or Poe’s brilliantly deranged “MS. Found in a Bottle.” To be sure, I’ve at times twisted real fatties and tried those types of flights, but with limited success. The imaginative boost is cancelled out by the physical incapacitation brought on by the drug. Indeed, much of the myth of the opiated artist might itself be a fictional construction, especially in the case of Poe, a writer for whom myth and fact have always been hard to extricate from one another. It is likely that Poe took advantage of a current craze (as he was famous for doing) when he adopted an opium reverie style in certain works. Alcohol was most clearly Poe’s drug of choice, and it clearly hurt rather than helped him accomplish writing. No — for me, marijuana use while writing stops short of excess; I smoke in minute amounts, and then to facilitate the process of what a fiction writer normally does, with or without an imaginative aid.
This is what a fiction writer does: gets herself into difficulties. Then gets herself into more difficulties. Then gets herself into even more difficulties. Then, finally, handcuffed, chained and locked in a trunk, Houdini-like, escapes. Complication is the essence of fiction. Complications that the writer can’t see her own way out of are manna, because then you can be assured the reader won’t see his way out of the mess either. Then, out of nowhere, you liberate yourself, resolving the conflict in an unexpected way, amazing both yourself and your reader.
All this requires the ability to do sudden back-flips with plot, reevaluations of who a character is and what s/he stands for, periodically bursting into songs or tears along the way.
But while my experience is as a fiction writer, I don’t think the use of marijuana is peculiarly suited to any certain genre. Nor is it new. We can now look back, nearing millennium, on a rather long and hopefully soon-to-be-distinguished history of marijuana’s effects on the compositional processes of numerous American writers. “I smoke marijuana every chance I get,” wrote Allen Ginsberg in “America,” a poem that is now so popular that it’s probably being taught this very day in some classroom in the United States or elsewhere in the world. This is a far cry from 1956, when Ginsberg first wrote it. An all-powerful, authoritarian nation insisting on its own backward interpretations of reality was both choking and curiously empowering for Ginsberg and for the other Beat Generation writers who made marijuana a part of their poetics and their incipient cultural movement in the late 50s and early 60s.
I can identify with this myself as a writer and, as a friend of Mary Jane, a criminal. Aside from the drug itself and its effect on my prose — the way it points out logical trap doors and places sudden, theatrical brick walls in thin air — my imagination benefits, as did Ginsberg’s, from marijuana’s heightening of the conflict between the individual’s creativity and the oppressiveness of authority. On the one hand, marijuana loosens the rigid forms of thinking imposed by various authorities in one’s life — family, church, school, government, capital — and is helpful in creating a mind that can range widely. It is “a hopelessly practical world,” as Indian novelist Arundhati Roy tells us. Marijuana took me a while to really understand, but I remember liking it before I ever smoked it, because it stood for rebellion against the pragmatic, workaday world. In this respect, it made much more sense than cigarettes. I didn’t see the advantage of smoking cigarettes as a teen (I got hooked on them in grad school); it was Mary Jane who was truly cool. She met me in the back of the school bus and we got off several stops before we had to and detoured through patches of Long Island woods and vacant lots, deliciously stoned, giggling at the 1970s world of mothers at grocery stores and fathers earning wages.
On the other hand, as any novice doper knows, marijuana imparts a feeling of paranoia, and dealing with the fear that inevitably came along with smoking pot when I was younger was part of my process of coming to understand the drug. Whether this is purely chemical or a nightmarish superego-reaction to thumbing one’s nose at authority by participating in an illegal activity, I’m not certain. I don’t know how marijuana might have affected my writing, or what paranoid effects would still result, had I grown up in a society in which it was legal. But I am sure of this: once I learned to ride out the feelings of desperate culture-fed paranoia that frequently followed getting stoned when I was a teen (“I’m filing my brain! I’m throwing away my future and becoming a drug addict!”), I began to translate what was formerly fear into creative euphoria. Heightening the dread of authoritarian control over my life proved extremely fruitful in my art.
This is old news by now to fans of Beat icons like Ginsberg and William Burroughs, both of whom create large, oppressive machines of control in their works and position themselves as sane criminals doing impossible battle with them. It is reported that poet and wit Frank O’Hara, upon hearing Ginsberg’s opening to “Howl” (“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” ), quipped, “I wonder who Allen’s thinking of.” Whether true in the strictest sense or not, it was a useful construction for Ginsberg to be paranoid, to imagine everyone of genius he was acquainted with was under surveillance and attack — it led him into creativity. To have been bothered with details at such a moment, to have had to present a quotidian list of names, would have broken the spell. Moreover, I would submit that, there being no one single truth about the world but myriad truths, this heightening of the oppressiveness of authority through the intentional cultivation of paranoia does not make for lies, but allows new, perhaps previously inaccessible truths about the world to come to light. “America” and “Howl” speak to us today even in worlds of sobriety, even in the dead white light of the classroom.
Please note that while I am speaking here of the usefulness of marijuana for writing, I am not making similar claims for the use of ANY intoxicant, or even any ILLEGAL intoxicant. Alcohol has never been of any use to me as a writer, at least while actually writing. It is a good lubricant in social situations, and I’ve gained insight into the practice of writing by speaking with other writers over a few beers, of course. But at the word processor it tends to fog rather than clarify. And that goes double for most anything else under whose influence I’ve ever tried writing. Except caffeine. And caffeine is particularly fruitful in tandem with marijuana.
Let me add a few final thoughts on writing and Mary Jane, by way of conclusion:
Used correctly (my preference is frequent small amounts, with periods of abstinence when needed), weed allows an easier acceptance of failed experiments, and promotes the desire to experiment in the first place. Is there any better situation for the artist than playing all the time without being afraid of failure?
On a related note, marijuana is fun, and writing should be fun. Even if there’s despair in the work, the act of creating it should bring a degree of pleasure and satisfaction. This is perhaps the reason human beings create things to begin with.
Unusual states of attention are possible through marijuana. I’ll leave it to the scientists to say why, but a detail can be made very interesting when explained to you by Mary Jane. The negative image of this is the cliché of “staring at your navel.” But such a seemingly insignificant object can be reconfirmed in all its actual glory through such attention. One’s navel, for instance, is the vestige of the tube which connected you to your mother while you still lived inside her, before you were born. Why should we not occasionally contemplate it?
Relatedly, the contemplation of objects leads to the contemplation of words-as-objects. Mary Jane loves to point out that there is an intermediary between you and the reader: the language. That individual words point in numerous directions at once; words were all once poems, says Emerson -“each word was at first a stroke of genius.” Words, too, all sound. They have shapes. They are made up of letters that can be
e w n
I’ll end my remarks here. For me, Mary Jane has been good to know, for a variety of reasons. And whatever the laws say, it is part of American Literature already, in addition to what it did for popular music in the wake of the beat movement — Ginsberg & Kerouac begat Dylan begat Lennon, etc.
And that’s not even going into jazz.
Yessir. “Legalize it,” as Peter Tosh once sang, “And I’ll advertise it.”