Performance-Enhancing Drugs for Writers

08/11/2011 06:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

I just finished Andrew Tilin's "The Doper Next Door" (Counterpoint, 2011). It's a good book -- timely, engaging, honest and well-researched. I've told people about it because it raises excellent ethical questions about hormone replacement, supplementation, anti-aging and drug abuse.

In his book, Tilin searches for a "doper next door," an average person who takes testosterone or human growth hormone to improve his or her everyday abilities. In his research, Tilin discovers that many amateur athletes, aging men and women, actors, and police officers take what he calls the "T" or "HGH." But no subject comes forward, and Tilin eventually decides to dope himself.

Interesting premise? It was. I read the book in two days. But then I started to think beyond the book.

Who else needs performance enhancement? If cyclists are better on the dope, what other professionals could improve by doping? And being a writer, I wondered what performance-enhancing drugs would look like for a book author. What have writers used in the past? What will writers use in the future? What helps or hinders?

So I've begun to research historical use of performance-enhancing drugs by authors. But it's tough. Because many authors use, and some even claim to use to enhance performance, but are they being honest and rational? Did the drugs actually help?

Take, for example, Ken Kesey. Not many authors champion in their lifetimes as many drugs as Kesey did in his: speed, acid, marijuana, mushrooms and alcohol. Kesey used speed to help him put together drafts of "Sometimes a Great Notion," a daunting task if you understand the complicated structure of that novel. But was it the speed that made "Notion," or Kesey's great, creative capabilities? There are two theories: 1) Kesey was marginally intelligent and the speed helped him attain another level for that single book, or 2) Kesey was brilliant, and his drug use derailed an otherwise promising career. I'd argue for the second. I've read "Notion" carefully.

Jack Kerouc, also a self-proclaimed heavy user of Kesey's favorite three drugs, marijuana, alcohol and speed, has similar moments of brilliance followed by obviously lesser writings. Kerouac's writing on jazz, most notably in "On the Road," were excellent. But portions of that book, and the rest of his writings, were of significantly lower quality.

Both Kesey and Kerouac completed their masterpieces before the age of 30. Their drugs then became performance-debilitating drugs, as they continued to use but never came close to writing as well as they once did. So we might look at someone who had a longer, more substantial literary career while using a common drug: Ernest Hemingway and alcohol.

In studying Heminway over the last 10 years, I've found only one story written while drinking, "The Three-Day Blow" from the collection "In Our Time." But this story is hardly his best. In fact, Hemingway wrote, "My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing." Hemingway drank an ungodly amount of liquor, but his drinking was confined mostly to the afternoon, and only after writing. He was careful not to let his alcohol interfere with his writing.

Hundreds of other writers have used alcohol to excess, but they also attempted not to drink while writing -- see Dorothy Parker, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. The quote attributed to Mark Twain, James Joyce and Miller Williams, "Write drunk, edit sober," seems to be a joke. Or if not, it simply states that a terrible rough draft can be produced drunk, but high-quality, revised writing is produced when lucid.

On prescription drugs, Ted Hughes attributed many of Sylvia Plath's choices to pharmaceuticals, but we have to consider the source. Hughes was a negative influence on Plath's life and career, and -- according to Plath's friends -- the key ingredient in her suicide.

Other heavy users, most notably Hunter S. Thompson, claimed that various drugs helped, but did the drugs help him immerse or produce? His writing is not revised well.

Finally, the most common writer drug is caffeine. Writers use caffeine while writing. But what is the causal effect here, and how much does caffeine help?

While writing my memoir and first novel drafts, I drank three or four cups of coffee per day. But with increased tolerance came reduced effect. And the greatest example of coffee tolerance is the French writer Honoré de Balzac, who claimed to drink up to 40 cups a day.

So perhaps the best performance-enhancing drugs are not drugs at all, but intellectual stimulants. Creativity catalysts. Poems by Anne Sexton. Toni Morisson novels. Short stories by Augusto Monterroso. Sleep. Beethoven's 9th symphony. Rereading "Jesus' Son." Art exhibits. Listening to Bob Dylan.

Or maybe the best performance enhancer is work. Repetition. Discipline. An unaesthetic sweat.