Many writers would love to use words the way Alex Rodriguez plays baseball. And many have availed themselves of “performance-enhancing drugs” (PEDs), but writers’ culture is such that there will never be asterisks on lists of Nobel Prize laureates, National Book Award winners, or inveterate best-selling authors. The imaginary purity of America extends necessarily to its national past-time, and so does a puritanical understanding of drugs, whereby athletes paid astronomical sums to perform physically must eschew selected chemicals, while fans in the stands kill themselves with preservative-filled hot dogs and the lowest quality, and most expensive, beer on earth.
Writing, like baseball, is not at all pure, and is, in spite of common beliefs to the contrary, a highly physical activity. Perhaps Hemingway said it best: “There is nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.” Martin Luther translated the entire New Testament into vernacular German while seated on the concave top of a whale vertebra. Virginia Woolf stood while she wrote those page-long sentences. Marcel Proust’s unending threads of prose (if Walter Benjamin is right) were a direct outgrowth of his asthma, as he sat up in bed, entombed within the cork-lined walls of his room (to keep out sound), and, sitting completely still, fought desperately to catch his breath.
All of my writing heroes used PEDs. I still respect them; I would still shake their hands; I would never boo them as they took the podium to read, just returned from a stint in rehab or a drunk tank. I’m thinking of Allen Ginsburg’s acid. Baudelaire’s absinthe. Alice Walker’s magic mushrooms. Graham Greene’s Benzedrine. Legend has it that Gabriel García Márquez smoked up to 10 packs of cigarettes a day while holed up in his writing room for a year and a half like José Arcadio Buendía with his astrolabe and crucible. I once read that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee daily and died of heart failure; another account said his personal record was 200 cups in a day, and that he died of a perforated ulcer.
I don’t use PEDs myself, aside from a demitasse of espresso here and there. Perhaps the impurity in me is not the caffeine, however. Perhaps it’s that very desire to be the best writer, to outshine my peers and gather accolades from people I don’t know, the willingness to sacrifice my time, energy, and relationships in order to accomplish it. Real life–a game of racquetball with my best friend, sharing a meal with my wife and daughter, teaching–tempers this impure ambition and keeps me connected to reality.
I imagine that staying connected to reality is hard for people like A-Rod, not simply because they are hundred-millionaires, but because they’re repeatedly paraded down a crowded avenue in “the greatest city in the world,” and must, somewhat logically, think to themselves: “I am a God.” But there is no Roman slave to lean in from behind and whisper in their ears, “Remember that you are but a man. Remember that you will die.” Instead, when A-Rod thinks to himself, “I am a God,” a legion of fans, all wearing his jersey, shout a distorted chorus within which he can just barely, but discernibly hear, “Yes, yes you are.”