Back in the day when Cyril Kornbluth and I were writing books like The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law, we had an idea for an experiment. The writing was going pretty well, as it usually did, but we were not content to leave well enough alone.

The papers had been full of stories about new pharmaceuticals called Benzedrine and Dexedrine, which sometimes appeared to help people stay awake and work longer and better. So one of us — I don’t remember which — said to the other, “I wonder if they would do anything for writers,” and the other one said, “Dunno. Let’s find out.”

So we did. Next time Cyril came out for a spot of writing, he brought supplies. I volunteered to go first, so I took a hit and sat down to write. And I wrote. I was confident I would start writing as soon as I sat down, and I pretty much did. I could see how that scene would end, and what the complications for the characters would be and what their resulting acts should be and what alternative decisions they might have preferred to make. It was all perfectly clear and straightforward.

The words came out, and when I had filled four pages I went downstairs to where Cyril was having a cup of coffee and reading the morning’s Times to tell him that the experiment was promising. Then he did his stint and, when it was over, reported that he thought so, too.

I don’t think we stayed turned on to finish the book. I don’t know why; either, but I’m pretty sure that we just went back to the old way of each doing four pages, turn and about, until the novel was complete. (No, I don’t remember which book it was.)

So the book got finished, and handed over to the publisher. And Cyril went home to Levittown, and I got on with some work of my own. And in the fullness of time, perhaps six months or more later, I hit that terrifying thing they call writers’ block.

On this subject I am no expert, and I’m not even sure that that thing that sometimes happens to me really deserves that name. I don’t lose the ability to write. Instead I lose the ability to believe what I am writing is any good, and sometimes (as I learn when time has passed and I look at those pages more critically) it really isn’t.

So what do I do about it? I rewrite, and I keep on going over the same ground until it gets better.

But that’s a slow and painful process, and on this occasion it suddenly occurred to me that I might have a better idea, because Cyril and I hadn’t used up all our Dexedrine. There was enough for a more extensive trial in the medicine chest in the third floor bathroom.

So I sought out my then wife, Carol, to tell her that I would be working late that night. She cooperated by making an early dinner, and, probably not much after seven p.m., I was sitting at my Remington Electric, fed, coffeed, juiced up with little white pills and ready to compose.

The fears and worries that had been paralyzing my fingers did not appear. My hands were relaxed, all but reaching for the keyboard and sentences were forming in my mind. I was clearly aware of what my characters had to do to get out of the tedious mess I had put them in., and of what might be going on elsewhere in my story universe that could start off a good new sequence. Foolishly I had got myself all tangled up in pointless and unneeded complications. But the way out was easy to find, and then it would be only chlld’s play to move ahead. I hadn’t thought through my backstory. I hadn’t seen how easily and inevitably events could fit themselves into a pleasing narrative — indeed into some of the most graceful line-by-line prose of my life —

And then I heard Carol’s voice from the stairway. “I think I’m going to pack it in. Want to take the two a.m. feeding tonight?”

It was almost midnight. I had been sitting in front of that keyboard for nearly five hours, happily savoring the knowledge that I had solved all the writing problems I had faced. And not one word, not even a comma, had gone onto paper. And that is what I have discovered about chemically mediated writing.

 
I’ve talked to other writers who have had similar disappointments, but not anyone who has used the new brain enhancers. Any of you guys out there know anybody who has?

13 Comments

  1. Janus says:

    The only chemical enhancement I have ever used while writing has been coffee. And I learned that there can indeed be too much of a good thing. It was one Thanksgiving, and I was catching up on some correspondence. I put so much coffee into my system that I had to stop because I couldn\’t keep my fingers on the keyboard.

  2. brian t says:

    The closets I’ve come to drug-mediated writing is excessive use of coffee on a 36-hour slog, testing computer hardware and writing the reviews. It wasn’t that demanding on the imagination, but pretty hard on the system. I had to give that job up because I was seriously concerned about my health, physical and mental, and the stress may have triggered early symptoms of what I have since found out was MS. (You’re not supposed to fall off a chair in a restaurant at lunch!)

    I like the comment in that 1959 Time magazine article you linked to: “I’d hate to have athletics get to the point where you’d have to check the winners like race horses.” How that’s what I call prescience!

  3. William says:

    I’m more given to essays than fiction, and my ADD means nobody should take my experiences as necessarily relating to their brain chemistry at all. But on occasion I find ~15 mg modafinil (aka Provigil) taken first thing in the morning useful. (This means cutting the standard dose, 100mg, up into 6-8 small pieces.) I strongly avoid using more, or taking it more than every second day.

    I think there are a number of drawbacks to it, but it aids my focus substantially, and I can end up being very productive. However, I’d encourage people to treat it (or any drug with cognitive effects) with great caution. What it actually does and what you want it to do will be subtly different, and if you base your behaviors on the wrong one, trouble is guaranteed.

    With writing in particular, I think it’s dangerous to mess with your head too much. As we write, we have to be continually conscious of how our output will play with intended audiences. Those audiences by and large won’t be on whatever you’re on.

  4. Dionubis says:

    I have had the exact same experience quite recently. I am currently finishing my dissertation, and was recently prescribed Adderall, often the poster child of “brain enhancers” or “performance enhancing” drugs that is 72% lisdexamfetamine (a coupling of d-amphetamine and lysine). As I read your post, I chuckled knowingly to myself at the familiarity I had in regards to your experience.

    When I first took Adderall, my head cleared as it had never done before. It was as if my thoughts had been forced into a box with a pinhole at the front, allowing an intense focus through that pinhole. I can write fluidly and fluently – breezing past the “tedious mess” of my chaotic research. I remember feeling frustrated, wondering why I hadn’t ever been prescribed before, considering the difficulty I’ve had focusing and working since high school. When I described my experience to my peers, they looked at me like I was crazy and said, “That’s how I always feel….”

    On the other hand, when I’ve had writer’s block, it acts in the same way you’ve described. I can still see how to get past all the problems, and in fact construct wonderful prose. But it never hits the page. In fact, I become *so* focused in how everything is perfectly fitting together, I sometimes look up at the clock to see that 6-7 hours have passed and I haven’t touched the keyboard at all.

    I still take it (doctor’s orders), but I have to be very aware of my state of mind when I’m getting ready to write. If I’m intent on writing, it will work wonderfully. If I’m already hesitant, blocked, or even dreading the writing to be done, Adderall’s not going to *make* me write. As I explained it to a friend, it’ll give you the focus but not the motivation.

  5. Jeff says:

    I wrote the last 40,000 words of Dark Thane over a 4 day period while I had bronchitis. Thankfully, I also had cough medicine with codeine. The only struggle was staying awake. The story practically wrote itself.

  6. John H says:

    Not another doping scandal!

  7. JC says:

    IIRC, Humphry Davies tried nitrous oxide (then a new product, and said to deliver wonderful insights), and recorded his impressions at the time. The wonderful, meaningful, oh-so-deep insight he received was \"overall there is a smell of fried onions\".

  8. Martin Wisse says:

    I once foolishly ate three Special Brownies shortly after each other and about an hour later I could not stop having wonderful, awesome ideas once every thirty seconds or so –unfortunately my attention span had dropped to less then fifteen….

  9. Braden says:

    Perhaps one should stick to the tried and true methods of the American greats, cigarettes and scotch.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    I use some of the “smart drinks” (notably the lo-carb Monsters) but haven’t found them notably effective with fiction writing, at least…they barely count as “smart drinks,” I’m sure, so much as being essentially Mountain Dew or canned coffee with amino acid and vitamin traces. My third and fourth eyes are coming along nicely.

  11. Al Bogdan says:

    Best enhancer for me turned out to be high doses of B12, B9 and B6 first thing in the morning. Improves my blood pressure, makes it easier for me to sleep at night, and improves focus during the day.

  12. Mark says:

    A pack of unfiltered camels, a six pack of JOLT COLA, and 3 of my sister’s diet pills helped me finish two papers and pass calculus in the spring semester of my freshman year. I also helped two dozen people move out of their rooms for the summer break.

  13. Aaron says:

    I have written many a story while taking strong opiate pain-killers. The problem was not getting the words onto the paper. In fact, the writing was smooth and easy. No, the problem was that I really thought everything I wrote while under the influence was great. Only later did I learn the truth. Opiates and writing don’t mix well.