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Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

For over-the-hill authors, there's now Human Grammar Hormone.

August 08, 2004|Rebecca Solnit

It's an honor to be speaking here before the National Book Assn. tonight, even if it's about the touchy, troubling subject of the growing doping scandal among writers. I just hope that my own personal experience can be helpful to others.

I think a lot of you know that once a writer turns 30, things really slow down. You write a book or two, you get up to speed, and then, wham, you just don't have it any more. My editor pointed out that I was still surging past the competition in the first two chapters, but that I was faltering and losing steam in the third. I just wasn't a one-book-every-seven-weeks kind of writer anymore.

Then, several years ago, a guy approached me in the Commodity Aesthetics section in the basement of City Lights bookstore and told me about HGH, Human Grammar Hormone, the substance first isolated by Noam Chomsky in 1956 but not synthesized until 1994.

This guy was from BALCO, the Bohemian Arts and Literature Cooperative, and so I started juicing. It was pretty great. I could go from zero to 60 words a minute in no time, just as when I was in my 20s. Pretty soon I'd lost that third-chapter lag.

I'd just like to point out that a lot of my peers are juicing too. You look at all those elaborate-syntax boys, your David Foster Wallaces, your Dave Eggers, your Cormac McCarthys, you know they were raised writing simple declarative Raymond Carver-esque sentences. And then along comes synthetic HGH, and suddenly it's all dependent clauses, parenthetical asides and digressions, a whole thicket of words you can hardly machete your way through. You think Vollman wrote a nine-volume history of violence straight? Basically, the days of laudanum, absinthe, madeleines, those days are over; we have the real stuff now, and it kicks.

So I started on small doses of HGH, and things picked up. You have to understand, I was terrified: I looked around and realized that pretty much once a writer turned 40 there wasn't much left except criticism and coaching, and I just didn't see myself as a nonfiction coach bringing along the next 20-year-olds in the field, watching them strain to break my records.

And hey, name one 50-year-old writer who's really doing something. OK, a few poets, but poetry isn't really an endurance sport, not when you can call 62 airy pages a book.

But once you start doping, things get complicated. First of all, you can find yourself really stretching your metaphors to the breaking point; you can get yourself into allegories there's no way out of.

And that's the least of it. Once the National Book Awards initiated random urine tests of writers in cafes, a lot of us went on pseudonymephrine, a great masking drug, but it has this side effect of causing you to write under other names.

I found that I was doing a lot of articles for airline magazines, and now I was really afraid to get caught. Not caught for the drugs, but for the pieces on Great Lobster Chowder of the Northeast and Iowa corn doll festivals.

So I did that stuff, but it didn't really compromise my main prose style. And I just want to add that I was clean when I wrote my first four books; it's just the last couple where the stuff helped me.

But I'm hoping you'll give me a second chance, not ban me from the NEA and Amazon for two years, because I really feel like I have something to contribute, I have some ideas, I think I can do it right again if I have a chance.

Rebecca Solnit is the author of "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" (Viking Press, 2003).

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