This book was so much fun! It started with the history of paper and writing implements, moving on to typewriters and computers, and ending up with drugs, sex, suicide, and superstitions, with stories about how famous writers throughout history have written. What tools they use, what rituals they followed, what superstitions they had, what drugs they did, how they viewed writing itself… And I shouldn’t be using the past tense, because living writers are also represented here.
Harry Bruce addresses whole sets of ideas about writers and writing: writers and mental health, writers and addiction, writer’s block, editing and revision, writers and eccentricity, the writer as artist vs the writer as professional (and whether or not that is really “vs”). I really liked the section about writer’s block. In my own life, I try to write or draw every single day, whether I am “inspired” or not, because that’s what works for me. But because there’s a big part of me that has always believed in the mystique of the artist struck by inspiration, my own quotidian habit struck me as prosaic and maybe not really how other artists, “real” writers and painters, approach their work. While I have long periods where I don’t work, it is not something I think of as a block, but rather that I am making different things a priority (however much I know I’m making a mistake in doing so!). So reading about all of the writers who sneer at writer’s block as being a luxury for those who don’t have to earn their wage as writers, or as laziness, or however else they conceptualise it, was a fresh perspective for me. I don’t agree that everyone who feels blocked is simply lazy, but I always like a chance to think about something differently.
The chapters about writers and addictions (nicotine, alcohol, prescription drugs, street drugs, snortables and injectables and so forth) set out a range of writerly opinions ranging from one cannot write without the experience of “expanded consciousness” to drugs interfere with one’s ability to write (well or at all) with stops all along the spectrum of moderation and new useful experiences and hard-won sobriety and unlocking inner thoughts. Personally, I think that it is entirely possible to be a writer without being an addict (also to be an artist without being a pretentious asshole), but there seem to be an awful lot of artists in all genres who either think they can’t do art without drugs, or who use their identity as creative people to excuse or justify addiction or assholery.
Many of the writers discussed in this book were relatively contemporary white guys, but there were lots of others as well, from ancient times and various cultures and languages and genders and homelands. It’s always nice to have diversity of representation. Page Fright is very well-written, and stuff that could have been quite dry (the history of paper? Quills?) wove seamlessly into the narrative. I can’t even imagine the amount of research this book took! There were no awkward transitions; on the contrary, the segues were very natural and smooth.
My personal take-away from this book was the incredible diversity of personalities, beliefs, working styles, and habits of writers. The message is that there is no one way to do this right. The only requirement for being a writer—and even that can pause for decades—is to write.
Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers by Harry Bruce.
Hardcover. McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 9780771017124.