Writing Under the Influence: Greene on Benzedrine

Stories of Adderall-inspired writing binges by over-achieving students keen to upstage their cohorts and get the best grades possible are now old hat. And perhaps so are stories of writers fueling (or attempting to fuel) their writing sessions with a variety of intoxicating, calming, inspirational and brain-cobweb clearing substances. These have ranged from the ubiquitous nicotine (cigarettes, the most common of all, said to steady the nerves and enable concentration) to caffeine (to keep awake, to stimulate; most famously employed by Balzac, whose coffee consumption was truly awe-inspiring), alcohol (perhaps to reduce the anxiety associated with the blank page), marijuana (to provoke, hopefully, the odd creative thought or two); the list goes on. (I am not optimistic about the prospects of hearing any success stories associated with alcohol and marijuana when it comes to writing; certainly, in the case of alcohol, it seems to have led to too many careers being derailed.)

At first glance, Graham Greene‘s writing career does not seem to suggest ever having needed chemical stimulation to get the writing engine fired up. He wrote twenty-seven novels, two volumes of verse, four volumes of autobiography, three travel books, eight plays, ten screenplays, four collections of short stories, and four children’s books. But even he sometimes felt the need to dip into the substance reservoir in order to get an ambitious task undertaken.

By 1938, Greene had mastered the art of finishing a novel in less than a year. Still, his earnings from his writing were not enough to take care of a writer with a family that included two children. A commercially successful work was called for, one that would serve as ‘entertainment’ (to use Greene’s own term for the works in his oeuvre he deemed less serious).  Greene had returned from his travels in Mexico, joined the Officers’ Emergency Reserve and was hard at work on The Power and the Glory.

An ambitious plan presented itself: he would write an ‘entertainment’ in the mornings while continuing to work on The Power and the Glory in the afternoons. A studio was rented and work began on The Confidential Agent with Greene suitably fortified:

I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday. Each day I sat down to work with no idea of what turn the plot might take and each morning I wrote, with the automatism of a planchette, two thousand words instead of my usual stint of five hundred words. In the afternoons, The Power and the Glory proceeded toward its ends at its own leaden pace, unaffected by the sprightly young thing that was overtaking it.

Six weeks to finish a novel at two thousand words a day, while simultaneously working on another novel. The mind boggles. This regime was not without its costs:

I was forcing the pace and I suffered for it. Six weeks of a Benzedrine breakfast diet left my nerves in shreds and my wife suffered the result. At five o’clock I would return home with a shaking hand, a depression which fell with the regularity of a tropical rain, ready to find offense in anything, and to give offense for no cause. For long after the six weeks were over, I had to continue with smaller and smaller doses to break the habit. The career of writing has its own curious forms of hell. Sometimes looking back I think that those Benzedrine weeks were more responsible than the separation of war and my own infidelities for breaking our marriage.

I own a battered paperback copy of The Confidential Agent, which I have not read thus far. When I do, I’ll be especially attentive for any traces of a jittery, wired Greene.

Note: Excerpts from: Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980, pp. 72-74.

4 thoughts on “Writing Under the Influence: Greene on Benzedrine

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose stimulus of choice was alcohol, regretted that he had to write the last third of Tender Is the Night in a gin-infused state. He felt it would have been better if he could have written it without, but he said he lacked the stamina. That was just before his crack-up.

  2. Tom,

    Thanks for that comment. I honestly can’t fathom how anyone could write well while drinking. I can understand it as a way of relieving the tension of writing for sure. I used to go for beers with my co-author after our writing sessions, but I don’t think I could have had one while writing. I haven’t read _Tender is the Night_ yet (though I own a copy). I’ll keep your note in mind when I do read it.

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