Drugs and Writing: Was Lewis Carroll High when He Wrote Alice in Wonderland?
After we finished reading “Jabberwocky” one day in my ninth grade English class (“reading” is the wrong word; “staring” might be more accurate), our class’s goofball burnout asked loudly, “Was that dude on drugs when he wrote this?”
My over-sensitive English teacher seemed shocked by the question and quickly responded, “No. People didn’t take drugs back then.”
The thing is, I believed her at the time. A few years later, I learned about opium (not first hand).
I feel gullible for believing my ninth grade English teacher, but I’ve been gullible most of my life. It took several writers conferences where literary agents claimed they would get back to me about my manuscripts to figure out that I was too gullible. Gullibility is not a good characteristic for a writer to have.
Despite what my over-sensitive English teacher claimed, people did take drugs in the 1800s. Opium was a medicine of choice, and Lewis Carroll possibly suffered from migraines. If Carroll had migraines and partook of a bit of opium for relief (or just for the heck of it), then maybe, just maybe, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were inspired by more than imagination.
To me, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like opium, cocaine, and marijuana are performance enhancing drugs when it comes to writing. From my (friends’) experiences, taking certain brain altering substances can limit creativity rather than enhance it. It usually slowed down my (friends’) thought activity. Some of my (friends’) hallucinations were cool, but nothing to write about.
To unimaginative people, an act of creativity seems drug inspired. Giant living playing cards. A grinning cat that turns invisible. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Jabberwocky. No normal person could come up with that stuff without hallucinogenic encouragement. But creative folk can do that (in their sleep or) while completely awake and alert.
Some creative people resort to drugs. Aaron Sorkin has a reputation for cranking (crank.. haha) out a lot of material while he’s under the influence of something other than alcohol. Maybe one morning he cleared his mind, read his dialogue, and said, “I know these characters are witty, but they talk so fast that I can’t understand a word they’re saying. Plus, they’re kind of pompous.”
And maybe, just maybe, Lewis Carroll recovered one morning from his dazed and confused night of opium-inspired writing, stared at his parchment, and exclaimed, “What the hell is a vorpal?”
If Lewis Carroll wrote anything while under the influence, it probably wasn’t “Jabberwocky” because “Jabberwocky” was a poem, a tightly designed poem. If “Jabberwocky” had been written in free-verse, then I could have believed Carroll had been hallucinating, but it’s tough to write rhyme with a consistent rhythm and be nonsensical at the same time. It was a calculating mind that composed this nonsense. Unfortunately, my over-sensitive English teacher seemed too afraid of the drugs topic to state this to the class.
Alice in Wonderland and Literary Girlfriends
One evening my literary girlfriend in college invited me to her apartment to watch the movie Alice in Wonderland with her, and I thought Alice in Wonderland was code for “spend the night and have lots of fun.”
When we actually began watching the movie, I thought, “This isn’t as much fun as I was hoping for.”
It might have worked out okay, but then Tweedledee and Tweedledum showed up in the movie, and I exclaimed: “My ninth grade English teacher told us that they were in Through the Looking Glass, not Alice in Wonderland. I always knew she was a dumb broad.”
Literary girlfriends have a unique look of contempt when guys say something stupid. First of all, I knew that Hollywood (and Disney) changed stuff in movies back then, so that made my comment pretty stupid. Secondly, I should never have said “dumb broad.” My ninth grade English teacher was very smart (if over-sensitive), but in college I hadn’t yet honed my tightly crafted sense of humor, so I could come across as crass (when I wasn’t coming across as lame), and I was promptly kicked out of my literary girlfriend’s apartment.
Fortunately, she was forgiving (or desperate), and she took me back the next day. Unfortunately, she broke up with me two weeks later to go out with one of her (former) professors.
Professors. What a scam. I could have become a professor.
Other Children’s Authors Who Might be Accused of Writing While in an Altered State
Frank Baum- The Wizard of Oz series/ Lots of crazy stuff, spread out over 14 books.
Crockett Johnson- Harold and the Purple Crayon books/ A magic crayon and purple? It has to be drug related.
Margaret Mahy- Down the Back of the Chair/ Reading this makes me wonder what Margaret Mahy really hides in the back of her chair.
Roald Dahl- The BFG/ I don’t even know what this book is about; I just like saying “BFG!”
Shel Silverstein- Uncle Shelby’s A-B-Z Book/ Look at a picture of him. Plus, his name is Shel. Poor guy never had a chance.
When I was a kid, I was punished for saying the word crap. Looking back, it kind of ticks me off because now I know…
And here is the true story of my one moment of high school glory!