While the interviewer sought to make a clear connection between Carver the alcoholic and Carver the artist, the author himself would have none of it. Carver said that no matter what he'd done in life, whether he'd become a plumber or a lumberjack, he would have struggled with alcohol and its impact on his personal and professional life.
Indeed, Carver also rejected the notion that writers and artists are any more prone to alcoholism than any other professional group. Carver didn't romanticize his alcoholism, admitting that it caused him a lot of heartache and disrupted his path as an artist. What comes across clearest in the interview is Carver's determination to be a great writer, even as he drank excessive amounts of alcohol with other great writers, such as John Cheever, and nearly destroyed his health and personal life.
I would extend Carver's larger point, that writers are no more prone to alcoholism than other professions, to the realm of mental illness. As a society, we suffer from shockingly high incidences of alcoholism and mental illness, and the two are often inextricably related. Many people suffer from depression and might turn to alcohol as an escape. Unfortunately, alcohol is a depressant so only worsens the spiral into deeper depression. Drinking alcohol excessively can also change human brain chemistry to bring on further mental health problems.
But so many people face these struggles with alcohol and mental health, whether they work as accountants, lawyers, or novelists. I'm a business writer who struggles with social anxiety, so I need to be constantly aware of myself. Drinking alcohol worsens my anxiety, although I've once or twice used alcohol in an effort to drown anxiety. That simply doesn't work, and has lead to larger problems. I've learned not to drink when I feel anxious, but to exercise or meditate instead.
Yet millions of Americans, maybe 10 percent of the whole population, struggle with some form of social anxiety. Even more suffer from depression and other kinds of mental illness. I don't believe for a second that these serious problems are any worse among artists than other professionals. Just because writers can express in prose what they might be feeling doesn't make their feelings unique.
Alcoholism and mental health issues cut across all boundaries, and should be addressed as the real national and global health epidemics they are. I'm with Carver when he says we're all prone to these problems. And I believe it is Carver's powerful sense of personal vulnerability, extended to his characters in the form of compassion and a deep effort to understand human pain, that made him a great fiction writer. Yet empathy isn't something writers have monopolized. It's what makes us all human, and much of that empathy comes from understanding our own pain and connecting it to the pain of others.
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