Writing as a Psychedelic Experience


Tripping to Write Fantastic

an essay

Copyright © 1997 by
Sean Michael Ragan

This piece won first prize in the nonfiction division of the English Departmental Writing Contest at UT Austin (the Adele Steiner Burleson Award) in the Spring of 1997. It strikes me as pretty campy now, but it does represent the first money I made as a writer, and so I have a sentimental attachment to it.

If you could see me now, sitting in a darkened room in front of my word processor writing this essay in the drear light of Zoo, you’d notice an eccentric protruberance in one of my cheeks. That’s my tongue. I planted it there when I thought up the title, and I intend to leave it firmly ensconced therein throughout the rest of the process. Just a little note to those of you who don’t know me very well, and who thus, poor souls, might also be inclined to take me seriously. Here endeth the disclaimer.

That being said, allow me to come straight to the point: Writing is a drug. More specifically, it is a psychedelic, a bringer of visions. One who is unafraid can use it to bring introspection, or to raise consciousness. Done frequently, it can bring a sense of peace, of oneness, of being the perfect outside observer—unperturbed and unperturbable.

That being said, allow me to contradict myself: Writing is not a drug. While some of us may have found it addictive—indeed, may even be forced to use it just to get through the day or deal with the occasional cockroach-in-the-teeth of the motorcycle ride of life—it is not always an enjoyable experience. Indeed, it can be damn hard work. But then, of course, you get what you pay for—unlike peyote, ‘shrooms, or LSD, writing is free. I would also add that it’s legal, if that sort of thing concerns you.

Logical contradictions aside, we should remember that a metaphor is just a light we shine on a concept to see it from a different angle. No matter where we point the beam certain features are going to be illuminated, and others obscured. What the writer tries to do is hold the lamp in just the right way to highlight those facets which support her point. If one is good enough at it, one can make things which have almost nothing in common—black and white, apples and oranges, or even, say, drugs and art—seem the perfect models for one another. I’m looking for a challenge, so I’m going to try to talk about writing in terms of tripping.

Besides, wasn’t it Ralph Waldo Emerson who claimed that every man he met had something to teach him? What I’m wondering about, then, is what all my spaced-out druggee friends have to teach me about writing. They must be good for something, after all. Here’s some of the advice they gave me:

Never do it alone. Writers and recreational drug users suffer from the same misconceptions in the popular mind. Both are seen as solitary, reclusive, socially malfunctional individuals who sit in their seedy tenement rooms and work their mojo in lonely silence. But the truth is that while tripping alone is terrifying at best and dangerous at worst, writing alone is frustrating at best and impossible at worst. Both experienced writers and experienced trippers know to watch out for the solitary ones—they’re the destined burn-outs. No one exists in a social vacuum, and for their experiences to be productive, both writers and psychedelics need support from their respective peer groups. Writers, just like their wide-eyed chemical counterparts, need to get out and see the lights of the big city, rub up against their neighbors in bars and dance halls, lie in an open field at night and talk about falling off the planet into space.

Be careful looking in mirrors. You might not be prepared for what you see. Before you turn the high-powered light of instrospection, whether psychedelic or artistic, onto yourself, be sure you’re not going to react like a dear caught in God’s headlights. It is as impossible to lie to oneself about oneself while writing as it is while tripping, and in the course of our day-to-day lives its exceedingly easy to forget how much we all depend on our little lies to ourselves, about ourselves, to get through the day. Those who understand writing know it to be, like a drug-induced hallucination, not so much a process that is directed as one that is set loose, to expand and bend and flower and fold back upon itself as it may. We should take a lesson from the evil witch in the story of Sleeping Beauty, and make sure that before we ask our questions of the magic mirror, we are prepared to accept its answers.

Don’t mix it with other drugs. Allen Ginsberg and Jim Morrison aside, there are very few of us who can produce anything worth the paper it’s printed on when directly under the influence of mind-altering drugs. In such a condition, our experiences themselves become so engrossing that all thoughts of recording them in words are swept away in the raw naked current of what Aldous Huxley described as “the howling Tao.” The psychedelic trip, while it might arguably have value as an experience in and of itself, ought not to be pursued simply as grist for the creative mills. Not only is the experience itself of such a highly subjective psychological nature as to exclude most readers, but also, in the long run, the costs are simply too high. Although within the context of this essay, such advice might appear contradictory, I hope that I’ve made clear by this point that what I’m all about is metaphor, not methamphetamine.

Learn to hear the colors. One of the hallmarks of the psychedelic experience is synesthesia, or the perception of one sensory modality through another. While the metaphors which inform our everyday language are in many ways synesthetic--as witnessed by phrases such as “loud colors” and “sharp noises”--the person under the influence of an hallucinatory drug tends to experience very literal manifestations of such phenomena. Upon coming out of a trip several years ago, an old friend of mine, a talented visual artist and musician, said to me, “Amazing how I’d never actually heard purple before.” This sort of thing, I think, ought to be the daily bread of the creative writer. Writing is, after all, a fundamentally synesthetic process--the transmutation of images, textures, smells, and experience in general into the thought-sounds of language and words.

Which brings me to an important point, really. Throughtout this essay, when I have used the word “writing” I have intended what other folks might classify specifically as “creative writing,” although I personally think that to make the distinction implies the existence of such an act as “non-creative writing,” a phrase which is in almost all contexts an oxymoron. For me, at least, writing is not so much a skill one learns to use in school, like arithmetic or driving a car, as it is a Way of being, a path to the kind of flow-consciousness which comes only from the total absorption in a thing to the exclusion of all other, incidental concerns. Artists and users of hallicinogens are alike insofar as they seek this higher state of consciousness or awareness, but very dissimilar in the manner in which they go about achieving it. Far from being a pundit of drug use as a path to self-knowledge, I feel no small measure of pity for those unfortunates who, for whatever reasons, lack the internal resources to raise their states of mind through any other, more constructive use of themselves. Writing of course, is only one Way. It is not for everyone, and it may not be the easiest Way. But it is my Way.


On Monday, March 17, Joseph E. Belasco, my friend, died at his parents’ home of complications related to a heroin overdose. I’ve heard conflicting rumors--first that the dosage was too high, and then later that he’d injected himself improperly, had an air bubble in the syringe, and died of an embolism as a result. Either way, the point is that he’s dead because he stuck a needle in his arm, and he’s dead because no one on this green Earth could see it coming. Joey was very nearly perfect--brilliant, witty, handsome, friendly, a Plan II Liberal Arts major and a damned fine writer to boot--and no one that new him had any idea that he would want, need, or deign to turn to drugs, particularly heroin, for solace or sport or whatnot.

When I heard that he’d died I loaded this essay up on the word processor and sat staring at it for a long time with my finger hovering over the “delete” key. While it tries to make clear that first of all, drug use is a generally bad thing and further, that it is only concerned with the milder psychedelic drugs--like LSD and peyote--only insofar as they make for an interesting metaphor, I couldn’t help but think that there’s something not quite right about it. But without exception every one of my writing instructors throughout my life has warned me never, ever, to discard anything I’ve written, no matter what the reasons. And as I myself say within the body of this essay, my writing is very often a process which is simply let loose to drag me behind, whither and wherever it may.

That being the case, I have chosen to let this piece live, indeed to focus on it, in order to exorcise whatever demons it might contain for me. It stands as it is before me, and like it or not, the last thing I’m allowed to do is ignore it.