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Ernest Hemingway

Interviewer: John, you’ve been an editor for a very long time, and I imagine that you’ve worked with writers who have used various drugs to stimulate their writing.

John Bennet, New Yorker editor: Mostly caffeine and tobacco, and drugs of that nature. And simple hysteria.

I think it’s pretty hard to really write a complicated piece of writing if you’re hallucinating. That’s not to say that many of these writers haven’t done that in the past. But when they’re actually producing, they rely on caffeine, which is of course a drug.

Most writers I know write better than they’re able to write. That’s to say if it’s a good writer, he or she can write a great piece. But they do it by dent of great personal sacrifice. They tend to adrenalize themselves, whether it’s with caffeine or with just simple hysteria or panic, into this highly agitated state, whereby they are able to produce writing of the quality that they want to produce — that otherwise they feel they can’t produce.

And in general I must say it’s a rather destructive process to watch, when you work with writers who essentially have nervous breakdowns every time they have to write a piece. Which means it’s really a damnable profession, writing, because most people who are writers tend to be miserable — at least when they’re writing.

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Bennet, exchanging words with Sasha Weiss, story editor for the New York Times Magazine, in his joint interview with Oliver Sacks for The New Yorker Out Loud (Bennet’s remarks start at around 19:30 in the audio above).

You’ll find Sacks’s longer takes on this stuff in his highly acclaimed new memoir On the Move, which I plan to pick up in the coming weeks.

Read on: