This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Drugs.

by J.T. Ellison

(Oddly enough, I wrote this a few weeks ago, well before the fervor that was unleashed yesterday.)

I had the most fascinating conversation the other day.

A friend’s husband is a scientist and we were discussing the prevalence of genetic blood enhancement in professional cycling. My eideticly enhanced hubby covered the baseball and football bases. Basically, we concluded that pretty much all professional athletes are juiced up in same way, shape or form. Cynical, yes. Realistically, how could they not be? They are performing super human feats of athletic prowess, with almost zero recovery time. Now, I don’t want this to turn into a discussion about the pros and cons of steroids. I have something else in mind.

What would happen if we, writers, were made aware of a drug that would allow us to enhance our writing? Can you imagine? And if there were a writing enhancing drug — not LSD, mind you, what then?

My first instinct, right or wrong, is we would be stabbing people to move ahead in the line.

To get at the heart of the matter, I guess we do have to tap into the steroid argument a bit. Is there something to be taken away from professional athletes who use performance enhancing drugs? If you’ve ever been around someone who  aspires to "professional" status, or even a dedicated amateur, you know that they work beyond normal human endurance at their sport. It’s a gift, I think, that can’t be disguised. The constant desire to be better, to excel, isn’t bred into all of us. Steroids don’t give an athlete the will to train at 4 in the morning before work. They don’t drive the desire to work harder to improve, to fight for every inch in training opportunities and sponsorships, to sacrifice. Because honestly, being a pro at anything is a sacrifice. You have to give up friends, family, free time to pursue your dream. Hmmm… I guess there’s a stronger correlation between writers and athletes than I thought.

Shouldn’t we celebrate these people? Or should we treat the ones who take a shortcut with derision?

I was an athlete in high school, a decent shot and discus thrower, a better golfer. I competed at the state level in discus and shot, and was the only girl on the golf team — at the time, there wasn’t a separate system for women golfers. Fine by me, I could play with the best of them at that point. (I remember the final meeting of the district board: "You’ll have to play from the white tees…" Me: "Oooh, scary." Ah, the joys of youth, when Bring It On takes on a whole new meaning.) So I had a full schedule — fall and winter indoor track, spring outdoor track, and golf spring through fall. School was the obvious priority (cough) but all my free time was dedicated to track and the links. Which I loved. And there’s something to be said for that level of desire.

I had to choose between a track scholarship to two different excellent ACC schools or a golf team in Florida at a lesser known college. Daddy threw in the offer to let me put off school for a year and try for the LPGA Q school, which I stupidly turned down. ("I need to get a good education" — notice I’m not using my degrees…) I made the decision to go to school and pursue golf, which in hindsight wasn’t the smartest, but set me on the course that I’m on now, so I can’t complain too much. I played golf and IM volleyball, and had a decent time. I didn’t enjoy the competition at the higher level like I did in high school, probably because the other team’s players made me immediately and knew exactly how to rattle me. I don’t like being touched in competition. You can imagine.

And now that I’ve gotten completely off the subject… my point is I pursued these activities with a vengeance, trying to make myself the best that I could be. Something like what I do with writing.

Back to the writing enhancing drugs. There’s obviously been several legal and illegal means to expand our cerebral muscles. But I’m talking about a hypothetical enhancement that would make us the bionic writer. Better, stronger, faster. 

Competition with writers can be as cutthroat as it gets. I’ve heard some pretty frightening stories about people desperate to climb to the top of the ladder, about egos, bitterness and jealousy wiping out friendships. I’ve also seen some amazing cooperative efforts, seen friendships flourish and grow under tight deadlines and differences of opinion.

Could anything good ever come of literary blood doping? Or would we make some scientists very rich women and men?

Wine of the Week: 2003 Li Veli Passamante Negroamaro, shared with great friends at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse in New Orleans last week. Yum, but let it breathe a bit.


I’ll be appearing on Backstory on the Radio as the guest of River Jordan tomorrow (Saturday) December 15th at 4:15 p.m. Central time. Go to Radio Free Nashville to listen live.

12 thoughts on “This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Drugs.

  1. J.B. Thompson

    Hah! Where do I sign up? 😉

    To agree with you on your less tongue-in-cheek points, I think there has to be a survivalist mindset amongst the really successful writers. We do what we do because we have a passion for it. We work hard at it, prepare ourselves, do the research, etc. – and write (train?) every day. Isn’t that almost the same thing as what the athletes are doing? I don’t condone the whole drug thing, of course – but you do make an excellent point, JT, one that I’ve heard argued before. The drugs enhance only their physical strength, not their emotional strength – the desire to excel is what spurs them to improve themselves. That’s where I see the similarities betwixt us and them.

  2. pari

    J.T.,What a thought-provoking post. I honestly don’t know what I’d do. Really don’t. Given the craziness of my life, a boost would be very helpful . . . but ever since I’ve had kids, I’ve been super-aware of side-effects and don’t want most of ’em.

    Now, I’m sorry, but I have to ask:WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL with athletes doping in the first place?

    We try not to get involved in politics here at Murderati, but I’ve got to say that I think there are sooooooooooooo many more important things our country could be worrying about than baseball players doping to perform and/or hurting themselves in the process.

    I just don’t get it.

  3. Fiona

    The problem with doping in sports is that it begins in HS– with kids who desperately want to “be the best” and they are supplied by adults who want to win at all costs. These children are VICTIMS.

    If “everyone is doing it” is really true, then there is no chance for a drug-free athlete to excel. What a shame. The human body is so amazing, and capable of incredible feats. Isn’t it better to see what we can do w/o the drugs?

    Then there are the dangers of the drugs on adults, and the risks from sharing needles–and yes, they do still share needles.

    Rant over— now for your question. I wouldn’t do it. Even if there were no physical/psychological risks. I want to know what I am capable of creating, not what a drug can create.

    Disclaimer–I do NOT mean this to discourage the use of legal, necessary medications. I have a child who would not be alive without the medications he takes every day for a medical condition.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You mean there are authors who don’t take writing-enhancing drugs?

    (Sorry… sorry… I was having a Berkeley moment.)

    I agree with Fiona – a lot of these athletes get steroids forced on them as kids. And honestly I don’t see much difference between performance-enhancing drugs for athletes and cosmetic surgery for actresses and actors. We’re in an age of body enhancement. Nothing’s going to change it. We should treat it as a health and mental health issue, and try to limit the damage.

  5. guyot

    Doping in sports… don’t get me started. The biggest victims – more than the fans or the teams, etc., are the athletes who haven’t doped. And yes, they are out there. By the thousands. But their population is shrinking because doping is so accepted.

    And then there’s the story of Floyd Landis, with enough corruption, lies, theft, backstabbing, double crosses, and international politics to be worthy of a Le Carre novel. And Floyd never even doped.

    But as I said, don’t get me started.

    And as far as literary doping… it already exists. And it is what is holding back writers from succeeding, not the opposite.

    In this day of blogs and conferences and ITW and MWA and Myspace and on and on and on, writers are being programed out of the gate that it’s all about the marketing and promotion, and relationships, and cookies-for-book-buyers, etc., etc.

    That’s the dope everyone is taking.

    And yet, when you look at the most successful authors (new and old), and I mean the bigtime successful ones, across the board the vast majority are ones who have never suckled from the teat of overt marketing/promotion.

    They did it by writing kick ass books. No doping involved.

    If you look at the financial numbers for authors who are the most aggressive with all this marketing/promotion dope, you will be quite surprised. Just because you see someone’s name all over the web doesn’t mean they’re making a great living from writing. Usually, it’s the opposite. Despite what the dope pushers want you to believe, it ain’t about the dope.

    It’s about the writing.

  6. Louise Ure

    Absinthe anyone? Bring on the enhanced writing drugs.

    But I agree with Guyot that there’s truly no substitute for genius. A great book needs no drug transfusion at all.

  7. pari

    Ah, marketing . . .

    Don’t get ME started on that.

    And, thanks to those who took the time to explain a little why the prof. athletic doping may matter.

  8. JT Ellison

    JB, I wouldn’t ever expect you to take a shortcut. Not your style.

    Pari, I agree with Fiona. I think the reason I have issues with it is it teaches kids that you can take a shortcut to be better than the people who work hard without enhancements. There’s always been that kind of mentality, and in today’s overly competitive world, we’re going to see more and more of it.

    Alex, thanks for the Berkeley moment. You too, Louise. Absinthe, I’ve always been curious and never had the guts. I’m not much of a lose control kind of girl. Sadly.

    Thanks, Tash : ) Whirlwinds R Us, eh?

  9. JT Ellison

    Now, on to Paul’s incredibly astute comment.

    Last night, I took a break and was messing around on the computer. I ended up joining LinkedIn. I did have a reason, I’m looking for someone specific from my past who I think would be a good source for some information I need, but as soon as I finished setting up my profile (painless, actually) I mentally berated myself. Why in the world would I add yet ANOTHER thing to the networking repertoire? I’m not using these platforms to market myself, or promote, or do any kind of meaningful networking.

    Paul makes such an important point. As writers, we need to be writing. Without a brilliant book, all the marketing in the world won’t make a difference.

    Thanks for the perspective, G.

  10. simon

    I’m not sure I need an enhancing drug, just the ability to bottle my thoughts and have them come out on the screen. Last night, I dreamt a book. It only lasted a couple of hours, but it’s going to take months to write.


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