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Malcolm Lowry and his shack in 1940s Dollarton

Lowry suffered from acute anxiety and had his most productive periods in a secluded squatters camp in Dollarton, British Columbia.


Finding out roughly what kind of person you truly are is the starting point of self-understanding. Many years ago, I discovered that troubled writers are the people who most resemble me – or whom I most resemble. I may also be like other kinds of disturbed people, but they remain largely invisible while published writers leave behind a readable and illuminating record of their emotional and psychological struggles. My discovery, and the fact that I too wrestle with writing books and stories, prompted over two decades of reading literary biographies.

Here is the assembled record, drawn from my diaries, of my reading of Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker. I have stripped out the dates and assembled the various entries as a rough essay blending literary observations and writing insights with the personal soul-searching of a manic-depressive thirsting for psychological solace. This powerful and intensely personal interaction with the books is precisely why I love literary biographies.

The Reading Begins

On Sunday, I began reading about Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano. Deeply troubled, coincidence-obsessed, anxious Lowry painfully reminds me of myself. Lowry is proving one of those writers, like Francis Thompson and Edgar Allan Poe, with whom I have an especially lot in common. I’m eager to follow the stormy progress of his life and grasp his ability to utilize his awful experiences in his writing.

Identifying with Lowry’s Anxiety Problems

Especially interesting to me about Lowry is his fear of almost everything. Like him, I too was terrified to be behind the wheel of a car when first learning to drive. I don’t mean nervous; I mean truly petrified. Until I was about forty, I suffered from a panic-fear of dental work. I’m still scared, and go to the dentist only in fits and starts. I’m nervous of women and afraid of authority figures in just the same way as Lowry.

Bowker has so far put forward no explanation for Lowry’s excess of anxiety, and I have never found a satisfactory explanation for my own. I suppose the cause lies somewhere in early childhood: overly authoritarian parenting perhaps, although I was never closely supervised as a child. The trouble is I have become suspicious of blaming all of one’s woes and shortcomings on a bad upbringing. There are so many things in my life – both positive and negative – that have nothing to do with my mother and father or the working class milieu in which we lived when I was a child. Perhaps some of us are simply born with an oversized timid gene.

From time to time, it has occurred to me that the origin of anxiety may be, at least in part, a lack of self-knowledge. Trying to do something you don’t really want to do, because others think you should do it, or because your own false image of yourself says you should do it, isn’t likely to generate feelings of calm confidence. Of course, this cannot explain things like my old panic-fear of dentists and dental work.

A Lowry Evening

Today, the return of my computer woes [bad motherboard, as it turned out] and the loss of some of my work sent me into an emotional tailspin. After angrily shutting down the PC, I fell to brooding about the endless obstacles I face where writing is concerned. I may not be the raving alcoholic that Lowry was, yet I still manage to rack up substantial amounts of downtime. I watched “Star Trek: Enterprise,” hoping it would give me a lift. It didn’t. A beer and Cheezies also failed to dispel the mood and I sat fuming in my small armchair until midnight.

Living in the Boonies

Lowry seems to have had his best periods at Dollarton, a now defunct squatter’s camp on the north side of Burrard Inlet, long ago absorbed by North Vancouver. My own stint in the boonies was an odd mixture of hardship and poverty on the one hand and growing self-awareness on the other. I used to romanticize life in out-of-the-way places, but I don’t think I’d ever want to live that way again. I suppose my experience does play into the idea that suffering deepens one. I learned things, but can’t say I was cured of all, or any, of my ills. Except for the alcoholism, I suffer from much the same difficulties as Lowry. I think the core problem is an anxiety-driven tendency to overreact to virtually everything, and most especially to setbacks or obstacles. What you learn during a psychological journey is not how to rid yourself of your problems but how to cope with them.

Travel Can Be Destabilizing

Lowry’s second visit to Mexico and his subsequent trip to Haiti were catastrophic for him. His wife, Margerie, seems at fault here. Lowry appeared content to remain in Dollarton where he managed to stay largely sober and got a lot of work done. It was Margerie who didn’t care much for “wilderness” living, she who wanted to travel. She should have thought things through a bit more carefully, but I suppose she had never seen Lowry at his absolute worst. The five months in Mexico re-established his drinking problem with a vengeance. Exposure to voodoo in Haiti couldn’t have done much for one so psychologically unstable to begin with.

Lowry’s interest in voodoo magic reminds me of John Cowper Powys’s lifelong desire to possess magical powers. Powys underwent training in Druidic rites, was initiated as a Druid, and sometimes wore the robes and hat of a Druid priest.

Success Can Be Intimidating

Lowry’s brush with success was disastrous. This came with the publication of Under the Volcano. No matter what happens, Lowry always manages to turn it into some kind of disaster. In this case, my money is on social anxiety. Lowry was most comfortable among fellow struggling writers. When confronted by a phalanx of successful writers, all of them singing his praises, he couldn’t cope.

The Restoration of Calm

I was delighted by Lowry’s almost miraculous return to drug-free sobriety only days after his return to Dollarton. The healing power of the wilderness. Too bad it doesn’t work that way for the bulk of us. Alcoholism, gasoline sniffing, and other kinds of substance abuse are rampant in Canada’s small remote communities. I believe the same is true for Russia. Most folks don’t do well when there isn’t a lot to fill the time. Lowry’s “miracle cure” probably sprang from a radical decline in his level of anxiety. Amidst the humble shacks of Dollarton, there were no authority figures to frighten and intimidate him, and no members of high society to fuel his feelings of inadequacy. Moreover, with his anxiety held at bay he could get some writing done. Balm of Gilead for any author.

It seems that unstable Lowry needed both Dollarton and his wife Margerie to maintain his equilibrium. Take away one or the other and he promptly went to pieces again.

Believing in Psychology

Lowry was a great believer in psychology – as was Margerie – and apparently blamed all of his troubles on his involvement, in his youth, with a fellow student’s suicide at Cambridge. Guilt, you see, was the culprit. Now this is the standard litany of the, then popular, Freudian psychiatric profession, Freudian psychology being a monotheistic religion that worships the Great God Guilt.

Might Lowry have been better off if he had not been so blinded by that profession’s obsessions and considered anxiety as a possible cause for his difficulties? Mind you, he steadfastly, and perhaps foolishly, refused professional treatment, preferring to believe that he knew enough about psychology to analyze and treat himself. Perhaps a few sessions with Jung, who offered to see him without charge, might have done wonders. Hermann Hesse’s time with Jung sparked his best period. During the twelve years following his analysis, he wrote all – with the sole exception of The Glass Bead Game – his greatest works. That book, coming much later, was a grand summary and synthesis of Hesse’s tremendous twelve-year odyssey, and therefore, simply a further extension of it.

Grandiose Writing Schemes

In his last years, Lowry entered a period of grandiose writing schemes, accompanied by a preoccupation with his own “creative process.” This is something a writer goes through at the beginning of his learning years. I’m surprised to find Lowry still caught up in such confusion at this late stage. Experience teaches most writers that life is too short for a long string of huge masterpieces and that the best way to deal with your “creative process” is to simply get on with your work. Work on what you can work on. Then work on the next thing you can work on. If you get caught up in wondrous schemes that can’t be started until this, that, or the other thing is in place, you will end up doing nothing.

As I suspected, Lowry’s “hundreds of pages safely stored in the bank vault” have turned out to be drivel. He’s too far gone mentally to do quality work at this stage. He has a work method, but not a work method that works.

Inspiration in a Bottle

Poor Lowry was trapped by a set of false assumptions about where his “inspiration” came from. If my own experience is anything to go by, you aren’t likely to find it in a bottle. What he really got from the booze was a lessening of his inhibitions, a loosening of his tongue, and a diminution of his anxiety. This undoubtedly helped him over his shyness when dealing with people, but he mistakenly believed the benefit extended to his ability to write. This is quite a common misconception among writers. I recall one author explaining how she started drinking when she sat down to write, and kept writing until she was too drunk to continue. How much work can you do in such a narrow window of opportunity?

The One-Novel-Wonder

As so often happens with stormy-lived writers, Lowry came to a bad and premature end choking on his own vomit while dead drunk and full of barbiturates. He has left behind only one great novel, but that seems to have been enough to assure him some degree of “immortality.” The way things are going for me, I may be a one-novel-wonder myself. I keep hoping I’ll find what poor Lowry never did: a way of working effective enough to produce a steady stream of output. I think this is my last great challenge as an apprentice writer. Against me stand the endless disruptions caused by my father’s steadily worsening Alzheimer’s disease. In my favour are the numerous examples of how writers get the job done – often under less than ideal conditions – which I have assimilated during twelve years of reading literary biographies. No two writers work in exactly the same way. My task is to cobble together a set of work habits rooted in my own experience, adapted to my present circumstances, and enhanced by what I have learned from others.

One of my biggest problems as a writer has always been a decided tendency towards large works. Even the smallest of my ideas grows to huge proportions as the work progresses, another difficulty shared by Malcolm Lowry, by the way.

In Conclusion

The above interaction with Bowker’s stimulating life history of Lowry is typical of what I get from reading literary biographies. Nothing has reinforced my sense of being a writer more than reading such books. Classic authors and contemporary literary figures old enough to warrant a biography go back many years, yet I can assure younger writers that they are completely relevant in the modern context. Writers share a core set of ideas and have utilized remarkably similar strategies over the centuries. If they read a broad enough sample, all those who truly belong in the writer’s guild are sure to find a number of authors with whom they can identify. I have learned something useful from every writer whose life I have studied.