Lessons from HST

Hunter-S-Thompson-Gonzo-Journalist-300x198Hunter S. Thompson scared me. He made me think that to be a famous author, one had to live life on the edge and push the envelope as far as humanly possible — and then far, far into the humanly impossible. To someone whose motto is “everything in moderation, including moderation,” this was terrifying and discouraging. Because I was nowhere near that courageous, or extreme, or hard-riding. I was large, not larger than life. I was doomed to oblivion.

I was already scared of being an author. There were rules, you see. Authors had to be poor. They had to sacrifice. They had to be extreme. They had to open a vein and bleed all over their keyboards. They had to suffer for their art like artists do. They had to toil for years on works published to little or no applause (“sonnets in garrets”). I thought, Geez, do I really have to go through that much agony just to earn a living? I didn’t have the fortitude for that.

So I took the safe route and got paid to write by companies and other people.

hunter-s-thompson-liebowitzI saw Hunter S. Thompson speak once at the University of Oregon when I was a student. I honestly don’t remember specifically what he talked about, and I’m sure he didn’t either as he was probably drunk at the time. But I did take away this: no matter how much I could possibly screw up my life, I always had the option of writing about it. Because I am a writer. And thank goodness for that. No matter how badly I screw up, I will have a story to tell about that screwup, and I can tell it.

This jives nicely with my belief that everything in life is a learning experience. There’s nothing in life that’s absolutely irredeemable when it carries a lesson.

Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives... and to the "good life", whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.
Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives… and to the “good life”, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.

Over the years I’ve read HST’s books and watched the movies made about him. I’ve come to a new appreciation of his own bad self….and of my own bad self.

  • Being a famous author does not mean you are a good writer. I actually found some of HST’s machine-gun-journalism-style jarring, and some of his narrative boring. But authoring is largely about publicity, not craft, anyway.
  • This means that my work will not be simply judged on its own merits, but also on its own marketing.
  • I am far too risk-averse for my own good.
  • Maybe I’m not as risk-averse as I think.
  • Maybe I just haven’t been taking the right kinds of risks. With the right kinds of people.
  • It’s OK to start with smaller risks. I don’t have to go for the big, dramatic, news-at-11 risks right off the bat.
  • Some risks are invisible and the successful completion of taking it is known to no one but the risk taker. Treasure these just like the visible risks.
  • The more uncomfortable I feel writing something, the better it is.
  • If what I write makes me cry, I’m on the right track.
  • I don’t need to be drunk to write, but having a cigarette certainly gives me a saucier attitude.
  • Wild Turkey is nasty.
  • It’s OK to enjoy shooting guns.
  • HST in his older years looked oddly like my grandfather.
  • Do not give up. Never, ever give up.
  • And for fuck’s sake don’t commit suicide. It would upset people, it would probably make a mess, it won’t make a difference if I’m not already famous…and most of all, it would not serve my higher purpose.
  • Use a typewriter.

I’m still finding my way to the right level of risk in my life. But I want to live out where the real winds blow. So I will keep driving.

“Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish—a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow—to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested . . . Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.”

— Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80’s