Brunched with Updike at the Cosmos Club the other day, and we traded the usual literary-life horror stories. Pushy fans, thick-headed critics, impossible deadlines. I confessed my fear that literature no longer flows so easily from my pen. John laughed, said all artists feel that way. He told me to remember who I am: America's greatest author of fine-print prescription drug information.
The kind words gave me a boost as I worked on the text for Zyklor (methylprophylacetinthelene-3-zinthrexyphyl), a drug that combats the spaciness that is common in people who overmedicate with Skangipex (another of my clients). I've written a passage that builds nicely, though it lacks the iambic pentameter that made the Skangipex text so sublime:
"May cause anxiety, irritation, crankiness, fussiness, snippiness, persnicketyness, a sense of being just a little bit out of sorts, a general 'craziness,' flights of outright insanity, fidgetyness, sewing-machine leg, finger drumming, tongue clucking, pig grunts, sweaty feet, earbleeds, uncontrolled doodling, sniveling, unrememberable dreams, and a loss of libido so severe it's like your erogenous zones have just up and died."
My editor dislikes that final verbal thrust, preferring that I compactify to the more technical "anorgasmia." To my ear the word is coarse. The industry has been crawling into the gutter ever since Viagra appeared. I said to my editor, "I write literary prescription drug information, not smut."
Updike told me as we were walking to Kramerbooks (and, FYI, I persuaded him to take on the text for a new anti-inflammatory medication) that he's nearly finished with the operating manual for the John Deere 7000 Series Harvester Combine. I always tell Updike: You're bigger than machinery; stick to fiction and the occasional pharmaceutical text. But he just loves to describe the various sprockets and widgets. He said T-Mo (Toni Morrison, for those of you stuck in cultural backwaters) has completely given up fiction to focus all her energies on bicycle assembly manuals. I said I thought that was Didion's turf, and he nodded gravely. I smell rivalry.
Of course we all keep an eye on every other writer. It's literature, but it's competitive. I'm excited and a bit nervous about my next job, Dingerol, which the drug maker claims is a powerful anticonstipative. Consumer groups claim it's dangerous, that in excessive doses it can cause . . . how does one say this delicately . . . internal seismicity. As Updike put it in his classic text for Laxagone, "may incite eliminatory extrusions of fire-hose velocity."
I probably shouldn't keep dropping Updike's name, but you know he got me into the business. He had been a minor New Yorker short story writer and sometime novelist when, freelancing for Pfitzper, he coined the phrase "may cause drowsiness." For years, writers had been using the incredibly stupid word "sleepiness," which is a kind of baby talk, and "somnolence," which is incomprehensible. Updike saw an opening and soon added "may cause drowsiness" to every prescription drug warning he wrote. It put him on the map, though he tells me it bugs him when fans see him on the street and shout, "May cause drowsiness!"
By 1970, Updike had become a veritable literary factory, cranking out not only his acclaimed novels and short stories, but also so much copy for new medications that Cheever nicknamed him "The Pharmacy." One day, overwhelmed, he brought me in as a subcontractor on the text for a chewable antihemorragic. To this day people think he wrote the text, but look closely and you'll see my signature words and phrases: "contraindicated," "potentiation," "pharmacodynamic," "operating hazardous machinery" and so on.
Then I made my own quantum leap, coming up with the idea of inserting prescription medication information in magazine ads in type so small it could only be read with a microscope. Yeah, that was me.
As a "method writer," I come down with all the symptoms as I write them. There are so many agitation-related side effects for Zyklor that I have to tie myself to my writing chair to get anything accomplished. At one point I got up to get a drink of water and suddenly found myself outside, trying to build a treehouse. That's where the "may begin construction projects with no chance of completion" line came from.
Being a method writer in this line of work can be extremely discomfiting, and I've completely stopped taking assignments for any drug that has, as a possible side effect, a furry tongue. I'm done with tongue fur, now and forever. Any jobs like that, I'll hand off to John.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.