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Let’s talk about booze and writers

Look familiar?

This came up tangentially in comments to the previous post. Seems like most of us on this park bench do a bit of drinking. A lot of people who are not writers do their bit of drinking. The curiosity is, does boozing enhance creative work, detract from creative work, or simply have no effect worth mentioning? I will make myself the case in point and welcome other case studies.

I think I have a problem with alcohol, which might be just a cutesy way of saying I’m an alcoholic. Since successfully reaching maturity, which came rather late in my life, I am never drunk, in the sense of falling down, muttering, what the hell did I do drunk. I rarely reach the condition commonly known as tipsy. Maybe I have appreciable capacity. I don’t like being drunk, I don’t like hangovers, and I avoid them successfully. I know exactly where the line is drawn between feeling at ease and sedated, and shit faced. For me, it is one bottle of wine at one time (rather than spread out over the day), or, and or is the important connector, three maybe four substantial tumblers of liquor, or four large beers. Below that amount, tranquility, over that amount, stupid and headaches. The wisdom of age allows one to usually choose tranquility over stupid.

I drink alcohol everyday that I am not so sick that it tastes bad. I have been doing that everyday for at least fifty years. A miracle of genetics has kept my liver intact. In all ways, marijuana is a much better path to tranquility and creativity than alcohol, and I have inhaled the smoke from many pounds of that fine vegetation, but again the wisdom of age has shown me that I would not enjoy prison life, so now I drink instead of smoke, although the latter is better than the former in all ways, except taste, of course. (Let us save hypocrisy for another day.)

I have over the years written under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol. The result was always the literary equivalent of a hangover. It seemed quite fine to be dancing on the table and spinning your pants over your head at the time, but sober it is just stupid and embarrassing. That’s what I ended up with when writing drunk. It sure seemed wonderful at the time. But it was always, without exception, embarrassing shit.

I am saying that I do not believe that alcohol stimulates or enhances creativity. To the contrary, I think it is a detriment. I do my work in the mornings, when my head is clear and free. I drink only in the evenings, not counting a glass of wine with lunch, but by early afternoon my work day is usually at an end.

The list of notorious alcoholic writers is very long. Here are the more notorious, the really and truly drunks, in random order: Raymond Carver, Jean Stafford, Truman Capote, Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Jack London, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Robert Lowell, Eugene O’Neill, John O’Hara, O. Henry, Conrad Aiken, John Berryman, Edmund Wilson, and of course, Ernest Hemingway. I mention him last because he always rose early and worked clean and fresh, not starting his infamous drinking until the workday ended after lunch. Far as I can determine, none of these writers wrote anything that stuck, anything memorable, when they were shit faced.

I like the taste of most alcoholic drinks, and why not, since much of it is sugar. I drink about half the flavor and half for the tranquility, the relaxation, the winding down part of it. (Again, marijuana would accomplish the same effect with far less damage, but … let’s save the hypocrisy.) I am going to drink until it kills me, or until I die first. But I am never going to write when I’m drinking. I am of the opinion that alcohol is not conducive to creativity, but a detriment.

And what say you?

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15 replies »

  1. i started drinking and smoking early (13 going on 14). a lot of asians don’t seem to do so well with alcohol and i’m one of them – i don’t get drunk as such, but i get bad hangover and the next day is totally wasted. for this reason i quit drinking altogether in my mid twenties – i like to have a clear head for the day, to read, to think or to write a bit whenever i feel like it.

    the only times i benefited from drinking in terms of writing, was when i had a couple glasses of white wine in the morning (yes, with breakfast) and got a bit buzzed up…just happy enough to tackle the work.

    i also quit marijuana in my early twenties…I was in the last band i was ever in, and the guitarist had some very fine marijuana sitting in a drawer…one day i rolled a fat joint for myself because i wasn’t good at rolling it, and a fat one was all i could do. i think i got too high and then went dead for a whole day…i was alone the whole time too, which made the experience very weird and intense.

    but i must say, back in those days i was very driven to write. very happy and stimulated, always looking forward to what’d unfold at the end of the day, ah…

    • Nicole, you’ve mentioned a problem of motivation elsewhere, too. Care to expand on that? Maybe some group therapy would help …?

      • My favorite writerly quote comes from a usual source, Faulkner. When asked why he drank so much, he said, “For the pain.” Now, interpreted in the normal way, that means that he drank to kill the pain. But it might mean the opposite. It might mean that he needed the pain caused by drinking in order to write. I prefer the second interpretation.

        I drank pretty hard and regular for the usual years of the 20’s. The epiphany I mentioned came after staggering to my feet and flopping in bed and puking blood all the next day. Oh, and did I mention that before the near-drowning I had managed to simultaneously puke and shit on myself? Yeah. Glamorous.

        When I smoked, I chain smoked a good pack a day, possibly two. Or I quit. No middle ground.

        As for grass, I never liked how edgy I always felt the next day. Like the pendulum was swinging too far back from mellow. Plus every deep thought I thought I thought turned I either couldn’t remember, or turned out to be dumb.

        Nowadays I like to have an occasional whisky or two, and get a nice buzz, and go to bed.

        One thing I used to love to do that I hardly ever do anymore is pour up a tall glass of vodka or gin tonic or a whisky coke and read, with some loud music on in the background. Refill and repeat until the room spins. Now with a young’un at home with bedtimes and all, that doesn’t happen any longer.

        On the other hand, under the influence of Sangsom (Thai whisky) and Coke, I briefly thought that Annie Proulx was awesome. So evidently it wasn’t that great of a ride.

        • I agree, Court, and tend to believe the second option is more reasonable. Alcohol greases the hinges on our secret doors and causes them to slip open more easily, and that can reveal the pain we keep in our psyche Pandora’s Box.

          The important element in this is being able to do something masterful with the demons once you set them loose.

          I am too lazy to seek out the source for this notion – I came across it randomly a while back — that artists have obsessive personalities, and one of the traits shared by obsessives is a tendency toward addictions of all kinds. We don’t have a viable control switch to avoid taking anything to extremes, making artists prone to turn love into passionate madness, to turn a social drink into alcoholism, to chain smoke ourselves into disease, and, of course, to release ourselves from common reality when we paint, compose, or write.

          Many people have obsessions, but artists have the good fortune to pair obsessiveness with a talent, and thus make lemoncello out of the sourness of a personality lemon.

          I can attest from my own experience, as well as what I know from the experiences of other old authors, that it is important to survive, important for the work, I mean, because survival being better than not ought to go without saying. In this regard, our obsessive abuses, while driven by the very nature of the artistic personality, are one and the same with self-destruction.

          I am a better writer in my second and older incarnation than in my wilder days of youth. The struggle among my various obsessions and abuses shows in the evident haste and ego on display in early work. This is true of many writers. The gap in the story is left by all those writers who did not survive the obsessive excess of youth – their names are legend, as the saying goes. But don’t we wonder what the clarity and patience of maturity might have meant for their work?

          What might Hemingway have written at 70 had he not let alcoholic dementia silence him forever at an age 5 years younger than I am now?

          I am older, in some cases much older, than everyone who participates in this conversation. I have been over time you have not seen, I have been where you are, but you have not yet been where I am. I am here to tell you that, while obsessive excess has its place in the building blocks of our lives, maturity will be more substantive, more creative, more enlightened, and in all ways but the physical more purely damned enjoyable.

          End of that pontification. (I absolutely despised this sort of shit from old farts when I was a young turk.)

          • “Many people have obsessions, but artists have the good fortune to pair obsessiveness with a talent, and thus make lemoncello out of the sourness of a personality lemon.”

            What a kick-ass sentence!

    • I thought I was a baby when I started at 15; you win, Nicole.

      I like marijuana, but haven’t been even close to any for more than 20 years, quitting partly because a couple of friends of mine went to prison for possession and that gave me a fright, and also because it took the edge of whatever is the obsessive drive that fuels my writing.

      (I am curious about the person lying disguised beneath the layers you reveal so methodically on your blog.)

  2. I drink every night to the point where if I fail to concentrate, I wobble. Hardly ever any more than that. One quickly huffed breath or the little one rattling awake and the wobble evaporates. Those late evenings after the family has gone to bed and I’m alone in the creaking house having finished the day’s writing I spend breathing as slow as I can.

    It’s a thing I enjoy. I never write my real work while I’m drinking. I’ll play. Perhaps I’ll rant or try some poetry. I’m not a beat writer. I never approach the page drunk because my prose suffers without control.

    I don’t have a great capacity to drink either, but that just means the Rum bottle lasts a little longer.

    • It may not be good for the booze budget, but otherwise there is much to be said in favor of capacity.

      I had much to say on this in the response to Court above, so I won’t repeat it here. But I will suggest that you give some consideration to the notion that endurance is a good thing.

      A few have yet to join us, so I’ll wait for them.

  3. Particularly Doug, who is nearest my age, and two of my favorite women: Rose and Tracey.

    Wouldn’t mind hearing from that secret reader coming from a law firm in Kansas City, either. And what about those two readers who make daily visits from India? Where are my Slovak friends?

    We’ll scoot over, there’s always room on the bench for a couple more.

  4. I started drinking and smoking for the same reason — being cool. The struggle to be cool is the starting point for much of life’s idiocies.

    Rose, are you editing Jack? I mean, is it finished but for the sparkling up? What are you going to do with it?

  5. High days and holidays, that’s me and even then my head’s spinning after one glass of sparkly wine. Ask Brad, he’s the poor bloke who’s had to put up with the inevitable email full of self pity and blah blah blah written around midnight my time. If I had any sense at all I wouldn’t press ‘send’ until midnight his time when he’s on his second or third glass of rum but there we are.
    I had my moments back in Uni’ and I’m glad I did if only to be able to say, ‘been there, done that,’ and I’ve no desire to re-visit or re-live them thank you very much. Mornings are my best time too, I appreciate them far more now I have children; there was a time when I didn’t realise there were two eight o’clocks in a day.
    Sometimes it is hard to get the cogs turning but honestly, time out from the kids and Jo-public is all it takes – and playing those little ‘Guess who I am? seduction games of course, they help enormously…:-)