Today an interesting article appeared on The Guardian’s website entitled “Why Do Writers Drink?”. Penned by Blake Morrison, the article discussed the relationship between alcohol and literature, examining the drinking habits – and, obviously, the writing habits – of some of the best loved authors of the past two centuries.
On reading the piece, I began to question what it was about the article I found interesting. At its heart is a generalisation, and one that I found troubling: writers, by definition, like to drink.
As with most generalisations, this is perhaps unfair, although history does record a long line of writers who looked for success in the bottom of a bottle, as well as a long line of drinkers who looked for a way out in the written word.
Morrison’s smart conclusion sheds some light on why this may be.
“Most [great authors] get there despite the drinking, not because of it,” he writes. "'Drank like a fish, wrote like an angel,' would make a pleasing epitaph. 'Drank like a fish, wrote like a fish' is more likely.”
Writing is an exercise in exposing oneself to the world. While writers are self indulgent in what they create, no one sets out to write a novel that no one is going to read, and as such they are preparing their souls for a thorough going over whenever they sit down to work.
This takes courage, not to mention temerity and fortitude. Human beings, as a species, have been known to turn to liquor in search of these qualities. This might explain the link, and why writers are susceptible to this kind of substance abuse, but to imply that it is unique to literature in any way is disingenuous.
In my own experience, drinking and writing in tandem has produced staggeringly variable results. I drink, very often I drink too much, but nowadays I ensure that my drinking and the mechanical process of actually putting pen to paper remain separate.
William Wordsworth wrote about poetry as taking its “origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I find that this is mirrored in the Hemingway quote that Morrison uses in his piece:
"What else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?" asks Ernest, presumably while pouring himself a straight.
When you’re drunk, ideas come pouring forth from you. Probably only one in every 100 will be of any use to you, but maybe – just maybe – one might be the key to unlocking that tricky part of your novel, or creating a satisfactory closing stanza for your poem. However, I can think of few worse states to be in when applying the necessary finesse to those raw ideas than blind drunk.
I found this out to my detriment in the early days of my writing. Reading back over poems and prose composed drunk in my late teens and early twenties is like being first on the scene of a car accident: terrifying, horrifying and instantly humbling. Mind you, so is reading most of the stuff I produced sober in those years.
I must admit that, like many young writers, I was seduced by the idea of Kerouac with his winesacks and his desolation angels, or of Fitzgerald and his Pernod in Parisian cafes. Fitzgerald died aged 44 of a heart attack, while Kerouac was 47 when he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. A relative of mine – also a writer, also seduced by that imagery – was around the same age when he died of a similar illness to Kerouac’s. This is not a sustainable way to be.
I’m not here to moralise. I like to drink, I like to write. Writing is all about experience, without experience you can’t write. Where you find that experience is up to you. Just try to be sober enough for it all to make sense when you write it down in the morning.