Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Gwendolyn McEwen, John Newlove, William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, the list is endless, the names legendary – writers who have succumbed to the siren call of the bottle. In this post-holiday season of guilt and mea culpa due to overindulgence, with following resolutions to henceforth live like a monk (resolutions that have already been broken), comes this month’s blog.
The subject begs the question. Why?
Some writers, undoubtedly, think the inebriate state frees the imagination, frees them from inhibitions, allows them to get at a deeper layer, elevates their creativity into some ethereal transcendent space – a way out of the mind, or conversely, a way in. The time I tried to seek inspiration by drinking while writing, I fell asleep face down on my computer keyboard and woke up to several pages of scrambled consonants that would put a Polish lexicon to shame.
Kingsley Amis who was a famous drinker himself had nothing but contempt for fellow writers who drank while they wrote, although he conceded that at the end of the day it might provide “that final bust of energy” as a means to achieve transcendence. It might also function like the proverbial carrot on a stick. The writer straddles the two different worlds of fantasy and reality and the chasm that exists between requires a huge leap or a huge carrot. Other professions operate in the real world doing meaningful stuff and interacting with real people. The writer sits for hours alone in a room bashing out a required number of words or pages about nothing.
The predilection for drink might reside in the nature of the beast. Writers are half demented creatures at best – hallucogenic, given to fantasies, people who have difficulty feeling at home in the real world. Why else would they chose a life of isolation, in a small room, tapping tapping away trying to give life to an illusion.
Or the nature of the enterprise may have something to do with the problem, if we view it as a problem. A scene in the movie Pollock, comes to mind. The artist drags himself into the kitchen in the morning, his wife hands him a cup of coffee as, with the downtrodden look of the boy trudging unwillingly to school, he further drags himself to his back garage where he constructs his enormous paintings. The artist’s job, unlike most jobs where the goal is material (sell that house, collect that garbage), demands facing a phantom, an aery nothing. One must spin something out of oneself to create the work subject.
Most writers have an opinion on the subject. Bukowski thought that poets drink because of shyness and introversion. Someone else mentions the terrifying anxiety involved in facing the blank page. Another talks about the writer as schizophrenic, trying to reconcile two worlds, having to deal with the outside world in general and in particular an outside world that does not understand what the writer is trying to say.
My own journey through the labyrinthe had nothing to do with any of the above. Early on I discerned that all the great writers were drunks. Ergo, to become a writer I had to become a drinker. (It didn’t cross my mind that maybe I should learn how to write. I’m not sure I even wanted to write. It was the writing life that appealed to me – freedom, adventure, excitement, and lovers galore.) Novels and movies taught me that the preferred drink of the serious sophisticated writer was scotch. With some trepidation, I was not yet at the legal age to do so, I marched into a government liquor store and bought the cheapest bottle of scotch I could find. At home, alone in my room, I poured myself a small amount in a water glass. I took a small sip. I gagged and just about threw up. Not to be defeated, I tried again. I’m here to tell you, I never got through that small amount in the glass, let alone the bottle.
Not to be defeated I turned to the pop-like drinks – pink ladies and singapore slings. I actually liked the taste of them. The problem was that no drinker worth her salt, let alone self-respecting, would be caught dead nursing one of those concoctions at the bar. In short, they did not advance my writing persona. Then I discovered the martini. Perfect. All the sophisticated people in books and movies who did not drink scotch drank martinis. While writing In Cold Blood Truman Capote had a double martini before lunch, another with lunch, and a stinger afterward.
The only problem was that I could drink only one before both the room and I became wobbly. Conclusion: the martini is not a drink to get you through the day or even an evening. I could never understand Myrna Loy and William Powell of Thin Man fame who drank pitchers of the stuff and could still wrestle down the murderers.
Personally, I’ve ended up with red wine and I’m so happy to learn that it’s good for me except, according to the charts, I don’t drink nearly enough of it to be of benefit. And so my new new year’s resolution – drink more rather than less.