Drinking and Writing and Drinking

A writer is an anxious creature. There is the little gnawing creature at the back of your head telling you the words you insist on putting to the page are not only incomprehensible and stupid, but boring. You’re a boring person. Then there are the rejections from literary magazines, short in length and long in an ability to crush confidence. Finally, there’s Duotrope, a web site that writers use to keep track of their submissions and to predict the arrival of the aforementioned soul-crushing rejection letters.

But then there is alcohol, which provides writers with self-assurance while simultaneously disappearing disappointing memories. In my opinion, the writer’s anxiety re:failure has directly lead to the writers-as-alcoholics stereotype. Seeing as AWP, where thousands of writers gather to drink and talk about writing, is this weekend, it is a fitting time to explore what various writers have said about booze.

The following quotes are all from Goodreads.

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
—Dorothy Parker

I don’t know much about Dorothy Parker, but, judging from that quote, she seems like she was a lot of fun. Because here’s the thing about hooking up with someone because you were drinking to forget about how you want to be a writer—it could become material for a great short story.

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” 

Sylvia Plath

Hardcore alcoholics, the type of people who maintain a near constant buzz, drink vodka. It’s odorless, clear, and pairs well with any other liquid. The amazing writer Sylvia Plath, who is unfortunately more famous for her mental instability than her syntax, nails the writer’s love-affair with drinking. It is both self-destructive (swallowing swords is not healthy) and confidence-boosting. We call this sort of relationship tragic.

“War and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.” 

William Faulkner

Well-played, Mr. Faulkner, well-played. Perhaps there is a direct proportional relationship between the amount of time the United States has been at war and the rise of microbreweries. If we can’t defeat the terrorists, we’ll out-drink them using our best home-grown American hops.

This might be apocryphal, but I heard a story about Hemingway driving to Faulkner’s house to tell Faulkner he had to drink less. If Hemingway is telling you to sober up, you’re in a bad, bad way.

“I drink because it’s the only time I can stand it.”

—Truman Capote

I love this quote because what is the “it”? Life? Writing? Love? All of the above?

There are a lot of great non-drinking writers, too, for example David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace. Also, no proof exists to show that the hard-drinking writers would have been worse off if they didn’t drink. It strikes me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry might have improved had she gotten sober.

Overall, I think we tend to romanticize the writer-as-drinker lifestyle. Writing, like anything difficult, is best done sober. And if you’re writing to uncover the hard truths about being human, imbibing a substance that’s greatest attribute is dulling life’s hard edges doesn’t seem like a solution.

 

–Sean Towey

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