It’s a well-documented fact that many revered authors were drinkers. Not teetotalers, but hardcore, slam-them-back, liver abusers. And aside from the moderation argument, is there anything outwardly wrong with that? The love of libation is not reserved for the creative elite, far from it, but the fascination with prominent figures, especially their quirks and idiosyncrasies, accentuates their vices, and often defines them.
The list of authors who drank reads like a who’s who of the literary world. As far back as Absinthe or ‘green fairy’ drinkers like Oscar Wilde, to more recent day spirituous writers like Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Chandler, and Hemingway to name a few, all indulged. In common they were masters of their craft, lovers of the drink. But did they also share a mutual belief in the inspirational power of the cocktail?
Let’s first consider a few select quotes from the masters themselves, perhaps revealing a glimmer of insight into the world of the sobriety-challenged author:
“As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind.” Jack Kerouac
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
“There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others. But a man shouldn’t fool with booze until he’s fifty; then he’s a damn fool if he doesn’t.” William Faulkner
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.” Dorothy Parker
And we’ll look at Ernest Hemingway a little more closely. Hemingway, also a chaser of the green fairy, spoke often of his romance with the bottle.
“A man does not exist until he is drunk.”
“An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.”
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
Not a denial in the group.
Which begs the question, does booze bring on the muse?
Hemingway, Chandler and Wilde were convinced drinking helped their writing. Not to say that they necessarily wrote while under the influence. Other authors were less committal on the correlation between alcohol and the muse. Modern psychology suggests alcohol, like drugs, does not elicit unique insight or heightened perceptual awareness, nor does it provide a Red Bull-like jolt of creativity. Instead, it’s highly touted that writers, like other creative artists, abuse alcohol as a form of self-medication, a way to manage anxiety, stress, or depression. Some suggest that writers, being solitary creators, use alcohol to quell their persistent self-criticism, the ever looming fear that their readers will unravel the truth and expose them as untalented frauds. Hard to believe the likes of the aforementioned ever thought this way, but the theory holds merit.
Debate aside, all agree that alcohol takes a significant human toll in the end. Hemingway, who once claimed he drank a quart of whiskey a day, committed suicide at the age of 61, after a long bout of depression. And he was one of the older survivors.
I keep a book on my shelf, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft’, that touches on the author’s personal battle with addiction. Stephen King is forthright and blunt, summing things up in the following quote:
“At the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all…I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”
One particularly memorable excerpt from the book recounts the moment King realized he was in trouble. While taking out the recycling one morning, on an otherwise uneventful day, King stopped and looked at the number of empty beer cans he’d accumulated. It was then he realized – “Jesus, I’m an alcoholic”.
It became a turning point in his life. Even though King, for the most part, wrote successfully throughout his dark times, for him, there was no power in positive drinking.
Perhaps the jury is still out on booze and the muse.
I enjoy libations, primarily on weekends. With certainty, I can say that aside from the ‘one-off’ humdinger story concept, most ideas that pop into my head during my ‘altered state’ never pass the next morning’s sobriety test. Even when I’m able to decipher the scribblings made the evening before, I shake my head and wonder what the hell I was thinking. Seemed like a great idea at the time. But it always does. Like ordering merchandise online at 3 am.
On the positive side, drinking does tend to dull my internal editor – that loudmouthed sonofabitch that has nothing positive to say about my writing –ever. I’m a staunch critic of my own work, except when my internal editor is pickled and silent. I guess that’s one small positive. Ego 1, liver 0.
Authors write to escape reality, to create new worlds and experience new passions. Drinkers drink, often to achieve a similar result. One destination, two different paths. Combine them, and what results?
No one can be sure.
The majority of authors, successful or aspiring, do not rely on ‘altered states’ to create masterpieces. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – not required. They rely on their instinct, intellect, and more importantly, determination and hard work. Most, but not all. Some like the occasional cocktail or three.
Is there power in positive drinking?
You tell me.
Until next time.