Opinion / 10 April 2019

Writing and Drinking

And Drinking and Writing

This isn’t the article I was going to write. I had another plan. My editor here at The Versopolis Review asked me if I’d like to write about writing and drinking and I thought, well I sure would – in fact, I’d like to write about writing and drinking while actually writing and drinking. It would be like a game. I’d take a fortifying shot of something, set down a paragraph and at the end of that paragraph I’d take another shot.

That would be round about now.

After that second drink, I’d plough on with paragraph two. And if paragraph two was as short as the second paragraph in this article, I’d already be buzzing on my third shot by now.

So, you can probably understand why my scheme started to fall apart.

I can’t hold much booze at the best of times – and if I had been knocking them back, and if I was - as I am now - already in par four (or is it five?), I’d be struggling.

Perhaps the drink would have inspired me? If I had taken those draughts there’s a vanishingly small chance that I’d have unlocked hitherto unknown reserves of wit and wisdom and I’d currently be blasting you with not just a stream of consciousness, but an entire waterfall of uninhibited genius.

But look. This is the seventh paragraph. I’d be having trouble seeing by this stage, let alone typing. I’d probably have given up long ago and done what I always want to do after getting my drink on and collapsed on the sofa to watch nonsense on the TV. The very opposite of creativity.

So, stupid idea. But even though my thinking was flawed, there’s no denying the allure of drinking and writing. ‘The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar,’ said the American writer John Cheever. And he wasn’t the first to have such notions. For better and for worse, alcohol has been linked with inspiration at least since the days when Ancient Athenians mixed strong wine and poetry recitations at their symposia and the Roman poet Horace declared ‘nunc est bibendum’ (‘now is the time to hit the good stuff’) wrote endless odes about the quality of his homegrown wine and its effectiveness as a loosener. ‘Once drunk, a cup of wine can bring 100 stanzas of poetry’, the Chinese poet Xiuxi Yinis said to haveclaimed in the third century AD. And on it has gone, throughout the eons. When Keats was looking for inspiration in the second verse of Ode To A Nightingale he cried:

O, for a draught of vintage …
O for a beaker full of the warm
Full of the true, the blushful
With beaded bubbles winking at the
And purple-stained mouth.

His contemporary Byron didn’t have to ask for it – he already had a good supply and told us so:

‘but I write this
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the

More recently, five of the seven Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature have also been alcoholics: Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. The latter said proudly: ‘I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach’.

It isn’t just men, either. Jean Rhys is said to have been given a pint of whisky every day by her local vicar, to help her finish The Wide Sargasso Sea. Not unlike Keats, the author of the Tom Ripley novels, Patricia Highsmith thought drink was essential to the artist because it made her ‘see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more’. Marguerite Duras, the author of The Sea Wall, told The New York Times in 1991, ‘I drank red wine to fall asleep. Afterwards, cognac in the night. Every hour a glass of wine and in the morning cognac after coffee, and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write’.

And so, we’re back to the original problem. Many writers may have been drunks – but writing while drunk is not quite the same thing. None other than Ernest Hemingway himself explained this basic fact. Papa might have loved a martini, but when a journalist asked him if he took a pitcher of them to sit beside his typewriter as he wrote, he replied:

‘Jesus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time’?

The jury’s out on Faulkner, but you can understand Hemingway’s broader point. Drink can open up the floodgates and overcome what Kingsley Amis (the author of booze-soaked classics like Lucky Jim) neatly described as‘displaced stage fright’. But it can also make you piss your pants, literally and metaphorically. Which brings us neatly to Philip Larkin, another bibulous poet. His friend Amis told a story about the time Larkin turned up drunk to a reading, realised he was caught short, thought, oh well, his woollen coat would conceal the mess. ‘He miscalculated’, said Amis, dryly.

And that in turn brings us to the seamier side of writing and drink. Of those Nobel winners, Faulkner was frequently hospitalised thanks to his alcoholism. Sinclair Lewis once asked, '’Can you name five American writers since Poe who did not die of alcoholism’?' before he himself died aged 65 as a direct result of his own addiction. Hemingway suffered from kidney and liver diseases, swollen ankles, diabetes, muscle cramps, insomnia and impotence thanks to his endless consumption. His friend F Scott Fitzgerald was also ruined by mother beer. ‘First you take a drink’, he explained, ‘then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you’.

Good job I abstained.