July 7, 2011

Writers who Drink, or, Drinkers Who Write

In a video clip I dug out of YouTube recently and linked to our tumblr page, Truman Capote argues with Groucho Marx over whether certain writers – Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, Sinclair Lewis – drank heavily when they wrote their books. Capote insists that although many writers have been drunks, none of them wrote when drunk because it was impossible; writing requires too much concentration. It is a significant statement for Capote, himself famous for both writing and drinking, to make – though he does concede that after a long bout of writing, it can be helpful to have a drink and loosen one’s mind a little, at which point things previously obscure can be rendered clear.

I, for one, am divided on the question of whether one can write while drinking. Actually, that’s not true. One surely can drink while writing; I’ve done it, and I suspect that some of my friends have, too. But you couldn’t write In Cold Blood in a stupor, and even text messages give people trouble when they’ve sat long enough at bars.  You can write while drinking, but you can’t do it very well – just like everything else, except perhaps speaking at unnecessarily high volumes and throwing up.

A book about drunk writers

What interests me about the question of whether writers can write when drinking is what the question itself reveals about how we like to think of the authors who are important to us. Groucho insists that Ring Lardner was a drunk, and seems to relish the opportunity to tell the story of how he would lock himself in a hotel room with two quarts of whiskey and begin his drinking and simultaneous writing. Whether it’s true is immaterial; it’s an essential part of how he wants to see him.

As it happens, I didn’t have to go far (just to Dark Sky Magazine) to find a quote from Lardner himself on this subject:  “No one, ever, wrote anything as well even after one drink as he would have done without it.”

It's tobacco.

This obsession with the drinking lives of famous authors goes far beyond that middle-school impulse to attribute any weirdness in literature to the intoxication of its author. And it’s nothing new; that Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was a literary sensation upon its release indicates that the mystique surrounding the intoxicated writer has been there for at least two centuries, probably much longer.

I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for it myself. When Life ran its slideshow of writers who were notorious for drinking and taking drugs, I looked at every slide – a rare thing for me, as I find that most online slideshows are poorly disguised platforms for advertising. I wanted to know what substances were making their way into the bodies of people like William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker – though, quite revealingly, I already knew what at least one of those was for both of them.

When I reached the slide that bears the caption, “James Baldwin (1924 – 1987): Alcohol,” even despite the lengthy, adulating description that follows it, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole exercise was a little obscene – or at least that it trivialized something that perhaps should not be trivialized.  Is this, I thought, what the author of Notes of a Native Son should be noted for, ever? The photo only participates: there is Baldwin, looking passionately out of the frame, with an empty cup of coffee and an empty glass of something else in front of him. It is a wonderful photo, but I wonder how much it would lose without that empty glass and what its presence implies.

Baldwin was a drinker. What is the big deal? Paul Simon mentions drinking in several of his songs, but as far as I know it is not an important aspect of his public persona.

(Incidentally, there is a passage somewhere in Baldwin’s essays where he mentions having tried to write while using marijuana. If I had more time I could find it and quote it, but a paraphrase will have to do: he writes that at the time he was high and writing, he knew that what he was putting down was his most brilliant work ever; in the morning, he reread his work and tore it to pieces, it was so awful.)

Writers aren’t the only ones who have reputations for drinking, but the image of a man holding an Old Fashioned in one hand and a scalpel in the other does not have the same appeal as that of a man in a suit holding a glass of whiskey and looking with consternation at his typewriter.

I really admire Capote for standing up on behalf of Ring Lardner and all of the other drinking writers of the world. A writer can indeed be a drinker, but it doesn’t mean he’ll combine the two activities any more than the forklift operator will swill whiskey when he is on the job (though some few surely do). Perhaps we like to picture a writer drinking away while he works because of the faulty notion that his is not an activity vastly more hazardous than that of the one who pilots heavy machines.

Robert Long Foreman is the Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

About robertlongforeman

The Missouri Review's Social Media Editor, Robert Long Foreman's work has appeared in journals that include the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Pleiades, among others. His essays were listed in the Notable Essays of Best American Essays 2008 and 2010.

2 Responses to Writers who Drink, or, Drinkers Who Write

  1. Jason says:

    I’ve been mulling over a similar post about writing and drinking that I haven’t got around to writing yet, but my thoughts in a nutshell on why some writers will take to drinking are these:

    1. Alcohol can help you loosen up and drop the self-consciousness that might keep someone from writing because oftentimes, the hardest part of writing is just getting yourself to sit down and start. I’ve always joked that I do my best writing between 1-3 drinks and when I hit four I have to stop or everything on the page is useless. I’m not so sure that every idea you put on the page would have been better without drinking because we’re not differentiating here between consuming those first few drinks during which you’re getting lose but still cogent and coherent and the later point where you’re actually drunk and bad ideas seem like good ones. Now, having said this, I think there’s an inherent danger in romanticizing alcoholism in writers and thinking that’s the way to do it. I’ve never had any inspiration come to me because of substances I’ve imbibed.

    2. Another reason writers may drink is the same reason writers drink coffee and smoke cigarettes: you have to sit in one place for a long time and for a lot of that time, you’re not doing anything but thinking, so one needs an activity to keep oneself glued to that spot long enough to get something down on the page. Quite honestly, just sitting there with your hands folded staring at the screen and reading the last line you wrote over and over can be excruciating, but if you’re sipping your coffee or smoking or having a glass of wine, you have something to keep you physically occupied while you’re brain is trying to do its thing.

    3. Rejection and loneliness suck, and they’re both a huge part of the writing life. I know there have been quite a few times where I’ve thought a story was perfect for a magazine and it got passed on, and even though I understand that this is just how it works in the industry and I shouldn’t take it personal, rejection always stings a bit. Most of my friends aren’t writers, my finacee isn’t a writer, so even if they express sympathy or say try again, they haven’t experience what I’m going through. On occasion, after a rejection that stinks, I’ve been known to take a drink and usually after about 2, I’m think, “Well, that was just one magazine out of how many…?”

    Now, I’ll admit, these aren’t particularly great reasons to drink, but I’m not commenting to provide justification for the practice so much as I think the above does give a little insight into how a writer may incorporate alcohol into the practice of writing. And if I misspelled anything or there are any glaring typos here, you’ll have to excuse me. I just got home from happy hour.

  2. @Jason: You’re absolutely right – thank you so much for adding your thoughts. I think the reason I like Capote’s condemnation of drinking while writing so much is that it insists that writing is hard work, something you can’t do while writing – when in fact it’s much greyer than that, for all the reasons you’ve cited.

    Incidentally, I’ve often wished I had a habit like cigarette smoking – something new that I could do while sitting down, which as you point out writing requires. But smoking is bad for you.