Drinking, writing, and the morning after

Curing a hangover is simple: 1 part homemade sauerkraut soup + 1 part hair of the dog + 3 parts excessive sleep. What follows are some additional ingredients for we writers who tend to reach for writing implements while lubricating our brains with witch’s brew.

Today we talk booze and writing.

“Write drunk, edit sober”

This quote is thrown around quite a bit, from Ketchum to the Red Planet and everywhere in between, and while it does make for an easy har-har-we’re-drinkers passage to pass around–a flag under which the tipsy among us can gather–we have to ask ourselves why we idolize this wobbly approach to a craft that, at least in this writer’s opinion, makes for a far superior idol.

Why?

We throw this passage around, along with jokes and sentimental reflections on the topic of writing and drinking, yet behind it all (or perhaps at its core) are writers who drink (not to mention a large subset with drinking problems), many while practicing their craft. For a long time, I could be counted among them (still probably could, though I mix spirit and my creative acts far more infrequently now, even if I do require that my writing implement of choice–a Zebra F-301, for your reference–have a high tolerance for libations of the adult ilk).

It was a formative time, back when I still thought the Ernest Hemingway thing (are we still attributing “write drunk, edit sober” to Papa Hemingway?) was a truth to trump all writerly truths. Pith, more pith, and right up my alley. But later, after scores of rejection notices and the regret that comes with re-reading imprecise, gin-sodden stories, I realized that it was only because I happen(ed) to be a writer who lubricates their writing practice with alcohol that I idolized this approach, identified with the clever adages about drinking, writing, and editing that we so often encounter.

Do drinking and writing pair well?

I was emulating Hemingway and Thompson and other boozy writers, both in writing and lifestyle, all because I had picked up Sun Also Rises and For Whom The Bell Tolls in Bratislava, read and re-read them while I rode buses and trams, and fancied myself a kind of solitary expatriate wandering in and out of dimly lit bars in Eastern Europe, smoking cigarettes and drinking with the best of them, maybe writing some stories while I was at it. It is hardly something I recommend; along the way I experienced my fair share of gut-twisting hangovers, wrote my fair share of worthless, self-indulgent claptrap.

Since then, I continue to ask myself whether idolizing such “wisdom,” or living by it, isn’t a terrible idea.

A process impaired

Since devoting myself to the craft of writing, I have experienced plenty of rejection. Something tells me this will be true of any writer early in their career. Yet I wonder if my development was not further stunted by my indulgence of the “write drunk, edit sober” mantra. Looking back at my work from that period of time, I see that imprecision abounds. It seems that while writing under the influence–I do mean consuming alcohol as I perform the act of writing–I lose a certain command I would otherwise take for granted, an invisible infrastructure I depend on for confidence and dexterity on the page. The more inebriated I was during composition, the longer it took me to recover my command during sober revisions.

The result was a painfully inexact science. Over time I found that this kind of impaired prose, this imprecise process, was not conducive (at least in my case) to writing clear, fundamentally sound prose. A problematic conclusion, since I do want to get it right. I want to shine. I want to be precise and measured while drafting, because when I am really clicking, I know it will put me that much closer to a “complete” draft, one more worthy of an editor’s eyes.

Is it possible to write “clean as bone” under the influence of alcohol? I wonder. Maybe this is why the second half of the saying is what it is: edit sober, so that the mistakes, ramblings, and asides the drunken pen-holder perpetrated the night before might be easily identifiable and made right. But why waste the iteration? How many times have I awoke, took a draft written the night before in hand, and come to a place where I simply could not discern what the hell I was about? Sorting through slovenly handwriting, misguided and disorganized thoughts, slipshod structure–is this what I want my writing practice to resemble?

Moderation and distance

Years later, the role of alcohol in my writing process is far different, my relationship to it more complicated.

It would be ridiculous (read: hypocritical) for me to preach sobriety and abstinence. I will, however, say that I am most effective when I practice moderation. There is a difference between having a glass (or two) by your side as you dive into a manuscript and putting back three or five before, during, and after the act. Try that latter scenario. This craft is brutally honest and I promise that, if you take your work seriously, the first time you feel the imprecision creeping in with that next glass, whatever number it is, you will immediately wonder how many times you failed to notice it creeping in it all. Alcohol does that. It slips in and slips out unnoticed, often leaving a mess in its wake.

Maybe some form of abstinence is the answer. Write sober, edit sober, and get your kicks after the work is done. Moderation and distance. This reminds me of a rather insightful blog, written by Joe Ponepinto, about when he does his best writing. The answer? Sometimes he does the best writing when he is not actually writing.

The formative energies that awaken, are stimulated, begin to commingle when we experience interesting things while away from our desks, our creative spaces, can be the spark, fill, foundation, we need to inspire our writing practice, be it a short five-hundred-word session, or a daily novel-writing regimen. Perhaps this is alcohol’s place in a writer’s life (if it must be present). Those late-night, bleary-eyed experiences with friends and family, the ones that seem so dim, so blurry, so otherworldly. Those run-ins, flare-ups, and sentimental moments while alone with the moon. The nights spent staying up late, lights off, with your favorite record turned way up for all the neighbors–all the world–to hear. Singing, dancing, closing down the bar. Maybe we live those moments with the understanding that they might inform some creative drive, tic, or paroxysm that will manifest the next day, next week, and lead us to our desks.

Maybe, maybe not. It is difficult, after my experiences, to advocate for a concrete, unanimously-decided-upon place for drinking in a writer’s–or any person’s, for that matter–life. Still, some of us do drink, and some of us do enjoy it. Fine. To those people I raise my glass, remind them that writing inspired by booze and writing fueled by booze are two different things–that introducing alcohol into the creative space, that place where the actual work is  done, has proven risky.

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4 Comments

Filed under Readerly/Writerly, Writing

4 responses to “Drinking, writing, and the morning after

  1. Journeybooks

    I don’t drink while writing but I was nursing a whiskey sour while reading this. I do like to celebrate having written or getting published. My best writing is in the morning when I’m still close to my dreams.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Journeybooks

    I read this fascinating post while nursing a whiskey sour. I don’t write and drink but I do drink to celebrate having written or getting published or after a long day of editing. (:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lara C

    Always mind opening. Thank you Martin.

    Sent from my iPhone.

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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