The Chinese say that the liver is the source of anger. Alcoholics and addicts medicate their anger. – Gil Grissom, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation , Season 4
The following films all contain characters who are writers.
The Lost Weekend (1945); Bell, Book and Candle (1958); The Prize (1963); Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972); Death on the Nile (1978); The Fourth Man (1983); Barfly (1987); London Suite (1996); 28 Days (2000); Chelsea Walls (2002); My House in Umbria (2003); Secret Window (2004) and Puritan (2005).
Question: What do they all have in common?
Answer: Every single one of them has, to a greater or lesser extent, a drink problem.
Reality is similarly inhabited by writers who are overly fond of the drink: Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Hugh McDiarmid, Dorothy Parker, F Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Larkin, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Edgar Allen Poe, Marguerite Duras, Theodore Roethke, Herman Melville, Kingsley Amis, Georges Simenon, William Faulkner … the list seemingly goes on and on.
Of course not all were out-and-out alcoholics but the stereotype of the writer with a pen in one hand and a glass in the other doesn't seem to want to go away. Alcohol is a gifted chemical. Depending on how much is consumed, it can act as a food, a drug or a poison. Don't you think there's something quite poetic about that?
I bought a book a dozen years ago called Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. It's a textbook essentially and quite a comprehensive one at that. In it are photographs of the various authors and I was taken aback by how many writers I knew but had no idea (and surprisingly little interest in) what they actually looked like. Salinger was an obvious one since he doesn't allow his photograph to be used on any of his books, not that he's very inspiring looking; at least he wasn't when he was a young man. No doubt his face will have picked up a bit of character over the years. I tried to imagine my photo in the book but couldn't quite picture me there. I mean, what is an author supposed to look like? Or be like, come to think of it. I knew that I was a writer – there was evidence to back up that that I couldn't really argue with – but maybe I still wasn't doing it right. For starters I didn't drink. Maybe I'd be a better writer if I did.
I wasn't brought up in an environment where drink was the norm. Occasionally a bottle of Martini would appear at the end of the working week. My dad would let me taste it. It was awful. I couldn't comprehend how they could sit there and sup the stuff. During my plooky youth I did my fair share of experimenting, went through phases of drinking gin, vodka, cider and lager (never very fond of beer and hated whiskey) and subsequently had my fair share of hangovers. It never felt normal though, not me. I didn't really like the stuff. I drank mainly to fit in but after a few years I learned how to fit in and just sip soft drinks. I've never written under the influence since I was in my late teens and it's not a subject I'm drawn to. So, am I not a real writer then?
Well, just as there are writers with a predilection for drinking there are also those who do not imbibe, at least not to excess. The list includes Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Mary McCarthy, Upton Sinclair, Emily Dickinson, Henry Thoreau, Zane Gray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saul Bellow, William Golding, Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, James Michener, Lillian Hellman, Tom Wolfe and Flannery O'Connor.
And yet the romantic notion of the writer persists. Take these two verses from the Scottish singer-songwriter, Fish (Derrick Dick to his parents):
Many’s the time I've been thinking about changing my ways
But when it gets right down to it it's the same drunken haze
I'm serving a sentence to write life's sentences
It's only when I'm out of it I make sense of this
Just a revolutionary with a pseudonym
Just a bar-room dancer on my final fling
Just another writer paying off my dues
Just finding inspiration, well that's my excuse
Marillion – 'Just For the Record' (Clutching at Straws)
Fish's personal struggle with drink is, of course, quite well documented and not simply because he's a Scot though it has to be said that we Scots as a nation do love to bevvy. You can hear the track here. Well worth a listen.
Myths do not arise de novo, or to put that in plain English, there's no smoke without fire. Maybe there is something to this booze lark.
I found this quote on MySpace:
....my dream of becoming a neurotic writer with a drink problem and no semblance of a real job is coming true! – Rebecca, London
She could be joking – there was very little context to help me decide – but one wonders how much truth there might be behind her statement even if it was being sold to the world as a joke?
In her candid best-selling memoir Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp admits she was attracted to alcohol because her literary heroes all seemed to drink to excess; they were dark and tortured souls, who had to imbibe in order to deal with this vale of tears. This was a woman who spent a day in a wheelchair to document how difficult it was for those with handicaps to navigate public transportation. Fittingly, it was literature that saved her, after twenty years she found inspiration in Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life and sobered up. Charles Deemer in his on-line account, Liquor And Lit, cites similar inspiration:
The hard-drinking American writer was a figure of mythic proportions, and by the time I graduated from UCLA I was eager to join his ranks.
This is one of three causes listed by Donald W. Goodwin in his book in Alcohol and the Writer, that It is expected. The other two are: The hours are good and Writers need inspiration.
If there was a direct correlation between alcohol and writing then all creative writing classes would begin with an introduction to the bottle, "Take x no of glasses of y and then begin to write. Continue to quaff at regular intervals whilst writing is in progress." But it's never that simple.
One of the facts cited by Tom Dardis in his book The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer is that, of the seven American Nobel laureates in literature, four of them – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway – were clearly alcoholic, and a fifth, John Steinbeck, was probably alcoholic. (You can listen to an interview with him here). Yes, it's a fact but is it a significant fact? Fifteen million Americans a year are plagued with alcoholism. Five million of them are women. There are another couple of facts. Dardis points out that similar statistics do not hold true for European writers, suggesting the affiliation between writers and alcohol is a peculiarly American phenomenon (and perhaps one that happened at a certain time as well).
Over to our roving reported Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian-born writer:
I did not become truly alcoholic with an alcoholic consciousness except in America.
I'm speaking of a particular, almost permanent state, in which one is dominated by alcohol, whether during the hours one is drinking or during the hours when one is impatiently waiting to drink, almost as painfully as a drug addict waits for his injection.
If one has never known this experience, it is difficult to understand American life. Not that everyone drinks, in the sense in which my mother used the word, but because it is part of private and public life, of folklore, you might say, as is proved by the large, more or less untranslatable vocabulary, most often in slang, that relates to drink. – Simenon – Leaning to Drink American Style
Simenon says that for twenty years in France he drank without remorse, without seeing anything wrong with it. "In the United States I learned shame. For they are ashamed. Everyone is ashamed. I was ashamed like the rest." He notes a peculiar difference between Americans and the French: "Americans must experience what they write about. French writers work within a tradition." Goodwin also states in his book, presumably paraphrasing Simenon, although this isn't clear: "The American alcoholic stereotype has two choices – abstain or go on a bender. The French alcoholic stereotype does not go on benders, but cannot abstain." Simenon believed that alcohol would kill him but that he could not write without it. It turned out he could. In neither quantity nor quality did his work suffer from abstinence. If alcohol was his muse, it was a dispensable muse.
We'll leave it there today. In the next part we'll look at the actual effects of alcohol on the system and how different writers have used it to aid them in the writing process or to help them recover from it.