Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Portrait of the writer as a drunken skunk (part two)

The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. - Roald Dahl

In part one we looked at some of the romantic notions attached to writing and drink. In this part we'll consider what drink actually does to you.

I suppose the question we want to focus on is: Where, if at all, does booze figure into the creative process? "I don't think alcohol leads to creativity but I think creativity leads to alcohol," write author Sally Sullivan in Writing Fiction and Poetry, "I think the pressures of writing, of being truthful with your life and very open, which is what writing demands, make people turn to something that will dull the pain of that." In Week 10 of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron she discusses the various blocks to creativity. One of them is, strangely enough, alcohol.

William Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice, didn't write under the influence of alcohol, but ''I did use it," he said, "often in conjunction with music, as a means to let my brain conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to.'' Larkin's alcohol dependence is no longer a secret but it wasn't an asset to him: ("I get up at 6 A.M. [to write]. It's the only time I'm not drunk," he wrote to Kingsley Amis). Amis was also a heavy drinker but he also didn't try to write while intoxicated. In later life he became a stickler for routine, finishing work promptly at twelve noon, when the first scotch was promptly downed, then to his club (the Garrick) for lunch, where he stayed drinking until five thirty, before leaving to be somewhere else for drinks at six. For Jack London before him drink was his reward for being a good boy. For a long time after he turned to writing, he refused to drink until he had done his thousand words a day. Soon he learned to get a "pleasant jingle," as he called it, after the thousand words were on paper but before lunch. (This is quite typical behaviour amongst writer-drinkers). Then he acquired another "jingle" before dinner. "It was the old proposition," he writes. "The more I drank, the more I was compelled to drink in order to get an effect."

Writers as distant as Fitzgerald and Stephen King are quoted by Goodwin in support of alcohol's ability to enhance creativity. O Henry boasted: "Combining a little orange juice with a little scotch, the author drinks the health of all magazine editors, sharpens his pencil and begins to write. When the oranges are empty and the flask is dry, a saleable piece of fiction is ready for mailing." Almost from the start Hart Crane used alcohol and music to induce a state of creative excitement.

But this is neither a twentieth century nor a particularly American phenomenon. The fifth century Greek poet Cratinus, famed for his intemperance, once declared, "No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by water drinkers." Legend has it that he died of grief upon seeing a full cask of wine break into pieces. In fact the notion of alcohol as a source of inspiration can be traced back to the Greek:

Christopher Hitchens, an empirical student of the matter, says the connection is "oblique," but he observes that the "word 'spirit' preserves the initial intuition of the 'inspired' that was detected by the Greeks." – Los Angeles Times

In 1714, Alexander Pope spoke of being "prepared by drinking to speak truth." Keats, in an 1819 letter, described how "ethereal" claret "mounts into the brain" and makes one "a Hermes," god of, among other things, eloquence. Tennyson, according to his friend James Knowles' 1893 reminiscence, would "look upon his bottle of port as a sort of counsellor." When the poet received the letter offering him the poet laureateship of Britain, he brooded inconclusively until finally composing two letters – one accepting and one declining – placing them on his table and resolving to decide which to send after finishing his bottle of port. He accepted.

It is to the early Romantic movement that we owe the curious suggestion that intoxicated states might provide a literal means of communicating with the creative spirit within ourselves. The effects of opium, whether smoked or swallowed in tinctured form as laudanum, couldn't just be entertaining in themselves. They were pressed into service as a kind of creative sacrament, a means of usefully distinguishing one's own noble endeavours from those mill-workers getting hammered at the end of the eternal working week. – Stuart Walton, The Guardian

This idea got its second wind in the 1960s. Opium and laudanum were no longer the drugs of choice but good ol' alcohol was still hanging on in there.

A recent study compared the performance of three groups on a creative task. One group was given alcohol. Another group was given tonic water. A third group was led to believe they had been given alcohol – but had not. Apparently, the best performing group consisted of those who wrongly believed they had been given alcohol. Perhaps this led to less inhibited thinking without the actual negative effects of real alcohol. In the same way it is possible to speculate that belief and confidence in one's own creative skill may actually increase that skill. – Creative People: Are we as creative as we'd like to think we are?

The chemical alcohol may have nothing to do with increasing creativity but the belief that it can might. That pretty much reduces it to the level of a lucky rabbit's foot.

Studies of the effects of alcohol use on creativity have had mixed results, which may be a function of cultural differences as well as the difficulty of developing adequate research paradigms for this complex phenomenon. Alcohol may facilitate the incubation phase of creativity but obstruct intellectual processing, may help inhibited subjects, can reduce writer's block, and can be used for self-stimulation. In two well-designed experimental studies, Lang, Verret and Watt (1984) found that alcohol consumption did not actually affect creative performance (although subjects who had drunk judged their work more favourably), and Lapp et al. found that drinking had a substantial placebo effect on creativity, but no pharmacological effect. – Alcohol and Pleasure: A Health Perspective

The South African writer Athol Fugard, who has acknowledged that alcohol has had a strong influence in his life, is referenced in the following excerpt:

The alcoholic's theory of power is, Fugard suggests, a theory of self-deception. By claiming that alcohol fuels creativity, the drinker perpetuates the relationship construed between himself or herself, alcohol, drinking, and the act of writing. The drinker reaches for power in the world through written words, yet is dependent on alcohol for that power. Hence power is based, Fugard suggests, on a myth, a romantic notion that the power to think creatively can be given through alcohol. In this case cause is confused for effect, the writer thinking that the cause of creativity is alcohol, when, in fact, alcohol is both the cause and the effect of the chain of thought when he or she drinks and attempts to write. – The Alcoholic Society: Addiction and Recovery of the Self

For some writers alcohol though was a refuge, a safe place to crawl into once the writing was done or when they found they couldn't write. Malcolm Lowry whose intake was nothing less than gargantuan, "drank in order to avoid writing, sobered up in order to write, then drank in order to avoid writing."

This brings us to the third point on Goodwin's list. The hours may be good but they're lonely hours. For a lot of authors the drinking has nothing to do with the fact that they're writers per se rather the fact that they work in a job where they spend a lot of time in their own company. Is the image of the writer sitting all alone (Beckett's Krapp leaps to mind) realistic? For some, of course. The fact is that a great many writers were actually social drinkers. Writers gathering together dates back to – surprise, surprise – Greek times and the Platonic symposia that went on back then. These were essentially drinking parties that featured the work of one of their members where they would highlight their work. Is it any wonder that the poetry readings of today so often take place on licensed premises?

Examples of writers congregating around a bottle are: Hugh McDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Norman MacCaig in the Rose Street pubs of Edinburgh (I've been drunk there); Dorothy Parker and the wits of the Algonquin Round Table in New York; and Flann O'Brien and Patrick Kavanagh in the drinking dens of Dublin. The post-war Soho scene in London encompassed the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde - all artists, just to show that excessive drinking is not the exclusive province of writers (as if you needed that point hammered home).

Okay, enough waffle. What's the bottom line? Stuart Walton in his Guardian article had this to say about all the science stuff:

Any attempt to convince ourselves today that drinking might be conducive to writing is, however, self-delusion. We now know that, like many other intoxicants, alcohol has an initial stimulant effect on the key neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which contribute to the familiar feeling of well-being that the evening's first drink delivers. It also acts on a neurotransmitter known, sweetly enough, as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is an inhibitory agent found throughout the brain. GABA plays an important role in the memory function, which includes assisting the brain to discard the material it doesn't need to retain. Alcohol's stimulation of the GABA receptors enhances the inhibitory action of this chemical, which is why it becomes harder to remember your PIN number, your colleague's name, and finally your own address, during a particularly determined session.

Other cognitive functions will degrade along with memory under the influence of alcohol, so it is hard to believe that any writer is going to be at the top of his or her game while drinking. Of course, it depends what kind of writing you are aiming at. A stream of fragmentary consciousness might emerge, but the world has, perhaps, had enough of those now, and publishers won't buy them. If you're working on a cultural history of aristocratic dress in the Second Empire, forget it.

The question arises as to whether other less cognitively debilitating intoxicants than alcohol might aid the writer's task. Cocaine, perhaps, won't reduce you to the horizontal Malcolm Lowry position, but it hardly facilitates thought processes. What it does instead is call attention to itself, which is after all why it seems like a good idea in the first place. But you won't find yourself focusing more intensely on those Second Empire crinolines while your central nervous system is under stimulant attack. It frankly can't be bothered with such mundanities.

When all is said and done, writing is, to those professionally engaged in it, a form of work. And if you expect to be able to lubricate the process with Shiraz, the truth is that you aren't really taking either the writing itself, not to mention the possible dysfunctional drinking, seriously.

Had he been alive, this may well have been Kingsely Amis's response:

Alcohol science is full of crap. It will tell you, for instance, that drink does not really warm you up, it only makes you feel warm—oh, I see; and it will go on about alcohol being not a stimulant but a depressant, which turns out to mean that it depresses qualities like shyness and self-criticism, and so makes you behave as if you had been stimulated—thanks. In the same style, the said science will maintain that alcohol does not really fatten you, it only sets in train a process at the end of which you weigh more. Nevertheless, strong drink does, more than anything else taken by mouth, apart from stuff like cement, cram on the poundage. – Kingsley Amis (quoted in Take a Dipso like You by Alexander Waugh)

An experiment was carried out in 2004 which you can read about here. A challenge was issued to attempt to write under the influence and post the results. There weren't many takers but what did end up on-line is of interest. Here's part of the last participant's entry which I'll leave you with as a final thought:

Ultimately I found that alcohol swamps creativity. Towards the end of the exercise it was seriously impeding my ability to have linear thoughts. I stared at the title of the last essay for ten minutes, without a single idea in my head.

It also had a catastrophic effect on my motor skills. I was typing entries into MS WORD. Practically every sentence was heavily underscored in red. Had I been writing in longhand, or without the aid of a spellchecker, the results would have been near indecipherable.

With reflection I think the one positive effect that alcohol had on me, was that it made me write like I didn’t give a fuck about the end result.


Tam said...

Great post as always Jim.

I was inspired to try a little writing under the influence last night.

Unlike the man in your last example, I was using longhand and not the P.C.

I've been pretty busy this morning trying to decipher it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I usually have that problem when I've been writing on a bus, Tam but let's hope the exercise bears fruit.

No Answers said...

As an undergraduate I founded the little-known "Romantics Society", which demanded, for reasons never made entirely appparent: (1) much quaffing of whisky and beer; (2) ritual cigar smoking, (3) the composition of "inebriate poetry", and -- most memorably -- (4) drunken, high-speed bicycle rides around Oxford by moonlight.

I can't speak for the literary merits of our "inebriate poetry" (3), but I *can* quote verbatim one memorable stanza of the same:

"Old John Smith had his head opened up,
Little Clockwork Orange dwelling inside.
Aidan, you drop out:
I'll get it, you know,
Even at the party."

Then again, perhaps the *true* literary merit of these cryptic lines only becomes clear when one is sufficiently intoxicated ...?!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, No Answers, for the comment. I was never a member of a society as such but in my early twenties my best friend and I would get together periodically to enjoy my lethal homebrew, smoke cigars till the air was so blue we had to crawl around on our knees under it, and write songs with exceedingly questionable lyrics none of which I'd care to remember. No cycling however – far to energetic.

I'm afraid I'm far too sober at the moment to appreciate your poem though.

Sorlil said...

Writing poetry is bloody hard work, I can't imagine trying it under the influence! Mind you I'm going through a blank period at the moment so maybe I ought to try it as a kick-start to writing!

Ken Armstrong said...

That last sentence in the post really makes drinking and writing sound like an attractive proposition.

I found that writing in the very early morning tended to produce the sort of stuff that I thought 'drunk writing' might. Something of the dream-state seemed to remain so the 'careless-bullshit' level was high.

Finally, this post reminds me of Jeffrey Barnard who (when trapped in the countryside for a time) sent himself a letter from town every day and, when the postman arrived in his van to deliver it the next morning, cagey old Jeffrey would cadge a lift back into the pub in town with him.

Dave King said...

I think you were closest to the truth when you suggested that the group in the study receiving water but thinking it to be alcoholic were probably relieved of some inhibition without suffering the negative effects of alcohol. I have at times tried (not very seriously) to write with a wee dram or two inside me. I have found that its effect on writing is similar to its effect on driving: it leads you to think that you are doing great. The truth tends to dawn on you next morning.

drodbar said...

Another interesting, well-research and well-balanced essay. I admire your refusal to be either facetious or judgmental.

Alcohol does destroy a lot of lives. To put a message out that drinkers are in some way impressive is thoughtless. Alcohol can help individuals overcome various inhibitions, but there's nothing superior about having those inhibitions in the first place. I find people who are drunk in public pathetic; people who explore the drunken state thoughtfully in private are quite different - writing is perhaps one of the best activities for a drunk.

In my experience, alcohol is far less stimulating to the imagination and sensitivity - and far less euphoric - than psychedelics.

And if there's one writer I can't stand it's Kingsley Amis.

No Answers said...

Ken, I agree completely -- writing early in the morning, particularly when half-awake, can work very well, though it does often enough ruin the rest of the day, plus you have to write with very little light -- as much dimness as possible -- and only one eye open.

I've had very few genuine moments of inspiration, but several times I've found rare red meat and not too much red wine seem to have a good effect together. In fact, I even made myself up a tincture of crushed, raw steak and Hiram Walker when I was in Toronto; the whisky certainly preserves the steak, but you still need a powerful external stimulus to provoke lucid dreaming and real inspiration -- a new place and an encounter with charismatic strangers, plus a premature bedtime have most memorably been mine. But this isn't something that one can really deliberate.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorlil, you are absolutely right, you need your wits about you when you're trying to get those words to words to cooperate. And there are plenty of ways to kick start your writing without resorting to drink. One of the most effective ways I've found is 'firsties' – get someone to give you a first line and write a poem starting with it.

Ken, love the Jeffrey Barnard quote. Did you ever see Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell? with Peter O'Toole? I wish the BBC would show more plays like that. I don't get why they don't because where's the cost? Send an outside unit, set up a couple of cameras and that's about it. And it would be publicity for the theatre. A win-win I would have thought.

Dave, I'm not sure that any writer worth his salt wouldn't try and write when intoxicated just for the experience but to make drink a part of ones writer's regime is another thing. I still see the main place for drink in a writer's life is when they're not writing. Whether writing exacerbates the desire to drink seems to depend on the individual.

Drodbar, I'm with you. Having regularly been the only sober person in a crowd I've had plenty of opportunities to watch and learn. Drink is a major part of Scottish culture so I've always seen drunks in the street – no one bats an eye – but there is nothing glamorous about it. It's the old joke: "I had a great time last night – can't remember a thing."

And, No Answers, never tried the early morning writing gig but I've done a lot of writing in the early hours – I'll wake up a two or three, write for an hour or two and go back to bed. The problem with that it you can't exactly plan around it.

Conda V. Douglas said...

An intriguing post, Jim and I agree with drodbar--you did an excellent job of presenting facts and opinions that was well-balanced.

Hemingway, by the way, also didn't drink while writing, and unlike Jack London, he didn't drink until the final page was written.

I also agree with Dave in that I think the alcohol releases the angst of continually editing yourself--but that's not necessarily a good thing.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Fascinating post. It answers why I have never found having a few sniftas conducive to serious writing. Just no holds barred stream of consciousness stuff, which as we all know, loses its appeal after a very short while... despite building up wordcount remarkably well.(!)

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Vanessa, but there's a real difference between word count and words that count.

Roberta S said...

A fascinating post, jim. It uncomfortably makes me ask questions about my own endeavors to be creative. I'd elaborate more if I was stewed but I'm not so that's where that comment ends.
And so now moving on to drunken rants. Like sober conversations with a drunk, they can be a trial to read. Silly and disconnected. But at the same time they say, the real 'underlying truth of men's souls come out in drunken conversations.' And I'm all for truth. Can't help thinking sometimes that politicians should give campaign speeches when drunk. The recklessness of that condition would tell us for certain where they were coming from. Of course the audience would just say they were making 'an ass' of themselves, but that may be because we are a society that prefer gracious pretense more than cutting truth.

This was a really fascinating post, jim. A lot of worthwhile stuff to ponder.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Well, I believe you about your writing about alcohol influence, but did you have to review it when you got back to sobriety?
Did you all make sense?
And hadn't your pen skidded away from time to time?
These would be my problems.
Best wishes, Davide

Jim Murdoch said...

Roberta, there is an argument that suggests that a drunk man never lies. I suppose that might be the case for some but I've certainly and knowingly told lies when drunk. Or maybe I wasn't drunk enough. Maybe that's the point.

shug said...

Jim- for those of us who struggle to create anything at all, your blog is a source of wonder.

I like to think that I can write under the influence but it's usually gibberish. Mind you it's usually gibberish when I'm not under the influence. I think in Scotland it was a cultural thing the link between booze and male poets, and very dated, now. I'm part of a dying breed.

Thanks for the thought provoking piece.

PS It was Horace who wrote about the water drinkers (unless he stole the line when he was steaming).

Jim Murdoch said...

You're right, Shug, Scotland has such an alcoholcentric society that drink is a difficult think to avoid (even if you're not a poet) and, if you do, then it's easy to get a name for yourself. It's so much easier to join in and be one of the boys. None of my family were alcoholics as such but drink caused us much grief. As a kid I did what was expected and tried to join in but I have an incredibly low tolerance that it's best to avoid it, also, as a depressive, it's the last think I need in my system.

And we're both right about the water quote. It comes from Horace's First Book of Epistles at the start of Epistle XIX which begins: "O learned Maecenas, if you believe old Cratinus, no verses which are written by water-drinkers can please, or be long-lived."

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