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.