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

Monday, 2 June 2008

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

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: 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.


Book Calendar said...

The poet is especially susceptible to this kind of thing. Alcohol touches the soul in ways which are dramatic. One of my favorite writers, Charles Bukowski was deeply touched by drink. He wrote the script for the movie barfly and a lot of his poetry was about drinking, sex, and racehorses.

I don't find alcohol that attractive. I get a bit mean when I drink. What you might call pointed.

Ken Armstrong said...

I am the world's least-accomplished drinker, having only had my first tipple at the ripe old age of twenty-one.

As a result, drinking and writing on the same day isn't really an issue - I would probably have one bottle of Heineken then fall asleep on the way to the computer.

I do worry sometimes that so many of the great writers seemed to have addictions of one sort or another.

It's a chicken-and-egg thing - are they addictive as a by-product of their creativity or do they just write great stuff as a result of being hammered all the time?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Book Calendar, I'm like you, I rarely drink and I do so in moderation. When I was young and got drunk I was unbearable, all I'd want to do was trap someone in a corner and explain to them why Deep Purple is the greatest rock band in the world.

And Ken, you're Irish! I thought you got introduced to Guinness in your cribs. You're right about the chicken-and-egg thing and it's a point I make in the article, maybe in the next bit – I can't remember. I really can see how writing could drive one to drink, not for inspiration but as an escape.

Ani Smith said...

A subject close to my heart. I confess to having, at times, surrendered to the romanticism of a life of drunken writing. Just glancing at your list of writers who drink and those who don't, it's clear where my allegiance lies.

As ever, reality is far from fantasy. In truth, resposibilities, hangovers, and hunger keep my feet firmly planted and my hands off the bottle.

Whether that means my writing is better or worse, who can say? In my more despairing, self-loathing moments I do wonder, though...

Rachel Fox said...

I tend to think heavy drinking is something a person should grow out of. There is so much criticism of teenage drinking but really adult drinking is much worse...adults stand a chance of knowing better!
I drank quite a lot as a teenager and then also for a while after that. Mostly what you learn from drinking early is that the idea of drinking is fun but that after a while the reality of heavy drinking is pretty revolting (especially for other people around you).
As for writers and drinking...the romantic idea of a drunken writer makes me laugh. So they lie in their own waste and go on and on about the same old rubbish...Lots of people drink because life is too much to cope with and writers are not excused there. It's rubbish as a coping aid though...and learning that quickly is advisable too.
Are you going to do posts on (the other) drugs next?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Ani, I have tried to write when drunk. I've thought I was inspired but the drink tends to make everything look better than it is. I honestly don't think I have a single poem in my canon that I wrote under the influence but I have a few about drunks. I used to quite like being the designated driver but over the years I've found drunks as a subject more frightening than inspiring.

And Rachel, I agree with you totally. I can just imagine some guy about to be tossed out of a club fishing a tattered book of sonnets out of his back pocket:

"It's alright lads, I'm a poet."
"Good God, he's right. Sorry sir. Can we get you another drink on the house?"
"Make it a double."

And, no, I've not thought about doing one on the 'other' drugs. Maybe I'll come back to it some day.

Anonymous said...

Because I inherited my father's extraordinary capacity for heroic consumption without inebriation, I was denied the option of emulating my bibulous writer heroes. I have only been truly hogwhimpering two or three times in my life and that took prodigious time, effort and expense.

In contrast, I wrote reams when herbally or chemically enhanced. I have it all still in a file that I draw out for careful perusal whenever I start taking my compositional efforts a bit too seriously.

Samuel Beckett in his cups. Now, how would that have manifested itself?

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, both my brother and sister could hold their drink. I, on the other hand, can get drunk on wine gums. Rachel Fox wondered if I was going to discuss writers and drugs but I'm not sure I'm up to the challenge. Maybe you might want to post an entry on your site? Purely from a literary perspective you understand.

Tam said...

I wonder how the statistics measure up when you look at the distribution of alcoholics and drug addicts in other self employed professions.

A lot of poker players have struggled with abuse of some substance or another.

Perhaps it is simply oppurtunity that contributes to people succumbing to these afflictions. Not having to turn up at the office and report to the boss every day means you can do what we like.

Another piece of evidence to support this oppurtunity theory can be obtained from standing outside the DSS office. It would be difficult to argue that the schools of alcholism and junkiedom are not well represented among the ranks of the unemployed.


Do you have any idea what the ratio is of male alcoholic writers to female alcoholic writers?

As for me, it would never work. I fall asleep. :)

Carrie Berry said...

Hi, Tam. Just a quick interjection - I've known quite a few drinking writers who hold down full-time jobs, so opportunity isn't the only factor.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article Jim. I think that it also proves how futile would be to try to generalize anything. Things are far more complicated than they might look at the first glance, as Borges would probably put it.
I find interesting a case of Danilo Kis, a writer you may heard of. He was known for his bohemian style of life and love for the bar stools.
He was among the candidates for a Nobel, and only his death probably stopped him form gaining one.
But he said that only in the state of the complete soberness and lucidity he writes, not being ever able to produce a single line while drunk. This again does not proves anything but I find it interesting.

Jim Murdoch said...

Tam, that's definitely something that cropped up in my research for this blog, the fact that writers and artists don’t have a boss standing over their shoulder. As for the abuse of alcohol and drugs amongst the unemployed, I think the basic cause there is a need for escapism. I'm reminded of the section in Brave New World where they are discussing the difference between real happiness and "overcompensation for misery"; these are things to do when there's nothing to do, temporary distractions at best.

Susan, I didn't find any reference that compared male and female writers but looking at the figure for American alcoholics (15m, 5m female) I can see no reason why the ratio would not be the same (or closer to 50:50) especially bearing in mind the other contributory factors that accompany the writer's profession.

And, Jasko, I'd never heard of Kiš, but I've looked him up and am now better informed. He's certainly not alone in that sentiment – Larkin said the same – and I would be tempted to think that this is truer for most writers that the caricature might have us believe.

Art Durkee said...

This is a persistent myth, ennit? It has roots of course in the ecstasy of Dionysus, the idea of the divine daemon entering you as inspiration, the muse of the grape. But the modern version of it, with writers presumed to be drunks, seems to also be strongly influenced by Edgar Allen Poe's addictions, especially laudanum, which both inspired him and led him astray. After Poe, it's become a stereotype, and presumed even where it's not true. As though intoxication did anything but loosen the inner inhibitions and blockages and judgments that keep a writer from finding their muse within; but there are other ways to do that than intoxication.

Anonymous said...

I like yout displaying encyclopedic knowledge of literature and film, and then citing a very untrendy rock band.

I appreciate your mature, thoughtful dissertation on a subject which inspires so many crass attitudes. Generally I find people who revel in, or even exaggerate, their fondness for alcohol very boring. I can enjoy a drink, but I also enjoy a nice hot bath. Why should I boast of the former more than the latter? I've probably had better ideas under the influence of the latter.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Art. There really were so many to pick from. One has to draw the line somewhere. I certainly expected it would prompt a few comments.

Jim Murdoch said...

When did Marillion become untrendy, Drodbar? Maybe when Fish left? I think our Derek is a very underrated songwriter. One of these days I will get round to a blog on him. The band did okay without him – I think 'Memory of Water' is an absolutely stoater of a track (in the right mood it can bring me near to tears) – but I've not enjoyed the last couple. On the other hand I have all of Fish's albums and there's not a one I couldn't listen to over and over again.

As for encyclopaedic knowledge… I just did a lot of research the majority of which I won't be able to remember in about a week. Actually I'd have to read Part II just now to remember what I'm going to post on Thursday.

But you're right and all the comments are backing this up. And if we're talking inspiration, you have no idea how many great ideas I've had on the loo.

Rachel Fox said...

Well I'm not the music fashion police or anything but I would hazard a guess that neither Marillion nor Fish (solo) have ever been anything like trendy. I went to see one of them (band or solo, can't remember now!) years ago. Can't recall anything about it...but I was probably drunk before, during and after...

Julie Carter said...

Having grown up with an alcoholic dad, I was one of the type that goes the other way. I very rarely drink anything.

When I was younger, I was terrified I would become an alcoholic as well. Now I just admit that I don't much like the stuff mostly, though I make exceptions for girly drinks!

I doubt I could write while drunk. I've had problems with depression in my life and could never write while depressed. I don't make a very good poet.

Jim Murdoch said...

Julie, as I was just saying over in Part II, Scotland has such an alcoholcentric society that drink is a difficult think to avoid 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 fellow depressive, it's the last think I need in my system.

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