Writing on the rocks

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Photo credit: Esquire.com

The Paris Review once interviewed Hunter S. Thompson and asked him, among other things, about writing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Here’s the relevant exchange:

Paris Review: Almost without exception writers we’ve interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs—or at the least what they’ve done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What’s your comment about this?

Thompson: They lie. Or maybe you’ve been interviewing a very narrow spectrum of writers. It’s like saying, “Almost without exception women we’ve interviewed over the years swear that they never indulge in sodomy”—without saying that you did all your interviews in a nunnery. Did you interview Coleridge? Did you interview Poe? Or Scott Fitzgerald? Or Mark Twain? Or Fred Exley? Did Faulkner tell you that what he was drinking all the time was really iced tea, not whiskey? Please. Who the fuck do you think wrote the Book of Revelation? A bunch of stone-sober clerics?

Writers love their drinks. I don’t think that’s a stereotype.

“You’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are.” So wrote Hemingway—a man who knew a thing or two about drinking—in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writing and alcohol have long been companions. Indeed, numerous bars around the world continue to benefit from the patronage of their famous—though, now deceased—customers. There are more than a handful of watering holes who boast Hemingway as a one-time patron. The writer was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where he had his own table in the corner. He laid numerous daïquiris to waste at El Floridita in Havana and enjoyed drinking scotch at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

Dylan Thomas gulped his last drink at Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern. Thompson enjoyed frequent libations at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. Ian Fleming drank a bottle of gin a day. This, coupled with his daily habit of smoking seventy cigarettes, contributed to his early demise at the age of fifty-six. His favorite pub was the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom near Canterbury. His favorite chair in the back is dully marked. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, while not heavyweight drinkers like the aforementioned scribes, met Tuesday mornings as part of a group called “The Inklings” at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. A plaque above their table marks the meeting spot. Jack Kerouac paid regular visits to Vesuvio across the street from City Lights in San Francisco.

Tourism spots aside, many great scribblers have embraced alcohol—often to their own detriment. But I’ve always wanted to know why? Perhaps it has something to do with availability and opportunity. If you’re wandering around your house all day, trying to come up with something to jot down on paper, it’s pretty easy to grab a scotch from the wet bar or beer from the fridge. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the solitary nature of writing itself. Authors, by their trade, are loners, and a drink can be good company. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article I found on this subject matter states:

“Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.”

Writing, as all who do it know, is hard work. It’s mentally taxing at times and can wear you down. I might sit with a glass of scotch or wine beside me as I write, but I would never tackle a page while feeling intoxicated—or even slightly buzzed. Yes, alcohol takes the edge off, but I want my mind to be as sharp and focused as possible when I work. That said, I do enjoy drinking and toasting a good day’s writing.

Of course, none of this answers the question as to why so many authors are full-blown alcoholics. Consider this fact from a 2011 article in Slate: “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)”

Writing advice from Hemingway

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ErnestHemingway

A while back, while reading Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, I came to what I consider the best part of any literary biography: a breakdown of the subject’s writing process. Even if reading the biography of an author I don’t necessarily enjoy, I’m always fascinated by the way they work and the approach they take when hunkering down with a manuscript. Here, according to Meyers, is Hemingway’s strategy:

Study the best literary models.
Master your subject through experience and reading.
Work in disciplined isolation.
Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
Write slowly and deliberately.
Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
Work continuously on a project once you start it.
Keep a record of your daily progress.
Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

An interesting list, to be sure. The one thing that struck me was his advice to stop writing when things are going well to ensure you have something to write about the next time you’re at your desk. I’ve done this from the beginning, and it serves me very well. I never read a manuscript I’m working on, however, until I’m done with the first draft. I think reading what you’re putting down on paper as you’re going along is a terrible idea. Personally, I’m guaranteed to fall into the trap of rewriting everything before I have the rough draft done. That, for me, is the kiss of death.

I don’t write early in the morning but late at night when the house is quiet. I’ll write for several hours if I can—but if the words aren’t flowing, I don’t force it. Admittedly, I don’t write slowly or deliberately. If the idea is fully formed in my head, I frantically pound the keys to get it down before it vanishes into the ether. My revisions are slow and deliberate, but my first draft is a race to get the story out.

According to Meyers, “It often took Hemingway all morning to write a single perfect paragraph.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury of time?