Writers 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.)”

John Steinbeck on writing

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Steinbeck

Never have I loathed a character more than Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—and I mean that in a good way. With the book on my lap, I hurled invective at the page and found myself enraged by her two-faced, back-stabbing ways. That a character could elicit such a visceral response is testament to the author’s skill. Needless to say, I’ve long been a devoted Steinbeck fan.

What I love about his work–in addition to the characters and writing–is its deceptive simplicity. There are complex issues at play beneath the surface of his stories, yet he presents them in a way that never clouds the human drama. Cannery Row, with its themes of spirituality, happiness, and being close to nature—among others—appears on the surface to be a charming tale of down-and-outs in Monterey’s sardine-canning district.

As previous posts here suggest, I’m fascinated by the working habits of my favorite authors and the way they approach writing. Here, from a 1975 article in the Paris Review, are six writing tips from Steinbeck.

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Writers’ Rooms

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briggs

Here’s a great series that ran a while back in London’s Guardian newspaper. Simply called Writers’ Rooms, it’s comprised of “portraits of the spaces where authors create.” The image above shows the writing desk of British author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, of whom I’ve been a fan since childhood. You can check out the entire series here. It’s well worth the time. Each picture is accompanied by a short essay by the featured author, explaining his/her creative space and working habits.

Writers and doubt

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FountainPen

Every writer struggles with doubt. It’s a terrible moment to read something you’ve put down on paper only to realize there’s a total wreck on the page. Of course, it’s not always that bad—hopefully. The next time you’re fretting over the quality of your work, consider this letter penned by a first-time author to a friend:

I had the idea that one could write a thriller with half one’s mind, and I simply wrote 2,000 words a day to show myself that I could. I didn’t read it through as I wrote it, and when I returned to England and did so I really was appalled.

The dialogue, a lot of the descriptions and the main characters are dreadfully banal and three-quarters of the writing is informed with what I can only describe as vulgarity. Such good action moments as there are in the story have been more or less thrown away and so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent.

After riffling through this muck you will probably never speak to me again, but I have got to take that chance. For God’s sake don’t mention this dreadful oafish opus to anyone else, and for heaven’s sake believe, as I am sure you will after you have read a few pages, that this is not mock humility.

The author goes on for another couple of paragraphs and rips his work to shreds. Long story short, the manuscript wound up in the hands of UK publisher Jonathan Cape, who thought highly of the story and the writing. So it was, on April 13, 1953, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, made its debut.