There are probably many reasons why writers tend to drink. Here are some possibilities: both encourage subversiveness; both are an alternative from dealing with the world on its own terms; both let you temporarily trust your voice with less judgment. They also grant some sense of control over the world or an ego boost—making your perspective seem correct and central.
I just read a great article on the long tradition that links writing and drinking, by Geoff Nicholson in The New York Times, here. The article was inspired by the recent reissuing of a 1948 manifesto on drinking, The Hour, by Bernard DeVoto, as well as by a rash of books by modern drinker-writers or writer-drinkers, like Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22 and Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking.
Nicholson argues that the rules for drinking and writing are similar. Some of the maxims for writing, which Nicholson details as “write what you know. Write every day. Never use a strange, fancy word when a simple one will do[, and] always finish the day’s writing when you could still do more,” tend to work for drinking too. Just swap in one concept for the other: “Drink what you know, drink regularly rather than in binges, avoid needlessly exotic booze, and leave the table while you can still stand.” Those parallels probably work so well because writing and drinking are similar activities insofar as they encourage a creative flight for the ego but lose structure when the ego goes too far.
Nicholson pushes his parallel in a cleaner way when he plays with quotations—exchanging the verb “drink” for “write” in some famous great quotations about writing. (He includes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “An author ought to write for the youth of his generation” and Richard Ford’s “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.”) Here again, the parallels seem to work because writing and drinking share some of the same promises (like a chance to create a new reality) and a lot of the same risks (like solitude). I’m excited by this play with quotations to test out the rationale behind and limits of a parallel. So I’m going to pile up some more quotations on writing, below. Try exchanging the verb “drink” for “write” in any of these, and tell me if this parallel resonates for you, and why.
“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity…. In the end, writers will write…to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”
“Writing eases my suffering...writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.”
“Writing a book is a very lonely business. You are totally cut off from the rest of the world, submerged in your obsessions and memories.”
“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
“Writing…is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”
“Writing has nothing to do with communication between person and person, only with communication between different parts of a person's mind.”
“Writing only leads to more writing.”
“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking…what I want and what I fear.”
“If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad.”
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear, which is inherent in a human condition”
“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.”
Ah. What do you make of all this?
Have you read any good books about drinking lately?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.
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