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July 15, 2003

Booze and the Writing Life


I was leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, when I stumbled across “The Road to Samarra.” This is an excerpt from an upcoming biography of John O’Hara by Geoffrey Wolff. I had the same reaction to the antics of O'Hara that I often do to tales of the New York literary world in the 1920s and 1930s…how could those guys have ever gotten any writing done for all the drinking?

A few excerpts on the general topic of O’Hara’s boozing:

Letter after letter from those days [1927-8] finds O’Hara reporting about himself that he was drunk and drinking, on a bender, recovering from a three-day-and-night tear, broke, in debt, up all night baying at the moon or baying at its absence, rising well past midday.

O’Hara met Dorothy Parker, later his loyal pal and most admiring fan, listening to the Hawaiian house band at an all-night joint called the Dizzy Club. He also frequented the Owl, which served the hardest of hard-core soakers, patrons who showed near dawn and drank till noon. Farr has invoked the clientele as people “who drank fast, said little and had pistols under their coats. Others were there only because they did not want to interrupt their consumption of alcohol, except when unconscious, until they died.”

…now [in the early 1930s O’Hara] indulged even more in prolonged benders, what he called “overnight vacations; getting so cockeyed drunk that twenty hours elapse before I recover.”

Okay, so O’Hara was in his twenties, but he must have needed an iron constitution to survive long enough to write “Appointment in Samarra.” Since I am far less informed about the personal lives of writers than of painters, I ask you: has wildly excessive boozing always been central to the writing life? Was Dickens a lush? How about Stendhal? Goethe? Was it primarily an American thing? A 20th century thing?

Surprisingly, O'Hara Made It Into His Sixties

As best I can tell—granted, what do I know—drinking in American life seems to have moderated a good deal from my youth. At my first job, in advertising, everyone was either a drunk—the three martini lunch was no hyperbole for these guys—or they were recovering from a heart attack and forbidden to drink at all. Today you can’t coerce people into having a drink at a business lunch by taking hostages. While I’m sure the country is still well-stocked with alcoholics, any tinge of glamour associated with excessive drinking (or drugging, at least in my circles) seems to have faded long ago.

How has this trend impacted the writing life—if it has at all? Have writers (young or old) sobered up? If so, is this trend visible in their work? I’m so isolated from anyone in the “writing life”--with the exception of the occasional sitcom writer--that I would be curious to get your perspective.



posted by Friedrich at July 15, 2003


It's not a representative sample for sure, but most of the writers I knew in Boulder in the 90's were practicing alcoholics (at least any of them that were any good!)

Posted by: David Mercer on July 15, 2003 4:51 AM

The horrible truth is that some people can get a lot done while they're drunk or recovering. Not fair. Not fair at all.

Christopher Hitchens, one hears, drinks a bit, and he gets a lot done in a day.

Know one successful writer well. He rarely drinks.

Posted by: j.c. on July 15, 2003 5:10 AM

My admittedly peripheral sense is that a lot of the young hot writers are more professionals than professional drinkers. The careerism that affects every aspect of education also seems to have gotten to the artistes as well. They are too busy writing (or talking about writing) to drink. Whether this is a boon for writing is hard to tell.


Posted by: Gerald on July 15, 2003 9:55 AM

I've seen a couple of books on the topic of writers and booze. I thought Ian Hamilton wrote one of them, but a quick scan at Amazon tells me I'm wrong. I wonder if I'll be able to recall their titles or authors ...

I've found the same thing in my professional (haha) life that you have. When I started out back in the '70s, there were still people around who drank a ton -- who had martinis at lunch, booze in their desk drawer, a sofa to nap on after ... I'm told the same was generally true in publishing, back in the days when publishing was legendarily a "gentleman's profession." I marvel at these people's constitutions. Me? One drink and I'm happy, two and it's a party, three and you're carting me home in a wheelbarrow. I can't begin to imagine having that kind of tolerance for booze.

Like you, I suspect, I think it's important or at least interesting to know about an era's preferred drugs and preferred druglike experiences. I've argued in earlier postings -- to some raspberries, alas, but that doesn't disuade me -- that one of the epochal changes in movie history came when "getting drunk" as a desirable experience to be mimicked got replaced by "getting high on drugs," and that we're still in the midst of that (although drugs and cybertech have fused by this point). And I do suspect I'd understand contempo pop culture a lot better if I took Ecstasy a few times ...

Y'know, I don't know if most of the writers I know are big drinkers. I'll venture an unsubstantiable observation, which is that critic writers don't tend to be. I suspect that's because so much of what they do is intellectual -- it's in their interest to preserve their minds. Most of the fiction writers I know I see at lunch, and none are spectacular drinkers at that time of day. It's been a long time since I've hung out latenight in seedy boho East Village arty places, alas. I'd guess that the Brits drink as much as ever.

I second JC -- it's amazing how productive some people can be on booze. I've never felt that sense of release and energizing that you hear and notice some people getting from booze, have you? Me? On booze, I get a little foggy, a little happy. I get a couple of congenial (in my mind anyway) hours. Then I fall asleep.

Painting while drugged or drunk I can understand better -- you certainly don't need to have your finer verbal abilities in good shape for that activity. I have a painter friend who loves painting while smoking pot and drinking a strong Starbucks. He calls it his healthy form of a speedball. And actors still -- everywhere and at all times, I suspect -- love to drink, do drugs and party. For them and what they do, I suspect that the intellect is actually a kind of enemy. So why not destroy it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2003 9:56 AM

If I recall correctly, Stephen King's book "On Writing" talks about him writing his early novels in a complete alcoholic haze. I'm not sure it's great literature but he certainly could tell a pretty darn good story while dead drunk.

Posted by: Deb on July 15, 2003 10:49 AM

Anyone have any historical data? Was drinking to excess and writing a tradition in, say, 18th or 19th century literature? (Of course, I seem to recall in a multi-volume history of the Civil War, in a chapter on antebellum life, something about everyone in America effectively having three or four belts of whiskey a day just to kill the germs. I guess it may be difficult to separate literary drinking out of the normal kind.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 15, 2003 1:49 PM

The 19th century: Absinthe! And didn't people back in Biblical times drink beer all the time -- much healthier than the water they had?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2003 5:31 PM

For an English perspective on the question, see A. N. Wilson's Telegraph piece here.

Posted by: Allan Connery on July 15, 2003 7:02 PM

I thought opium was the 19c drug of choice--Wilkie Collins, Poe if I recall correctly, The Bronte's brother. I think they took it in the form of laudanum tho...

Posted by: Deb on July 15, 2003 7:58 PM

Still plenty of boozy writers out there, and have been in most literate civilizations with booze, I think -- though the acceptable quantities vary with fashion. Since writing gives one the opportunity to embarrass oneself widely and persistently, de-inhibitors are bound to be productive. As my beloved Earl of Rochester wrote, " Oh, that second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest, & most impartial downright friend we have, tells us truth of ourselves & forces us to speak truths of others...."

Here's another explanation I offered some years back:

Why are so many writers alcoholics?

This is an association that seems less mysterious if you reverse the implied causality. The easier way to phrase the question is: Why are so many alcoholics writers?

Many more people can write than are writers. Writing is a unreliable way of making a living or inflating an ego, and most talented people decide, more or less early on, more or less reluctantly, that it's not worth the hassle.

A solid reason for sticking with it, though, is that writing is one of the only jobs that allow erratic hours and a bottle close at hand.

Posted by: Ray on July 16, 2003 1:14 PM

As a New York City bartender of some thirty years I can tell you that what I encounter at the hi-falutin midtown speakeasy I work in is, of those who drink, the grandparents and their grandchildren drink the most. Those who must still pay the tuition or support for their offspring can't seem to afford to take the chance of showing up at the office with alcohol on their breath. I do my best to point out that the GNP of the 50's and 60's was achieved at the height of the three martini lunch era (which most likely left everyone too tanked to screw things up) when spending the afternoon at the golf course was considered a perfectly legitimate way to pursue business.

Posted by: ms on July 16, 2003 4:15 PM

- I suspect that lots of creative writers drink to achieve that state where tunnel vision sets in, but the limited number of things you can focus on are absolutely glowing visually. I could reach this kind of Wordworthian/ecstatic state without alcohol around age 18 and 19 (what Milian Kundera calls the "lyric age"). After that, for a few years I could simulate it with a few drinks, but after 25 the physical cost of more than one drink wasn't worth it. Plus, I just didn't have enough talent to do anything with this gift anyway. I suspect that a lot of novelists drink to recapture this fleeting talent. Perhaps those endowed with enormous amounts of this gift and who keep it longest, don't need to drink. (I don't believe either Nabokov or Updike were big drinkers - but they kept their Wordsworthian eye into their 60s.)

- As for critics (and non-fiction writers) not drinking, there seems to be an American - British gap. Hitchens is a good example of the latter, although if he sobered up and only wrote half as much, who know how good he'd be? One cause might be that such a large percentage of American critics are Jews and we (my biological father was probably Jewish, so I've got some of the genes), don't really like getting drunk. American Jews have extremely low rates of alcoholism, followed by Italians. It's probably related to how long ago your ancestors started drinking alcohol and thus how many generations they had for Darwinian selection to develop defenses against alcoholism. Northern Europeans have had alcohol less time, and aboriginal peoples have had it only a few centuries, with consequent increases in trouble with drink.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 16, 2003 6:22 PM

There were a number of reasons booze (or other drugs) and writing went hand in hand. One was the problem of excessive sensibility or awareness suffered by many writers. The ones who absolutely had to write (of whom there are sadly very few now) tended to be of this temperament: sensitive, full of inner anger, dreading writing as much as they needed it, because grappling with demons just isnt fun. Hemingway is a classic example. It is screamingly obvious reading his prose that he felt very deeply; indeed, he confessed he had spent his life killing things to avoid killing himself (and did in the end, of course).

Drink gets this kind of writer out of his shell, puts the fury in his fists, lets the demons raise unholy hell. It allows himto mingle fearlessly where he would have shunned company and it dulls the inner voice, the one that inflicts the pain.

Ssince writers were regarded with suspicion in macho circles, drink was also useful for summoning Dutch courage. Many writers would get fighting drunk.

This breed wrote usually in sobriety.

Those like, say Rimbaud, who wrote wreathed in absinthe dreams,
were another kind. I suspect that they did not suffer the agonies of hyper-awareness and social reticence. In other words, these drunks were the extrovert kind, non-addicts, really, for whom drinking was merely part of the palette.

The critic/academic as writer is career-orientated, not driven. Drink is an optional social lubricant only when "appropriate" (the very word requires a pursing of the lips). This type of writer dominates the book scene now.

I used to drink and write, until drink gradually obliterated everyt other meaningful activity. Now I drink not at all, write occasionally. Perhaps the unholy fire is out.

Posted by: Dave F on July 17, 2003 7:23 AM

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