Some of the Jungian Collective Unconscious must have slithered into my brain on that day, about three years ago, when I was trying to come up with a name for this blog. I like to think I named this blog in the way most people name blogs: I randomly came up with something alliterative, convinced myself it was clever, gloated to myself about how clever it was, and then registered the domain.
But in choosing this name, I inadvertently formed a tributary that emptied into those ancient streams of whiskey, and tapped into a keg of ideas bigger than this little blog. I never really considered its meaning, all the latent unspoken truth in two words and a conjunction, until I’d been writing for a while. I never noticed that connection between writing and drinking that dripped into every post, my running themes, and my entire literary life.
We all know that many famous writers, historically, drank. Many current writers drink. Many unborn masters of literary prose, still swirling in the cosmic well of zygotes and potential, will drink. Alcohol is as natural as wanting to express and communicate ideas. As long as yeast eats sugar and paper eats ink, writers will drink and drinkers will write.
I drink. Not exactly a shock to anyone who reads this blog or knows me otherwise. In the harsh light of reality I probably drink too much, if you compared my intake to the recommendations of doctors, Surgeon Generals, or Mormons. But I don’t drink to dull any emotional pain, for there is very little pain in my life to dull. I don’t drink to escape an unfair world in which I have no control, for I’ve worked hard to be in control of my life.
I drink because I like the taste of alcohol. Ale, wine, whiskey, rum, et al. I’ve gotten to a point where “beer” is probably my favorite flavor. It really has nothing to do with the alcohol content, but more so with injecting my palette with pleasurable experience. I’d gnaw on beer flavored gum if it was available and wouldn’t get me fired for drinking (or chewing) on the job. I’ve eaten “energy bars” made from spent beer grain. I even pop hops into my mouth while I’m homebrewing, nibbling on pellets or chomping on cones.
But I also drink to experience an ephemeral connection to something older, something external myself. A fleeting glance at the infinite. A forbidden communion with greater truth that we pay for with a hangover. A way throw my brain out into the same world as Joyce and Hemingway and Poe, to see what they saw, to figure out why they were looking in the first place. In the same way many people pray to find their gods, to ascertain certain truths, to understand their lives and the universe, I genuflect at the altar of the nature deity, CH3CH2OH.
Glass in One Hand, Pen in the Other
What makes alcohol special? There are many other ways to alter one’s mind if that’s the goal: meditation, prayer, marijuana, mushrooms, opiates, exercise. But all of those things are hard to do while writing. Every tried to write while jogging? Believe me, it doesn’t work like you’d hope. A lot of other drugs require both hands or complete focus for a period of time, during which you can’t write. Alcohol sits and waits for you. It doesn’t mind that you’re neglecting it while typing away. It is your passive, quiet friend at the back of the party who you haven’t talked to for 2 hours, but who will still toss you a beer from the cooler when he sees you heading his way.
In addition to being legal and relatively cheap in most places, alcohol lends itself well to the physical aspects of the writing process. It takes time to form a good paragraph, craft a good metaphor, just like it takes time to tame a good single malt, to savor a good IPA. The glass goes down as the word count goes up. There is a direct connection between an increase in productivity and a decrease in liquid.
When you stop to take a moment to reread or to think of your next transition, you can take a sip, let the beer or wine or spirit lubricate the rusty metal of those mental gears. And then just as quickly as you picked the glass up it is back down, your fingers back on the keyboard, the next step in the delicate waltz of clicking and sipping.
And just like an idea takes time to congeal, to fully form into something effective and readable, the alcohol slowly, methodically creeps into your mind. Opiates and cannaboids hit your brain quickly and unforgivingly; you’ll go from sober to stoned too quickly for even your most energetic ideas to keep up. But alcohol, no, it is patient. It lets your ideas sprout wings as the buzz rolls in. You get drunk on creativity and the booze itself, nearly at the same time, as long as you’re not downing shots and shotgunning beers like a Frat boy during Greek Week.
Two sides, same coin
Those artistic types who drink, who appreciate the craft in equal balance with the crunk, seem to fall into two categories. The writers who drink to drown their demons, hide them from the world, and the writers who drink to let the demons loose, free them from their midnight cages.
The prior are the kinds of people who live on the teetering edge of debilitating stress. The kind who stagger down a fine, fine line between wanting and needing. These people constantly wage a war against their pasts, trying to forget or make sense of those unfair events, using alcohol as a way to quiet the manic buzz of painful history darting around their mind for just a minute so that they can create.
If you are like this, you’re in good company: James Joyce was a ball of neurosis, likening his favorite white wine to the lightning he feared. Tennessee Williams knocked back more than his fair share, trying to confront his sexuality in a time when such things were kept well behind closed closet doors.
But for every head there is a tail. The latter kind of writer embraces the blur, loves the lack of inhibition that comes from the warm and fuzzy ethanol bloat. These writers (including the one you’re reading right now) include the booze-fairy among their muses, letting the scents and bubbles and lacing mingle with and taint their pool of metaphors. These people find inspiration in the bottle and the bottom, often letting their minds wander into unexplored landscapes while firmly holding the hand of inebriation, discovering things they probably wouldn’t have in the harsh burn of a sober morning.
If you’re one of these writers, you’re likely to meet Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Faulker, and a ton of other famous writers who weren’t shy about their drinking habits, whenever you finally make it to that mead-filled greathall in Vallhalla.
Disclaimer! It is not healthy to drink heavily. In fact it’s quite unhealthy if science is to be believed. Excessive drinking also leads to crappy writing, mainly because your fingers hit all the wrong keys and your eyes can’t really see the screen. Alcohol is a power that should be treated with respect, lest it consume you as you consume it. My father passed an adage on to me some years ago, a clever warning about the dangers of that one last beer: “The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, and the drink takes the man.”
There is a weird pervasive attitude in the world of art that a person must have a screwed up past or some ravenous personal demons to be successful. It sometimes goes as far as to suggest that the alcohol or drugs or other addictions were the reason for the success. They cite the great artists and authors, point out that some of the most perfect art was created by some of the most broken people. They claim the best memoir is built from a horrible childhood, and the best canvases are covered in just as much blood as paint.
I’m gonna have to go ahead and call bullshit on that. There are any number of successful people who lived either decidedly plain or otherwise happy lives. Like Erik Larson or David Sedaris or David Quammen. They still have plenty to say, wonderfully fresh ideas, and enjoy abundant, well-deserved respect.
Pain isn’t necessary. Helpful? Sure, maybe, for some people. Mandatory? Nah dude.
Alcohol is just another experience out there. One that a lot of creative types turn too, probably out of ease and access and history. One that can be fun or awful, that can enhance or destroy. It’s up to you as a person and an artist to decide how or when or if to use it. But remember to be reasonable. No one writes well hungover.
Remember Hemingway’s immortal words:
Write drunk, edit sober.