Who are they? Who is this enemy? And how the hell did he/she get in their mouths? Well the answer is very simply, a bit complicated. The “their” of the sentence are famous writers, and the enemy in their mouths is John Barleycorn, good old-fashioned booze. How did it get in their mouths? Well, that’s the complicated part.
Some might argue that they were genetically disposed to alcoholism. Others might say that they were macho men, or women, claiming they could drink any man under the table. And then there’s the “woe is me” attitude; I drink because I think too much about the meaninglessness of life and then I write about it. Or how about the notion that drinking unlatches the door of creativity letting wild ideas roam free?
Life Magazine created a slide show in 2010 of The biggest drunks and drug addicts in literature, which prompted responses from The Examiner and The Huffington Post. There are many writers who imbibed, so if you’re curious as to who is on that list, by all means take a look.
In the article, Why do writers drink?, The Guardian’s journalist, Blake Morrison, attempts to provide numerous answers to this question by listing great writers who drank, or did drugs, extensively.
Morrison says, ” “Write drunk; edit sober” is Hemingway’s much-quoted advice. But the rat-arsed aren’t capable of writing. After a point, the crutch becomes a cudgel.” It still doesn’t answer the question, though. The fact remains that many great writers DID drink, and heavily. The comments to Morrison’s fine article provide further insight.
One commentator states that it is, “Interesting to note that Carver did his best writing in his ten last sober years. When writers who drink do manage to produce good work, I can’t help but imagine what they could have done if they didn’t have the fug of booze or hangovers to contend with.”
Another reader says, ” One thing I think you didn’t mention is that so many of the famous drunks were ridiculously good very young but ended up as sorry old drunks writing inferior work and falling out with pretty much everyone.”
Those are two good points to remember. Does a writing session fueled by alcohol produce inferior or superior work? And as the second comment points out, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Behan, and others became isolated and wrote inferior pieces toward the ends of their lives. It is a case of the chicken and the egg syndrome. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which came first the great works or literature or the alcoholism?
If you listen to Stephen King, one of my favorite authors, in his autobiography On Writing: A memoir of the craft, King says that his creativity increased when he stopped drinking and doing drugs. But he does state that the firing of brain synapses slowed when he quit smoking. Ideas didn’t flow quickly, but that just means he isn’t getting work out there as fast as he used to, but the work he is producing is superior.
Doctor Iain Smith, an addiction expert from Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow, states in The Independent’s article Drunk writers wrote better sober, claims that the notion of alcohol fueling creativity is a myth. Smith says, “The reason why this myth is so powerful is the allure of the substances, and the fact that many artists need drugs to cope with their emotions. Artists are, in general, more emotional people.”
I am glad that Smith used the word “artists” instead of writers. Creative minds create paintings, dramas, performances, dances, literature, sculptures: they transform life, as they see it, into something the observers can see, providing their audience with another perspective.
So let’s expand the list from writers to actors and painters, and return to the man in the first picture I used in this blog post. Jack Lemmon, one of my all time favorite actors, did his best work when he was in sobriety for years. Listen to what he says at 25:49. What a humble man, and a very talented man too.
Marian Keyes, the Irish writer, says that she also produced finer work in sobriety. “By the time I was thirty it had all come to a terrible head and, after a suicide attempt, I was lucky enough to get into rehab. (Mind you I didn’t feel lucky at the time! I thought my life was over.) However, I’ve been one of the fortunate ones and I’ve stayed sober and – more importantly – happy about it, ever since.”
And yet, I’ve failed to answer Morrison’s question myself. Why do writers, or anyone else for that matter, drink? A comment on Morrison’s article states it best, I think.
“I always thought that writers drank, alongside many other artists and intelligent creative characters, because unlike the general herd they better understood and appreciate the essentially meaningless and ultimately constructed reality of our limited existence on this spinning rock.”
But let’s face it, you don’t have to be a writer, or a deeply profound person to understand that the world keeps spinning despite all the drinking. You can write about the meaninglessness of life through the haze of drugs and alcohol, but will you be able to read about it in the morning?
In case you’re wondering about the title of this post, it is from Othello. “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause transform ourselves into beasts!”