Blake Morrison ponders why so many acclaimed writers have been drawn to the bottom of the bottle:
There’s a window between the first and second drink, or the second and third, when the unexpected sometimes happens – an idea, an image, a phrase. The problem is getting itdown before it’s lost; if you’re in company, that means disappearing with your notebook, which takes resolve or self-regard. The Amis principle – a glassful to relax with at your desk when most of the writing has been done – is fine for those with will power. But there’s the cautionary example of Jack London, who used to reward himself with a drink when he’d done half his daily quota of 1,000 words, then found himself unable to get started without one. The man takes a drink, then the drink takes the man. Liberation becomes stupor. “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.
Why do writers drink? Why does anyone drink? From boredom, loneliness, habit, hedonism, lack of self-confidence; as stress relief or a short-cut to euphoria; to bury the past, obliterate the present or escape the future. If Olivia Laing’s entertaining book fails to come up with a simple answer, that’s because there isn’t one. To the literary biographer, binges and benders are a godsend – a chance to recount lurid anecdotes under the guise of earnest psychoanalytic enquiry. But for the rest of us, the words on the page are what matter. And most of them get there despite the drinking, not because of it. “Drank like a fish, wrote like an angel,” would make a pleasing epitaph. “Drank like a fish, wrote like a fish” is more likely.
(Photo: Ernest Hemingway, via Wikimedia Commons)