Julia Cameron says early in her book The Artist’s Way that before she quit drinking, she thought drinking and writing went together like scotch and soda. Before I quit drinking, I agreed.
I loved the idea of writing and drinking. They were the perfect couple. Pouring a glass of wine and sitting down to the computer or mixing a martini and curling up with a moleskin notebook was just about as romantic an idea as I could imagine.
While I was writing my first book, I procrastinated…a lot. My procrastination stemmed from perfectionism: I was afraid of writing badly and expected everything to come out perfect the first time (the saying “Don’t get it right, get it written” was created for people like me).
So I developed certain rules. My favorite was that I refused to write unless I had 8 or so hours of uninterrupted time and that obviously did not happen often. When it did, I managed to spend most of those hours doddering around my apartment, cleaning, going through stacks of bills, rearranging my library…you get the idea.
The other thing I did to distract myself from actually sitting down and facing the blank page was drink. I convinced myself that the glass of wine was meant to loosen me up, allow the words to flow, to grease the finger joints a little. But to be honest, I wasn’t writing that kind of book. The book I was writing required focused attention, short spurts of writing, followed by targeted research, and more short spurts of writing. Drinking didn’t aid this process; it stopped it in its tracks.
One glass of wine invariably turned into two, which made it difficult to concentrate and hold the thread of an idea. It also made a nap seem like a brilliant alternative to “forcing” the writing process, after which point no writing would get done. How many times I performed this particular fruitless ritual, I cannot say.
There is a saying that goes something like, “Say no to a book contract, you’re sad for a day, happy for a year. Say yes, and you’re happy for a day, sad for a year.” I was sad (and tipsy) for two years, an inexcusable amount of time given the slim volume that resulted.
It wasn’t until I created a strict writing schedule, which included brief periods of writing and specific and achievable assignments, and banished alcohol until the writing was done, that any real progress was made on the book and I finally completed the manuscript. Six months after the book was published (shameless plug), I quit drinking altogether.
Seeing how I used alcohol to deal with the discomfort of writing, it seems ironic that the book I’m now trying to write is about quitting drinking. Facing the blank page is no less daunting. And the personal nature of the book makes the process of translating complex thoughts and feelings into prose that makes sense to readers much more challenging.
I recently attended a week-long meditation retreat for writers, where I had plenty of time to write and virtually no distractions. At first this was terrifying and very uncomfortable for me. But once I let go of any expectation to write well, I was able to overcome my block. And, like returning to the breath again and again – is this not endlessly applicable and analogous? – I made slow, steady progress toward my goal…and got some writing done too.