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.
I love this post and the whole concept behind your blog in general! In college (a long, long time ago) I think my friends and I all idolized the idea of the “drunken writer” and wanted to live the “Hemingway Life.” Over the years, I’ve definitely learned that doesn’t work for me. I do love going to the pub and having a few (okay, more than a few), but I don’t write when I do it. For that reason, I don’t do it more than once a week. I may come up with some interesting ideas over booze-soaked conversations, but I’ll only tackle them clear-headed. I also loved how in Stephen King’s “On Writing,” he talks about how he feared giving up drinking and drugging because he thought it sparked his creativity and kept him in his writing zone, but then he did quit, and well, we all know the words kept coming : ).
Thank you! I so identify with you and your words. I think there are very few people who can live the Hemingway writing lifestyle. When I drank (and did various other mind-altering things, however rarely), I used to think I was f-ing brilliant. But when it came to capturing the ideas on paper or the screen, they fell flat. Writing is work! We love to think of it as this lightening bolt that strikes us with creativity but I’m finding it’s so much more banal than that – and more wonderful, enlightening, and useful! And I appreciate the reminder about Stephen King – I loved that book and will pick it up again thanks to you. Thank you again for this comment and I look forward to checking out your blog (I adore the poop post – so true!).
Like all of your posts, I found this poignant and truthful — thank you!
It’s funny how the myth of drinking and creativity works: because of the cultural association of drinking and artistic expression, we tell ourselves that drinking will allow us to gain access to some wellspring of creativity that, sober, we would usually repress. But in reality, what often happens is that we focus too much on the drinking part (drinking another glass of good wine typically requires less discipline and effort than producing a page of good writing), and end up undermining our creative efforts completely — much like when we drink in order to socialize more comfortably, overdo it, and end up a slurring, embarrassing mess.
What’s fascinating is that, as you suggest, even after we’ve undermined ourselves this way once — or a hundred times — the myth still functions, and we still make and act on the association, believing that drinking will allow us to be or do something that we can’t sober. Recognizing and, as much as possible, rejecting these romantic notions of and associations with something that, for many of us, is ultimately dangerous, debilitating, and defeating has been, for me, one of the great challenges, and rewards, or sobriety. It’s reassuring to read that I’m not the only one.
Thank you, Evan. I could not have said it better!
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