Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Drunk Writers, by Jess Lourey

Keith Raffel, acclaimed writer of Smasher, is famous for his love of image green tea. He’ll be the first to tell you he has a multi-cup habit, and as I type and drink my red wine, I wonder if “green tea” is a euphemism for something a bit edgier. (Sorry, Keith. It’s all those undergrad psych classes catching up with me. Or the red wine.)

The myth of the drunk writer is long and storied (ha! storied): Truman Capote, while writing In Cold Blood, got so drunk one night image that he fell on the pavement, chipping his teeth and smashing his head open. Jack London tied his first one on at age five. Hemingway swigged tea and gin for breakfast and absinthe for lunch. And don’t forget Edgar Allen Poe, Steinbeck, Lowry, Faulkner, O'Neill , Parker, and Sinclair Lewis.

Are these stories aberrations? Not according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, which in a study found image that 30 percent of writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of nonwriters. The author of Alcohol and the Writer discovered that after bartenders, more writers die of cirrhosis of the liver than people in any other occupation (but maybe he was drinking when he wrote that).

So what gives? Is Freud correct in his assertion that creativity is a response to emotional pain, and artists are simply suffering more than the average folk? Or is it the necessarily lonesome life of the writer that makes us more likely to self-medicate?

I’d like input on this from both drinking and non-drinking writers. And for the record, I have a hard time remembering to blink both eyes simultaneously after a couple glasses of red, forget writing a novel.

24 comments:

Keith Raffel said...

Okay, Jess. My name is Keith and I'm a teaholic. I need the green stuff to write. It's the gasoline that gets my writing engine working. Do you think the staff at the local cafe is putting a little extra in with my green tea? Isn't absinthe green, too? What does it taste like?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting question, Jess!

I'm thinking that many writers have addictive personalities *period*. We can choose our poison of choice, but whatever it is it can be a challenge to put the breaks on it.

Caffeine and Me: a Love Story. :)

I do drink...wine, beer, whatever. It makes me sleepy, though, and not creative.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Lisa Bork said...

The only thing I drink regularly is milk. I'm not engineered for any higher octane. What comes first, the emotional pain or the alcoholism?

Paul Lamb said...

John Gardner said that he only wrote when he was drunk but that he was pretty much drunk all of the time. And Peter De Vries wrote a novel in which his character wanted to be like great authors so he acquired all of their bad habits -- including drinking -- thinking it would make him a great author as well.

I drink black tea (unsweetened, of course) when I write. I love the little frisson of well being it gives me.

Jess Lourey said...

Keith, absinthe tastes a little earthy, kinda green, sort of like tea. ;)

Elizabeth, you might be on to something with that addictive personalities point. I'd never thought of that, but personally, I do have a tendency to be more intense about things I do than the people around me.

Lisa, have you ever tried rice or soy milk? Rice Dream makes an excellent rice milk that everyone I know likes, even those hardcore cow's milk drinkers, and unlike cow's milk, it is easily digestible by humans and lacks the pus and hormones of non-organic cow's milk (sorry).

Way to one-up Keith's sissy green tea habit, Paul.

G.M. Malliet said...

I am, like Keith, a teaholic, using the hard green stuff as a crutch to write. Oh, let's be honest: Lately I've been hitting the green tea - hard - just to get through the day. Trader Joe's sells it premade by the gallon, so you don't even have to wait for the tea to brew to get that rush.

The red stuff (wine) makes me sleepy.

Jess Lourey said...

Gin, I didn't want to admit it to the boys, but I also have a heavy tea habit--Big Green Hojicha, by The Republic of Tea. It's roasty, rich, and delicious, and I have about four cups a day with a little vanilla rice milk tossed in. Yum. I've only had one cup so far, and I don't know if it's enough to fortify me against a dog walk with 23 below windchill on a 9 degree below zero day, but I'm about to find out.

Alan Orloff said...

I pretty much only drink water. I wonder what that says about me? (Besides that I'm boring, which I freely admit.)

Jess Lourey said...

Hasn't anyone told you, Alan? Being a dedicated drinker of water means you're destined to write a best-selling mystery series based around a comedy club.

G.M. Malliet said...

p.s. There are also studies showing pretty conclusively that many famous creatives were manic-depressive. The alcoholism is often a part of that mix. It always begs the question: Would you have wanted Vincent van Gogh to have been cured? For his sake, sure.

Jess, where are you? Antarctica?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I tend to agree that writers as a whole tend towards addictive personalities. I, myself, fall into this. Not sure if it's all the time we spend alone or if we write because our neuroses need an outlet, but my personal afflictions have helped pen a lot of books.

I drink herbal tea or water while I write. Booze of any kind makes me too muddled to be productive. Though I once swigged wine straight from the bottle to get through a rape scene I was writing years ago. The wine broke through my inhibitions and resulted in one of the best scenes I've ever put to page. Too bad the book was never published.

Jess Lourey said...

North of Antarctica, Gin, in a little place we like to call Minnesota.

Sue Ann, any chance that book'll get published in the future or could get turned into a short story?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Jess, my current agent loves the book that rape scene is in, but it has been so long since I wrote it that it needs a total re-write. No time for that right now. Maybe one day.

Donna Lea Simpson said...

I love tea, but it has to be black, and it has to be Tetley.

I'm not averse to a little wine - blackberry Merlot or a nice, crisp Rieseling, or a Zinfandel or... anyway, no wine and writing!

Jess Lourey said...

Donna Lea, maybe if we all got really trashed, we could write the Great American Novel. Is tea (and relative sobriety) what separates mystery writers from "literature" writers, Poe excluded?

Jess Lourey said...

Sue Ann, sorry to add something else to your crazy-long to-do list, but I think I'd like to read that novel of yours that's languishing about, so revise!

Mike Dennis said...

Keith, I like a glass of wine or two with dinner, but I can say for sure that writers aren't alone in their predisposition toward getting high.

I was a professional musician for 30 years, and I saw far more alcoholic / drug-addicted people in that field than you could imagine. The connection, I believe, is somewhere in the creative gene, maybe a link or a tendency toward irresponsible use of certain substances.

Naturally, this is not really an issue for most of us, but for those who can't control that tendency, it becomes a real problem.

Jess Lourey said...

Mike, I agree that musicians could give writers a resounding smackdown when it comes to the Liquor Olympics.

Cricket McRae said...

Eric Maisel maintains addiction is a meaning problem in his book The Van Gogh Blues. Apparently those who are driven to write, or be artists or musicians, see the world without the happy rose-colored glasses the rest of the world does. The result is supposedly the realization that little really matters in the long run. Creatives must make their own meaning in life to avoid depression and addiction.

For whatever THAT'S worth.

I'm a peppermint tea junkie when I write, but like a glass of red wine in the evening. I don't even write email after that glass, though.

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, of course you have to have some wine in the evening. It goes so well with cheese.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I'm shocked. Shocked, I tell you, that no one has yet brought up the fact that the bar is the busiest place at writers' conferences. So much so, I maintain a special budget for it when I attend those events.

BTW, meet you all in the bar at Left Coast Crime. BYOW - Bring your own wallet. Drinks at the Omni are very expensive.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sue Ann--I'll be at the bar at Malice, for sure. If I'm expected to socialize for longer than 15 minutes, then some imbibing will be necessary. :)

Jess Lourey said...

Cricket, I do think there is some element of being an outsider in all artists. You have to be able to observe to be able to create. But I think you're right that we can create our own meaning in all of it and avoid the life of addiction that many outsiders suffer.

Sue Ann, that is hilarious that you budget for the bar at writer's conferences.

Deb said...

Late to the party (and appparently, some of y'all LIKE to party), but just wanted to say this is a fun, fun post.
Cheers (Deborah, with sangria in hand tonight .... hey, it's almost Christmas!)