The other day I was making a list of all the drunk writers I could come up with. Bukowski, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Carver, Cheever, Chandler, Crews, Poe, Thomas, Thompson, Johnson….And hell, maybe it was just because I misspelled Kerouac so many times that I had all those scratch outs, but that list got so long it was off the cocktail napkin and right out the door in no time.
So what’s with all these writers being so brilliant and so goddamn drunk all the time?
It’s not just a boys-club either. The ladies aren’t much better. Back in the day, Tama Janowitz tossed back a not-so-few number of bottles with her literary “brat pack” boys, Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. From the looks of it, Dorothy Parker couldn’t really keep her eyes open for dust jacket pictures (but maybe that was just her look). And that frail-looking wafer queen of the staccato, Joan Didion? Well I don’t really know—given her four-foot-nine, thinner-than-a-rejection-slip stature—what’d you’d call a lot to drink for her, but she did write in an essay from her icily good The White Album that she required a pint of bourbon everywhere she went….
So what I’m trying to say is: what is it about all these writers and their drink? I mean, a big portion of the brilliant ones weren’t so brilliantly sober for the majority, if not the entirety, of their careers. So how’d they all get so good at tapping out words on a page?
Maybe it’s because drinking affords one plenty time to observe, and if you do enough observing the whole world opens up to you?
That old critic, George Jean Nathan, said: “I drink to make other people seem more interesting.”
Well the last time I tried that, people got too interesting and I woke up with a half-finished, semi-autobiographical musical glowing on my laptop screen. It was attached to an email that I’d sent out to a dozen people, a subject line that read: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU HONESTLY THINK!!!!
Which is to say: you don’t have to be drunk to be a writer, just like you don’t have to be a writer to be drunk. I’ve tried both and they seem pretty non-dependent on one another. Sure, there’re a lot of functioning drunk sad writers out there, and a few happy ones too, but I’m pretty sure the vast majority are just plain-old sad drunks. And those writers who managed the former, who swigged whiskey and were inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters, who snagged Guggenheims and swallowed gallons of Jagermeister, who stared smiling into the lights of a National Book Award with wine flecked across their tuxedo, well they’re—the more I think about it, the more I look out my window, jealous jealous jealous—a very very select, prodigious few.
And shit—that truth alone, enough to send any aspiring writer stunned and reeling for an Amstel, is a really a good thing. Because what I’m certainly not saying is: don’t be drunk. Not if it makes you happy. Not if it makes you feel a certain way and that certain way teaches you something. Not if you desire something and it gives it to you. The same way Baudelaire said to be, over all else. Whatever “drunk” means to all the good writers and whatever it means to all the bad writers, whatever it means to the losers, the winners, the strugglers, the success stories, the second-rate, the one hit wonders, the collective New York Times Sunday Book Review, whatever any of it means or could mean, to you or me, now or not now—we can deal with the hangover together, later.