This post was originally published on January 14, 2015.
In case you’re not well enough aware of the stereotype that creativity and alcohol go together, Flavorwire compiled a gallery of Spirited Photos of Authors Getting Boozy. They call it “boozy inspiration in the form of your favorite writers getting their drink on.” I call it not helpful.
I’m sorry but, as a sober writer, this gallery really bugs me. For starters, romanticizing alcoholism or drug addiction among writers is a total cliché. Not only that, it’s dangerous. While some may argue that there’s scientific evidence that links creativity and alcohol, in my experience there’s only undeniable evidence of the link between alcohol and alcoholism. The slideshow features writers who suffered as a result of their drinking, some until their alcoholic deaths. Take the very first writer featured, Poet John Berryman, who killed himself by jumping off a bridge. Prior to his death, Berryman had been in rehab three times and was working on a book called Recovery. Should we really call a picture of him drinking “spirited”?
Kingsley Amis, the next writer featured on the slideshow, was so obsessed with alcohol that it was the subject of three of his books. He may not have considered his drinking a problem, but other people certainly did; in the introduction of his book, Everyday Drinking, Amis’ friend Christopher Hitchens wrote, “The booze got to [Amis] in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health.”
Charles Bukowski was notoriously obsessed with drinking, once famously quoted on how he’d changed up the places where he bought his liquor out of the fear that the store clerks were judging him. Civilians might find such a quote witty and clever, but anyone who’s felt guilt and shame over their drinking knows that it’s not funny— it’s sad. And not original. I’ve heard the same confession shared in AA meetings countless times.
Of course, maybe not everyone included in the slideshow is an alcoholic and there’s nothing wrong with normal drinkers celebrating an accomplishment with a little champagne. But Dylan Thomas? Jack Kerouac? Hunter S. Thompson? Truman Capote? Tennessee Williams? These dudes are all well known alcoholics. Dorothy Parker? Jean Rhys? Also alcoholics. Jane Bowles? Alcoholic. Ian Fleming? Alcoholic. (As was the character he is best known for writing, James Bond, who was described by one study as “an impotent drunk.”)
Samuel Beckett, Ann Sexton…on second thought, maybe they were all alcoholics. Ernest Hemingway’s mental and physical condition deteriorated as a result of his drinking. When doctors told him to quit he refused, even after confinement to bed. He eventually committed suicide. Pretty fucking lonely and miserable if you ask me, but sure, let’s picture him at a table full of people, smiling and lifting a glass.
Not that an alcoholic needs an excuse to drink, but the fear that one can’t be writer without alcohol is real for some. It was a concern Bukowski reportedly harbored, one that potentially kept him active. It was a concern I felt and an excuse I used for my own drinking, and it was a concern I’ve heard other writers express. I was in an MFA program for creative writing when my drinking really took off. Booze was everywhere, and one of the many reasons I think we all drank was to fit in. We were young, impressionable, desperate to be “writers” with little sense of what that actually meant. Some writers claim a glass or two of wine helps them loosen up. For me, an alcoholic, the work whistle blew just as soon as my drinking started. Give me a glass of wine and I was done for the night—and out of commission a good part of the next day as well. Hung over, miserable, unable to think or work…this ugly pattern pretty well described my whole life towards the very end until, like so many of literature’s greats (minus the greatness), I was suicidal. But yeah, I was a writer and this lifestyle was what I thought—thanks to images like these—being a “writer” meant.
If you’ve ever tried to capture insights while your drinking, you know that it’s a terrible idea and Ernest Hemingway’s famous quote, “Write drunk, edit sober” is bad advice (and possibly a misattribution). But I would’ve sacrificed anything for my art. Ultimately, I sacrificed my sanity and nearly my life to alcoholism. My last year of drinking and writing produced nothing but nonsense.
The message that alcoholism and creativity go together is not just obvious and tired—it’s wrong. According to at least one psychiatrist, drunk writers write better sober. And oh yeah, pot doesn’t help creativity either. But thanks to stories and listicles that romanticize alcoholic writers and artists, these stereotypes persist. Yet one thing I’ve learned in sobriety, having met tons of writers and artists in recovery, is that drugs and alcohol never gave us unique insights. Writers and artists have creative impulses and insights already. Artists and writers are sensitive, emotional and intelligent people—sometimes overly so. Substances helped some of us dull the world to tolerable levels, and so they appeared as a solution, until that solution became a problem of its own.
To me, whether alcohol does or doesn’t improve our writing is not the point. A better question: does or doesn’t booze destroy one’s life? Sober, I’m triple times the writer I was when I drank. More importantly, thanks to sobriety, I’m still alive.