Once, back when I was a drinking woman, I read the ending to Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms aloud at a dive bar. My captive audience: a forty-year-old oyster shucker, an Irish newlywed, and an older man with a bad eye. None of them cared much for my rendition, but like most drunks, I was oblivious to what anyone else in the room wanted.
“After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. That’s good, isn’t it?” I asked the oyster shucker, having just proudly spoiled one of the best endings in American literature. He humored me, because we were regulars at the same bar, and I was the sort of drunk who bought everyone beer. I did so that night, leaving literature behind in favor of whiskey and silent company.
I am not the first writer who got my start reading and writing in bars. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, Williams, Faulkner, Bukowski, Thompson … the list goes on—famous writers made more famous for their drinking. I admired them, as many young artists do. It seemed impossible not to. A peculiar prestige hovers over their lives, and the romanticized idea that writers drink still hangs heavy in our bars and workshops. It seems almost perfect. Levity balanced with literature balanced with liquor.
And make no mistake: liquor was an essential part of their day-to-day. Their biographies and their writing are littered with alcohol. Faulkner enjoyed a mint julep while at the typewriter. Hemingway said to his biographer that the drink was a necessary thing after writing “left him as whipped, wrung out, and empty as a used dishrag.” In a letter to his editor, Fitzgerald wrote: “[W]ithout drink, I do not know whether I could have survived this time.” Hunter S. Thompson’s days were filled with cocaine, booze, and acid, and writers like Parker and Bukowski praised the bottle in their poetry. These writers crafted masterpieces while thoroughly entrenched in their own drinking, and their identities seem irrevocably tied up with alcohol. This makes an easy excuse for artistic alcoholics, and it was one I used frequently. Existential dread may have been at the door, but literature and liquor could keep it at bay, just as it did for all those other writers. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was romanticizing alcohol’s relationship with writing the way a soldier in boot camp might glorify war.
Two months after my impromptu reading at the dive bar, I sobered up. Alcoholism, that heady genetic disease which strips away people’s lives, had taken only five years of mine—hardly more than the blink of an eye, as these things go. I continued to write, though to me it had grown stale. So many of my idols were addicts, and so much of my own writing had been done in bars. Another silly romanticism, maybe, but it didn’t change the fact that my writing habits would need to change along with my drinking ones.
I hunted for new literary idols, ones who didn’t have a history of whiskey trailing behind them. In doing so, I noticed something odd. A shift in the narrative. That hard-drinking, never-sober stereotype seems to have faded with time. Authors widely regarded as having written modern classics aren’t up to nights of drunken debauchery. Many are sober, like Murakami or King, and those who do drink tend not to do so to the excess of their predecessors. This shift goes beyond the literary community. In popular culture, it’s the same thing. Some of the most widely respected and highest-paid actors—Robert Downey, Jr.; Bradley Cooper; Colin Farrell—are currently in some form of recovery. We’re choosing to listen to different stories.
The cause is clear. The term alcoholism was first penned in the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that its definition truly began to take form. E. M. Jellinek, a famous biostatistician who shaped our perception of alcoholism, published Alcohol Addiction and Chronic Alcoholism in 1942, and through the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, he developed the concept of alcoholism as a disease. It would finally be classified as such by the American Medical Association in 1956. It’s easy to take for granted how recent this shift in public perception is. Today, AA meetings can be found nationwide; the legal drinking age has been set solid for more than thirty years; and rehab and treatment are often covered by insurance. As knowledge and treatment of alcoholism has risen, the creative drunk has become less acceptable, socially. And it’s become harder for alcoholics to use writing as an excuse for their drinking.
This isn’t a bad turn—alcoholism and addiction can ruin lives—but this change has undoubtedly made waves in our culture. It seems unlikely, for example, that someone like Hemingway could exist in today’s society without a string of interventions and rehab stints trailing behind him. Of course, the obvious—and unanswerable—question is whether this would have affected his writing.
I personally think any answer is irrelevant. Alcohol has been important to many writers and their works, but not because it got them drunk. When we write, we draw from the well of our life experiences. It stands to reason that our experiences with alcohol, drunk or sober or anything in between, are going to be a part of that.
As for productivity, I can only speak for my own experiences, but my writing habits have improved dramatically since getting sober. Before, so much of my free time had been hemorrhaged away by being drunk or trying to get there. What I did write was entirely based on whatever drunken whim had struck; usually, it was sloppy and over-emotional. Now, instead of waxing poetic to oyster shuckers, I spend more time at my desk, actually writing.
And if it had been true that any creative desire I had could only be wrung from the neck of a bottle? Well, I would have been fine. I love having writing in my life—but with alcohol, I didn’t have much of a life at all.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to search too hard for new literary inspiration. Unsurprisingly, many of those writers I admired infused their own struggles with alcohol into their stories. I reread Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I hunted down Fitzgerald’s diary entries. I fell in love with works written by recovering addicts. It helped me to see my own struggles reflected on the page and to know that no matter how I felt, I was not alone. Others had walked this path before. To me, that’s the mark of great writing—it’s an echoing of the human condition, an acknowledgment of struggle and survival. Whether our struggle is with alcohol or some other trauma, this is something that will never change.