The idea for this post came from a recent one I saw on the Missouri Review blog, but it’s something I’ve considered occasionally myself. Can one write well (or at all) while in an altered mental state brought on by drugs or alcohol? Can you write while high or drunk?
I can only speak to the latter, and for me the answer is no. I’m not a serious drinker, but I grew up in St. Louis where the beer flowed like mother’s milk. Even so, a six pack of beer has me out for the duration, youthful endurance having slipped past me somehow. I might indulge in one beer, maybe two, and still feel capable of worthy writing effort, but beyond that I lose concentration. I can’t focus, or at least I don’t want to focus. I want to drift and feel mellow and certainly not do anything requiring serious mental application. (Though a group of my friends with sufficient beer and a cheery campfire can solve all of the world’s problems for you.) Heck, I’ve found it hard to write when I’m alone and perfectly sober at my cabin in the woods, which ought to be an ideal writing refuge, because my mind drifts to everything going on in the forest. No, for me, serious writing requires isolation, sufficient time to ramp up, and a commitment to do something, to do anything, but to keep at the hard work of it.
So even feeling a pleasing buzz from a few beers means an end to writing productivity for me. But I’m not sure that’s true for everyone. A writing instructor I had in college once interviewed John Gardner who told him that he could only write while he was drunk, but that he was pretty much drunk all the time. Anecdotal accounts of famous writers and their binges really must be held suspect though. And in any case, I don’t suppose they ought to be held as role models for process. It may be that a writer would not be inhibited while inebriated, but I’d worry that he/she might become dependent upon it to write. That’s no way to be.
There’s drunk, and then there’s drunk though. A friend of mine quaffs a dozen cans of beer (well, okay, Keystone Light) every day. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, even at the end of the drinking day, but you would know it if you were his anesthesiologist. When my friend had to have some minor surgery and the anesthesiologist learned of his drinking habits, he warmed my friend that he was probably not going to get any effect from the anesthesia and had better be ready to feel some pain. Still, my friend is able to operate a successful home business and make a more-than-decent living at it. All while keeping the Keystone beer people in business. I suspect many writers can do something of the same thing. Their tolerance level could be so high that they’re not really “drunk” as much as in some altered mental state where the censor is switched off (or passed out?).
Considered from the other end of the spectrum, I am convinced that I can write better (or more enthusiastically? willingly? effortlessly?) when I am drinking iced tea. I’ve written about it here before. Caffeine is a stimulant, and maybe that’s the difference, at least for me. But at least for me and in at least this kind of scenario, liquid inspiration does seem to work. Of course I can work at serious creative writing without a pitcher of iced tea at hand, and most of the time I do, but there does seem to be a qualitative difference in my ability when I’m grooving along on caffeine. Or maybe it’s all in my head.
Nonetheless, and purely for scientific and high-minded purposes, I have made an experiment with this post. About halfway through the composition of these words, my wife and I decided to polish off a bottle of wine. I felt a sort of obligation to attempt writing whilst imbibing, at least if I was going to make an insightful commentary about the relationship. In the refrigerator we had a bottle of dry red wine from Spain, a bit of plunder we took from my son’s apartment when we were closing it (he having moved to Oregon, leaving us with the clean up — he did get his full deposit back, but did he thank us? No!). His fiance had enrolled him in a wine tasting class, and I think this Spanish red was left over from that little adventure. In any case, the stuff is nasty, at least to my untutored palate. I think you could clean paint brushes with it, maybe even scour pots, and I can understand how Cleopatra could dissolve her pearls in her wine (why would she do that?). But I digress. Or drift. Or babble.
I’ve had two glasses to my wife’s one of the Spanish red, and I’m feeling nicely mellow right now. Even the dogs are being quiet. (Border Collies are notoriously active animals, but I digress.) By the way, the Spanish red tastes a little better now. Not so much bite. Smoother. Friendlier. I won’t go into the metaphor of wine appreciation though. My the text looks so small from here …
Oops, just spilled some wine. Must get paper towel. Be right back.
It seems there was something else I wanted to say about this subject, about the effects of drinking on writing, but the thought escapes me . . . maybe another sip of that Spanish red . . . keyboard, hold still . . . profound thoughts, where art thou?
Update 21:20 – My wife does not want to finish her Spanish red. Thus I am tasked with the the job. Somehow I will manage to complete the work, but I don’t envy the organization that expects me to be chipper and productive tomorrow. Why am I not in bed?