Writerly occupational hazards: Ersatz creativity (boozing)

Inebriation is a false Muse. As seductive as they may be, chemical substitutes for true creative intoxication don’t work.

Maybe there are exceptions that prove this rule. Malcolm Lowry, e.g., did much field research for his brilliant novel Under the Volcano, which included a main protagonist who was drinking himself to death. (Lowry, unfortunately, perhaps in his quest for verisimilitude, was himself to go all the way at an early age.) Emulating his own hard-boiled detective protagonists, writer Micky Spillane claimed he’d go to the office, get his feet up on his desk, crack a bottle of whiskey and dictate the next book off the top of his head to his (leggy) secretary. I can almost believe him, having read a couple of his stories way back when I was a boy. Though I suspect he asked his secretary to have a quick look at his punctuation, after she washed out his shot glass and ashtray and before sending the ms. to the publisher.

Generally, though, writing and boozing don’t mix.

James Joyce had this to say about matters:

Boozing does not necessarily have to go hand in hand with being a writer, as seems to be the concept in America. I therefore solemnly declare to all young men tyring to become writers that they do not actually have to become drunkards first.

Samuel Johnson, with his usual verbal parsimony, suggested this:

One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.

What the hell. I’m moved to coin an aphorism of my own:

Our fiction-writing faculties may also produce splendid daydreams. Especially when inflamed by alcohol, these in turn conduce to celebrating one’s literary awards before they’re awarded, not to mention counting one’s groupies before they’ve hatched.

Our friend Jack Shackaway says all that’s rubbish. He tells me that boozing provides him with much literary lumber for the building. In fact, here’s something he has just passed me:

“Doctor, doctor,” I say. “I am suffering from a chronic hangover.”

“Yes,” she tells me. “That is an occupational hazard of piss artistry, and there is no cure unless you find another line of work.”

“But all I know is writing.”

“Then we can only treat the symptoms. There is no cure, although I personally find that a Bloody Mary with double vodka and a megadose of vitamins B and C on the side can work wonders.”

At this point in my dream the doctor takes to looking much younger and shapelier and she starts to remove her clothes, and I’m wondering whether this is part of the treatment, when I’m awakened by a nurse.

I see my doctor riding shotgun in the background. Then she comes forward to say, “It’s confirmed. You have dengue fever.”

Dengue fever, eh? When you’ve had as many force-10 hangovers as I’ve come up with these past months, you laugh at dengue fever. Almost.

I make a grab for the nurse, but then I wake up again, and I’m at home.

And it’s really a hangover I’m looking at after all

QED, eh? (Referring to my earlier claim re. drinking and writing.)

A last perspective, this from Philip Larkin:

Get stewed.

Books are a load of crap.


That, and the other literary quotes, aside from my own, are from Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anedcotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, by John Winokur.

The cartoon illustration is from “The Joy of Hangovers” in Bangkok Old Hand, by Collin Piprell (out of print).


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