A Short Late Night History of Writers and the Drink

A Short Late Night History of Writers and the Drink
Dylan Thomas spent so long drinking at Brown's Hotel he gave out its phone number as his own. (pic: FT.com)

Drink. It’s a common theme in everything good that’s ever been written. World class literature, country western songs, sketch comedy, and kitschy magazine fiction all make ample if veiled reference to beer, booze and the drunken experience. Even refined poetry and the tatty wall graffiti in the bathroom of every disheveled bar in America ably commemorate drink and its great influence on humanity’s brain.

I’ve always believed as a writer that every writer comes with a defining tick that makes us go. All writers -- I can only really speak about men, perhaps-- are either drunks, drug addicts, teetotalers, or egomaniacs, womanizers, bible-thumpers, fist-fighters, or are just mentality ill. Every one of us has a defect, and that’s just part of our personality, motivation, and constitution as writers.

But drink –alcohol specifically—has its own added catalyst and a second dimension that appears to have been responsible for much of what the written word has accomplished since the beginning of history.

It’s been said that Dylan Thomas spent so long drinking at his favorite hotel bar in south Wales, that he eventually gave out the bar’s phone number as his own. No worries really. He wrote a ton of great poetry that even people who don’t get poetry get.

Drink moves writers to write, or at least sends the demons away long enough for us to get some damn work done.

Kerouac drank, in part, to erase the memories of his youth, but in turn created a new youthful rebellion and reality on the road. That reality inspired countless others to spurn the comfy life of post-war suburbia, while Kerouac, through it, wrote milestones along the way. Edgar Allan Poe, a military man by trade and a creature of habit, ventured his own ritual of getting up at 5 every morning, writing until 10 a.m. As a reward, he spent the rest of the day drinking, summoning dusky hangovers and the darkness that filled his classic volumes.

Bukowski, a drinker first and a writer second spent his life at the bar. Between skipping out on bar tabs and weathering drunk-on-drunk fights in LA slums, Bukowski found time to write poetry and plays; ones so good that by the end of his life he’d transformed himself to a writer first and drinker second.

And any tourist can visit Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. But tradition calls on Faulkner admirers to visit his grave leaving a pint of whiskey behind. Though scotch is what he was said to prefer.

It beckons predictable questions: Do writers need to drink? And if so, is drink an escape? Or just a tasty catalyst to spark the imagination?

It’s true that a drink in the hand stirs the writer to get out the pen. A bar napkin often lends a hand as a journal when no journal is handy. And when there’s no drink to be had we write about drink with the emotion and sympathetic candor we’d normally save for eulogies of a dead friend or long lost pen pal. Drink moves writers to write, or at least sends the demons away long enough for us to get some damn work done.

It could be that drink is the grease for a good writer’s engine, while some hold that alcohol --in the long-term at least-- destroys writers, eventually stifling creativity. It is the stiff drink in their hand, they say, that causes a writer to unravel from within. I’m not sure which is true. Yet, one thing that is certain.

If drink untangles the writer’s human vulnerability, it also reveals his human authenticity; as a feeler, as an observer. Drink is a writer’s muse.

I suppose you could ask the writer himself. Hemingway, Capote, and Tennessee Williams probably all could attest --were they to actually admit it-- the negative effect of alcohol on their health and their own shortened lives.

But like any gamble or detrimental flaw, my guess is that every writer who has produced a masterpiece alongside a Manhattan or drained glass of whiskey would also credit their drink as a worthy companion. Without that temptress and that necessary evil, our writers may have counted longer days. But our book shelves would be barer. And like a sullen, empty bar glass, history would be much less fulfilled and much more dry.

Filed under: Drinking

Tags: drinking, writing

Leave a comment