The Myth of the Tortured Genius
In the popular imagination, there’s a potent link between writers and alcohol. The cultural myth portrays the emotionally tortured writer wrestling with his inner demons, wrenching words from his troubled soul; or the poet rapt by alcohol-induced ecstasy, feverishly penning lines of divinely inspired verse; or the hardened hack, shirt open, tie pulled down, half-smoked cigarette clenched between his teeth, swilling bourbon as he hammers out his subversive prose late into the night.
The popular images are almost exclusively of men. But we’ll come back to that.
It’s a powerful and pervasive cultural image. Writers drink. And the alcohol plays a vital role in the drama of creativity. The idea’s reinforced by the testimony of many writers who’ve admitted to their dependency, and even glorified it. But alcoholics lie. We’ll say anything to justify our drinking habits. And novelists are professional liars, after all.
My First Alcoholic Drink
I took my first drink when I was no more than twelve years old, if I remember rightly. The occasion was a wedding breakfast. There was a lot of drink about and it was late into the party.
I asked my father for a sip of his brandy. He refused. As he returned to his conversation, I stole a glass of red wine from a nearby table. Knowing no better, I drank it as if it were fruit juice.
And by the time I’d finished that glass, I was in a different world.
What had been a drab, uninteresting marquee populated by stiff suits, over-perfumed ladies, terrifying aunts-who-must-be-kissed, and sly, untrustworthy cousins, had been transformed.
The lights sparkled, the music intensified, the world exploded in a symphony of color, sound, movement. So this is what the adult world is like, I thought.
Wanting more, I wandered the tables, foraging for wine, beer, whiskey, brandy; anything I could find. I became euphoric. The wedding marquee could have been equaled in splendor only by the great pleasure dome decreed by Kubla Khan.
The vision didn’t last.
The world swelled and contracted, then blurred, spinning out of orbit. My stomach convulsed, cramped, convulsed again. I stumbled to my knees and threw up violently over the unnaturally green Astroturf of that earthly paradise.
But when the illness was over, the punishment endured, and the incident forgotten, I still remembered.
And I yearned.
For had I not dined on honey-dew, and drunk the milk of paradise?
I spent much of the rest of my life searching for that lost Xanadu. It took me an unconscionable length of time to realize no amount of alcohol would re-open the celestial gate, and by the time I realized I wasn’t climbing Jacob’s ladder, but dancing into the mouth of Hell, I was an alcoholic.
But this post isn’t about my subsequent struggles with alcohol.
The Big Question
I’d like to understand what’s going on in a wider cultural context; to look at other authors who succumbed to drink, or who, like me, recovered; to test the romantic, mythological notions of the “booze as muse” from a psychiatric and medical perspective, and determine what underlies the idea.
Is the relationship between writers and alcohol as widespread as the cultural image would have us believe? Can alcohol open the floodgates of inspiration, or are great works penned by alcoholics written despite, rather than because of, the drink?
Sacred Intoxication in Classical Literature
The symbolic connection between drinking and inspiration has a venerable history. Gaining prophetic powers by drinking from magical wells and sacred streams is a mythological motif already common in ancient times.
On Mount Helicon in Greece there’s a fountain which, according to legend, gushed forth when the hoof of the winged horse, Pegasus, struck it. The fountain’s called Hippocrene and is sacred to the Muses, offering inspiration to any who dare to drink from it. And it’s often been associated with wine. The poet John Keats invokes it as an image of alcoholic inspiration in the poem every child scholar learns by heart, Ode to a Nightingale.
“O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen…”
In the Classical world, drink is associated again and again with inspiration, with ecstasy, poetry and creativity.
Rites of Ecstasy
Thinking of the historical rather than legendary ancient Greece, the symposia offer an example of alcohol used to induce a flow of creativity. Men (women were not permitted) would meet together to drink wine and use intoxication to inspire verse, story, and song. Several millennia later, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Kaufman, Snyder and the other beat poets were only reinventing the wheel.
The rites of the gods Bacchus and Dionysus, which involved sacred orgies of ecstatic drunkenness, were later modified and adopted, together with elements of the liturgies of Mithras and the Jewish Passover, into the syncretic Eucharistic rites of the Christian churches. In Christian myth, drinking consecrated wine results in spiritual salvation and communion with the divine.
The tradition of holy, inspirational wine isn’t exclusive to the West. In ancient China, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove used to meet to drink rice wine and compose poetry. They said, “A single glass can inspire a hundred verses.” Whether most of those verses were any good or not is open to debate.
There are many other examples of sacred intoxication around the world, from the Norse Aegir, to the Ancient Egyptian Schesmu, to the contemporary Voodoo rum-based liturgies of Baron Samedì. But you can look them up for yourself if you’re interested.
So much for religion and the ancients.
What about the modern mythology of writers and alcohol?
The Drunken Writer Testifies
It’s time to examine the testimony of writers themselves.
The late Kingsley Amis wasn’t known for sobriety, but he was sniffy about claims that alcohol addiction helped creativity. Comparing actors and writers, he wrote in Memoirs, “A writer’s audience is and remains invisible to him, but if he is any good he is acutely and continuously aware of it, and never more so while it waits for him to come on, to begin page one. Alcohol not only makes you less self-critical, it reduces fear.” Alcohol furnishes, “that final burst of energy at the end of the day.” But he remains skeptical of writing while under the influence. “The writer who writes his books on, rather than between, whiskies,” says Amis, “is a lousy writer.”
Nevertheless, the list of authors posterity has endowed with the epithet “great” who were as much renowned for unrepentant roistering as for anything they wrote, is as long as it is impressive:
- Edgar Allen Poe
The great author of the eerie and the macabre admitted to a lifelong dependency on alcohol. He blamed what he referred to as his “insanity” on the booze. While in the last year of his life he joined a Temperance Society in an effort to kick the habit, he acted too late. There is some speculation about the precise cause of his death, but it seems likely to be related to alcohol and opium.
- Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s pithy statements about his relationship with drink are oft quoted and turned into memes on social media. But the truth is, there was nothing romantic about his drinking. Even after he’d been diagnosed with liver dysfunction and his closest friends implored him to give up drinking, they frequently found empty bottles of liquor stashed under his hospital bed. In the end, he shot himself.
- William Faulkner
Faulkner was addicted to strong drink and his level of dependency is shown in his willingness to drink even the roughest moonshine liquor when he could find nothing better. He would spend days at a time locked alone in hotel rooms to drink without rebuke. On at least one occasion he fell into a stupor and badly burned his back on the hotel heating system. But he still drank himself to death.
- Hart Crane
Crane suffered a slow descent into alcoholic depression punctuated by bouts of lurid violence. In Voyager, his biographer John Unterecker makes clear that his alcoholism was ultimately “hostile to his genius.” His story is a tragic one.
- Tennessee Williams
Williams suffered from underlying anxiety and depression and quickly fell into dependency on drugs and alcohol. He claimed they calmed him and released his creativity, but the consensus among his closest friends and colleagues was that the drink stifled his creativity. He choked to death in a hotel room in the 80s, after a non-productive decade lost to drugs and alcohol.
- Truman Capote
Capote was well-known as a drinker. He spent many years of his life in and out of rehabilitation centers, ultimately succumbing to his demise at only 59. Prior to his death he had boasted publicly and at length about his forthcoming book, Answered Prayers, which would, he claimed, make him America’s answer to Proust. After his death, no such manuscript was ever found. It appears to have been an alcoholic’s delusion, fueled by nothing but fantasy and wishful thinking.
- Raymond Chandler
Renowned for his drinking habits, Chandler was far from the romantic ideal of the alcoholic he portrayed in his most famous literary creation, Philip Marlowe. On the contrary, he was known to annoy his friends, suffer from blackouts, and on several occasions threatened to commit suicide. In the last five years of his life he did nothing but drink and finally died of pneumonia.
- O. Henry
The writer William Sydney Porter, who published under the pseudonym O. Henry, drank all his life. His father had also been an alcoholic and abandoned him to be brought up by his grandmother. His story is a little less sordid than some. He drank excessively but quietly. However, discretion didn’t save him from dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
- Jack London
Best known for The Call of the Wild, Jack London also penned a self-searching autobiography of his descent into alcoholism, John Barleycorn – Alcoholic Memoirs.
The best thing to do here is let the man speak for himself.
In that often overlooked work, he wrote, after proclaiming that he was a drinker but not an alcoholic, “And the thing began so imperceptibly, that I, old intimate of John Barleycorn, never dreamed whither it was leading me…. It was at this time I became aware of waiting with expectancy for the pre-dinner cocktail. I wanted it, and I was conscious that I wanted it…. And right there John Barleycorn had me. I was beginning to drink regularly; I was beginning to drink alone.”
And again, “Had I, a non-alcoholic, by long practice, become an alcoholic…The more I drank the more I was required to drink to get an equivalent effect…. Whenever I was in a hurry, I ordered double cocktails. It saved time… Where was this steady drinking leading? But trust John Barleycorn to silence such questions. ‘Come on and have a drink and I’ll tell you all about it,’ is his way.”
Finally he was forced to make the most terrible confession of all. “But a new and most diabolical complication arose: The work refused to be done without drinking. It just couldn’t be done. I had to drink in order to do it.”
In the end, he died of uremia and other complications induced by a life-long habit of excessive drinking.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Few writers have allowed alcohol to undermine their creative work as determinedly and openly as Fitzgerald. He used to introduce himself as a renowned alcoholic at parties. But he spent more time in a drunken stupor or in a semi-critical condition in a hospital bed than he managed to pass at his typewriter. He became increasingly anti-social, was frequently fired from screen-writing projects, and died of a heart attack at the age of 44. Hardly anyone he had known attended his funeral.
- John Berryman
Berryman was the grandmaster of raw, confessional poetry delivered in staggered stanzas of broken syntax. His preoccupations with alcohol, and his struggles with addiction, are laid bare on the pages of his Dream Songs collections, among others. But after years of increasing dependency, failed marriages, and the inability to produce more work, he killed himself by jumping off Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.
- Jack Kerouac
The “King of the Beats” and thinly veiled auto-biographer, Kerouac drank heavily and persistently. Whereas many of these famed alcoholic writers only wrote while sober, Kerouac’s drinking, drug-taking and carousing went together with his writing like bourbon and vermouth. They were a cocktail of creativity and destruction. Much of his work documents his own drink-and-drug-fueled adventures. I can’t help wondering how he might have worked in the age of the internet and social media, now it’s de rigueur to publish your personal mythology in hourly installments.
He died from internal bleeding in 1969, with a glass of malt liquor still in his hand.
- Charles Bukowski
Bukowski, who was dubbed by Time magazine in 1986 as “the laureate of American lowlife,” was an unrepentant drinker. An exception to the rule, despite suffering several bouts of ill-health due to the booze, he lived a long and productive life.
Born in 1920, he died of leukemia in 1994 at the age of 73. During his writing life he published 40 books, many documenting the stories of the wastrels, the underdogs and the drunkards of the disenfranchised American underbelly.
Bukowski claimed alcohol sustained and inspired him. He wrote that had he not been a drunkard, he would most likely have killed himself.
- Dylan Thomas
The tragic death of the novelist, poet, and playwright Dylan Thomas, at the age of 39, has become the stuff of legend. He’d been out on a typical alcoholic binge and returned home late and disheveled. His last words were to his wife, Caitlin, also a heavy drinker. He’s reported to have said, “I’ve had 18 whiskies straight. I think that’s the record.”
Women Alcoholic Writers
Contrary to the popular image of the male drunk which we noted earlier, there are plenty of women writers we can add to this non-exhaustive list. Even Maya Angelou, hardly a roisterer, declared a dependency on sherry in order to write.
The female alcoholic writers get less air-time for cultural reasons. In our patriarchal society we find it easy enough to glorify the rugged, masculine anti-hero with his whiskey and cigarettes. But the woman who drinks and smokes is frowned upon. She’s considered immoral, pathetic, uncouth, in a way that doesn’t apply to her male counterparts.
Let’s look at a few female alcoholic writers.
- Patricia Highsmith
After a troubled childhood and parental rejection, Highsmith took to the bottle while studying at college. She quickly became addicted and justified her habit by claiming that alcohol was “essential for the artist” as it enabled her to “see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more.”
However, as is often the case, her supporting staff turned out to be a birch branch that beat her. It wasn’t long before she’d retire to bed in the afternoon with a bottle of liquor and carry on drinking through the night.
The author of The Talented Mr. Ripley died near her home in Locarno, Switzerland in 1995.
- Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys, born Gwen Williams, suffered a disturbing and cruel childhood, eventually running away to become a chorus girl. During a lifelong search for fulfillment and escape from the agonies of her soul, she turned ever more frequently to alcohol as a solace and support.
A series of disastrous marriages and the need to constantly run away meant that, despite publishing several lucid and famous novels, the best known of which is The Wide Sargasso Sea, she passed most of her life in fear and poverty.
She continued to drink even to the last. She died alone and almost forgotten in a Devon Nursing Home in 1979. She was 89.
- Marguerite Duras
Duras was a novelist and a film maker. She was also a hard drinker. She would sometimes abstain entirely from drinking for a few years, and then return to the bottle with a vengeance. She would drink on waking up in the morning, usually cognac and coffee, and then start on the wine. Her motto was “one glass of wine every hour.” She readily consumed 14 pints of Bordeaux in a session. A session could last several days until she’d finally pass out.
Did her alcoholic indulgence help her creativity? Duras answered that question herself when she wrote, “I was a real alcoholic. I drank red wine… and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write.”
Duras died of cancer of the larynx linked to excessive drinking and smoking.
- Elizabeth Bishop
Bishop, a poet and short story writer, was the daughter of alcoholic parents and grew up in an atmosphere of insecurity and shame. As with Highsmith, she started drinking to grease the mechanisms of social intercourse while at college. And as with Highsmith, that “social drinking” soon took over and became an endless yearning; a desperate appetite which could never be satisfied for long.
She found a degree of peace in the relative obscurity and freedom offered her by her retreat to Brazil, where she lived with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares.
She died in 1979 of a brain aneurysm.
- Anne Sexton
Sexton’s life was fraught with difficulties as she suffered from mental health problems and was “under the doctor” from her early twenties. It’s hard to disentangle her alcohol abuse from the underlying causes, but she certainly drank not so much as a means to creative expression, as in an attempt to control the rushing thoughts and wild excitement during her periods of mania. In episodes of depression, she drank to fill the void.
Her poetry is sharp, confessional, rich in self-revelation, and for a time garnered an avid following, both in literary circles and among the wider public.
Alcoholism was, for Sexton, one element of a more complex range of psycho-emotional disorders from which she realized she would never recover. In the end she committed suicide by locking herself in her garage with the car engine running.
Have you noticed something?
The Heart of Darkness
While all these writers are very different, they have one thing in common aside from their dependence on alcohol. Without exception, they had disturbed childhoods or were predisposed to anxiety and depression.
Our culture condones alcohol in law, in advertising, in cultural imagery, as a viable route out of suffering. It’s no surprise, then, that these writers all turned to the booze to remedy their many sorrows and allow them to write.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, writing anxiety is the greatest threat to any writer’s life. It’s also a normal and widespread phenomenon. And we have to remember that for every notorious roistering pen-pusher, there must be a dozen or more sober writers quietly getting on with the job.
It’s clear to me from studying these biographies, that contrary to the romantic myth, alcohol was not a fount of inspiration for such writers. It was a desperate recourse; an attempt to blot out the lingering doubt, fear, and pain of a troubled childhood; to numb the anxiety, lessen the fear, and allow them to write. Which means allow them to do what every other writer from a happy home, and without an endogenous predisposition to clinical depression, manages easily enough without need of medication.
This is no surprise to me.
My struggle with drink, and my love-hate relationship with alcohol, goes hand-in-hand with a personal history involving a strict religious upbringing, alcoholism in the family, sexual abuse, and my mother’s death when I was still in my teens. My story follows the precedents perfectly. There’s nothing original about it.
Most Writers Are Not Alcoholics
But the fact remains that most writers don’t have any issues with drink and , even if they enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time, are certainly not alcoholics.
History records many writers who were teetotalers, too: Issac Azimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry David Thoreau, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy… the list could go on. But let’s stop with Thomas Hardy, as he illustrates a very important point.
I’m a great fan of Thomas Hardy. I’ve read and frequently re-read all his work. His novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, among other things, is a fine, detailed, and accurate account of an alcoholic. But Hardy never drank. He was the most sober of writers. So it isn’t even necessary to drink in order to understand those who do.
There’s no need to live like Kerouac to write about people like Kerouac. Writing fiction requires the author to exercise empathy and imagination. Coupled with discipline, they’re all that’s needed. Alcohol, given time, destroys all three.
The Psychiatric Perspective
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones is a Consultant Psychiatrist, President Elect of the Medical Women’s Federation, and The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ spokesperson on Behavioral Addictions. So she knows what she’s talking about. And she has some very interesting things to say on the subject of creativity and alcohol. It’s worth quoting her at length:
“The majority of people who drink alcohol do not automatically become more creative after a few drinks,” she says in a think-piece for the Telegraph newspaper. “There is a limited amount of research indicating that people who drink in moderation may, after a few drinks, become more adept at solving certain cognitive tasks that show flexibility of thinking but this is different from leading someone to paint a beautiful picture worthy of the Royal Academy summer exhibition.
“Creativity in psychiatric terms can literally mean reaching a way of problem solving that was not so accessible prior to the ingestion of the alcohol…There are plenty of patients with addictions whose creativity is stunted by the alcohol addiction because all the positive energy they were deriving from a happy life, a happy family and good relationships with a spouse and friends have all been damaged by the alcohol misuse.
“What is left is an empty shell. The potential for creativity is there but the person is too low in mood to feel the drive and motivation to create.”
The Truth About Writers and Alcohol
The myth of a creative relationship between writers and alcohol is dependent on a reluctance to admit that the work and the writer may not represent an artistic whole.
Alcoholics, as we noted at the beginning of this post, are skilled liars; as are novelists. Put the two together and there’s little surprise you end up with a popularized image of the writer-who-drinks as the very epitome of the writing life. Alcoholic authors work hard to maintain that myth in order to mask, or excuse, or justify, the dirty truth of a sordid addiction.
But the public hungrily devour the myth. They can’t believe that the drinking and the writing are dissonant rather than harmonic. But the truth is that alcoholics who write do so despite their addiction and not because of it.
Believe me. I know.
And that famous, probably apocryphal, quotation from Ernest Hemingway that goes round and round on social media these days? You must have seen it. “Write drunk, edit sober.” Well, it is, to use the vernacular, bollocks.
But let’s end with a genuine quotation from Bukowski.
“It’s hard to write prose when you’re drinking, because prose is too much work.”
That should, I hope, for anyone still inclined to romanticize the relationship between writers and alcohol, be a sobering thought.
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments below. Please share this post on your social media. That would be a lovely thing to do.
Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photo of me) are in the Public Domain or released under a Fair Use Licence and were sourced via the Creative Commons.