I stand by my previous assertion that smoking cloves and drinking absinthe doesn’t make you more artistic. But I reserve the right to write with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine every now and then.
Does that make me a hypocrite wrapped up in a cliché?
Yet there is a certain luxury in being able to pair a nice glass of wine with writing a page of witty dialogue, and I like my coffee with cream and exposition.
You have to admit that the image of the threadbare-sweater-wearing writer sitting in an attic somewhere with a steaming mug of coffee while they pound away at a typewriter is about as ingrained as any stereotype there is. It’s likely even autumn and there are leaves blowing around on a damp and deserted street below their window.
I find that I’m okay with that setting. Sometimes the fantasy aspect is essential to creating a tone conducive to inspiration.
A more modern scene is the writer who escapes the distractions of home to write in a tiny bohemian café. They take their laptop and get the best table by the window, managing to spend 6 bucks the entire day and not get kicked out.
Whether it’s the caffeine or it’s just for the sake of having something to drink while writing is a mystery.
Writing and alcohol, however, have been in a complicated relationship for many years more. Way before Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober” literary history tells us that many great works were at least partially penned while the author was under the influence.
Ben Jonson made it artistic: he literally wrote poetry about drinking and his favorite public houses. Shakespeare too was known to crush a cup of wine while he toiled with his sonnets. Of course, just about everyone drank alcohol in Elizabethan London, which was more likely due to the poor quality of the drinking water than the high quality of the wine.
Oscar Wilde was also a notorious drunkard and after writing The Importance of Being Earnest spent months wandering through Paris listlessly and definitely un-sober.
Even Walt Whitman, a man who was something of a prohibitionist, wrote the entire novel Franklin Evans drunk. The fact that he hated it afterwards is totally beside the point. More recent examples of this are Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, and, John Cheever who said: “The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.”
Long story short: it’s abundantly clear that none of these taletellers were teetotallers (yes I encourage you to try saying that five times fast) and that for some reason, most writers drink. A lot.
Believe me when I say that you don’t want to end up like any of them.
So where is the line between unleashing creativity and pointless abuse of the liver? I think the answer is probably in a different question entirely.
Why do writers drink at all?
Since alcohol functions as an inhibition eraser, the obvious choice would be that a few drinks loosen you up enough to write the truth, and the tough scenes, and the pages that make you uncomfortable but need to be written for the character to be believable. A drink or three helps you get past your own embarrassment and your fear of criticism, thereby thickening the skin.
It’s also always been seen as kind of chic to be a writer who ponders plot with a drink in hand. Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway had signature cocktails, even. But that’s a story for another time.
So to answer the first question, the line between enjoying and overindulging is by consuming anything north of one. That is, if you’re actually writing seriously and not just hanging out by a blank computer screen. At the end of the day, the more time you spend drinking the less time you spend writing.
Probably best to stick with the coffee.