Alcohol, Drugs, and Great Writing
Updated: Mar 29
A lot of infamous writers have had their bouts with addiction; so much so that it is stereotyped. But is there a connection between these infamous authors and their writing to their addiction? Did it make them a worse or better storyteller? Today I want to discuss, not necessarily transgressive fiction, but an element that has become the inspiration from plenty of transgressive and dirty realism works alike ... as well as been the subject of many authors: addiction.
A Branded Alcoholic
Charles Bukowksi, author of books like You Get So Alone At Times It Just Makes Sense and Ham On Rye, made a brand image of a disgruntled writer with one hand on the typewriter and the other hand holding a bottle.
He wasn't shy about the matter either. He often used the subject of alcohol in his novels and poetry. Even in interviews he is an open book on it. He has been quoted stating in one interview,
It is nice to die of alcoholism. It's very glorious. But if you write dull shit it doesn't do any good what you die from. You see, alcohol is not a great thing -- because you die of alcohol doesn't mean you're any good. You've got to leave some words behind. He [Malcolm Lowry] died swallowing his own vomit. Great. He's not even a professional drunk. When I really have a big drunk I put my head on the side of the mattress and let it like this so that if I vomit it's just going to go to the floor. This mans not even a fucking professional drunk.
One thing that you have to admire about this is that Bukowski doesn't see alcoholism in itself glorious if the person hadn't done something with it. There is nothing spectacular about addiction or alcohol, but at least if you had left something behind with it then the ends would justify the means.
One of the reasons that Bukowski has remained a cult favorite is due to his literary style dirty realism. In his writing he didn't hesitate to unveil the unorthodox of his life.
I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed but all I could do was to get drunk again.
This style opened him up to being relatable to many, as well as devilishly entertaining.
He invited readers into his belligerent journey that is Bukowski.
That alcoholism became a part of his brand, a brand that would represent rebellion and the genre of transgressive fiction and especially, dirty realism.
The World Breaks Everyone
The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places. - Ernest Hemingway
There isn't a more fitting quote from Ernest Hemingway to describe his turbulent life that involved alcoholism.
Hemingway, is considered to be in the Modernist genre. Often this correlates into transgressive fiction as well as dirty realism because of the similar themes he wrote.
Unlike Bukowski, Hemingway never drank while he was writing. He has been falsely accredited with the quote write drunk edit sober for years. He had explained back in 1961 to interviewer Edward Stafford for Writer's Digest,
Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You're thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes-- and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he's had his first one.
Unless you are a professional drunk like Bukowski, the writing runs the risk of becoming unnecessary when someone attempts to write and drink, something Hemingway could not settle for.
Addiction is a way for people to self-medicate. A sober person and an addict are only different in the ways that they chose to combat their demons. Hemingway chose to lose himself at the bottom of a glass to battle his.
Hemingway had plenty of his own demons in his life time stemming from family affairs, his time in World War II, among other aspects of his romantic relationships that caused him grief.
Post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, a personality disorder or two ... there have been plenty of psychological theories written on the author's probable mental health issues that would inevitably lead to his unfortunate suicide. One that is particularly interesting is a case study done by John T Metts.
His alcoholism did not directly affect his writing; but his writing came from that same subconscious that was dealing with those demons. His writing was great and immortalized because it came from a deeper place in himself, a place that he medicated religiously.
Even still, his alcoholism did play a role in his writing and perhaps even in its success depending on how one decides to look at it.
Cocaine Is A Hell of A Drug
There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.
Stephen King's On Writing documents some of the author's experience with not only his alcoholism but also his drug abuse.
Unlike Hemingway, who swore by not writing under the influence, King wrote some of his best works while he did just that.
It is also no secret that King has had his own addictions whilst writing, cocaine and alcohol being his two of choice.
King has confessed in his biography, On Writing, that the eighties for him is a drug and alcohol induced blur and as a result he can hardly remember writing at the time. Even so, many regard the majority of his best work being written then.
One snort and cocaine owned me body and soul. It was my on-switch, and it seemed like a really good energizing drug.
Despite his addictions King has made it clear that he does not believe that addiction and creative genius come hand in hand, that they are separate and just because an artist has substance abuse problems it does not make them any better of an artist,
The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers — common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I've heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.
The Connection Between Addiction and Creative Genius
There are a few ways to perceive the connection between addiction and creative genius, in this case -- great writing.
Addiction could have no impact on an author's writing (to some extent). Ernest Hemingway didn't drink while he wrote and therefore his writing wasn't directly affected by his alcoholism but Hemingway's writing and the man Hemingway himself are not separate.
Alcohol and writing could be a match made in heaven for some, such is the case for Charles Bukowski. However, Bukowski did it in a way where he was aware of the fact that he could not let his alcoholism damage his writing. He had a chaotic balance, but a balance nonetheless.
What is truly unfortunate is when addiction affects writing in such a way where the author cannot remember writing it, such is the case with Stephen King. In his case addiction had a complete impact on his writing.
So what is the answer? Does addiction make for a better writer?
Some writers write shit when they drink.
Some separate drinking from writing altogether.
Some can't even remember writing.
Others write masterpieces whilst drinking.
There is no completely correct answer as to whether or not addiction makes for a better writer. Everyone is different. Some are better writers with addiction, some aren't, and there are others who manage to cope.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments.
About the Author
Natalie Nider is the author of her upcoming short story collection
For My Amusement and creator of
She has turned her love of Transgressive Fiction and Dirty Realism into a passion.
She lives in Pennsylvania with her family where she can often be found writing or staring into an eggshell wall thinking about it.