Alcohol, Drugs, and Great Writing
A lot of infamous writers have had their bouts with addiction; so much so that it is stereotyped. And like any stereotype ... there is always some truth to them. Is there a connection between writers and addiction? Specifically these three famous authors.
Did it make them a worse or better storyteller in the long run by being an addict? How much of an impact did addiction have on their writing and on their success in a cutthroat business? Today I want to discuss, not necessarily transgressive fiction authors, but rather an element that has become an inspiration and subject for much transgressive fiction and dirty realism works alike ... an addiction.
Charles Bukowski: A Branded Alcoholic
Charles Bukowski, author of books like You Get So Alone At Times It Just Makes Sense and Ham on Rye, made a brand image of himself of a disgruntled inebriated writer with one hand on the typewriter fleshing out one blunt word after another and in the other hand a bottle.
You have to admire the way he talked about whatever he wanted when he wanted at his own expense. The man wasn't shy. He often used the subject of alcohol in his novels and poetry. Even in interviews, he expands on it. He had 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.
There is nothing spectacular about addiction or alcohol, but at least if you had left something behind with it then the end would justify the means. Writing is often compared to a form of madness. And whatever that method to the madness maybe, in this case, alcohol, it is only glorious if you were able to create something truly grand.
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.
Ernest Hemingway: 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 by his alcoholism.
Hemingway, is considered to be in the Modernist genre. This correlates into transgressive fiction as well as dirty realism because of the similarities between the genres and specifically to what he wrote about.
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 choose 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 stemming from family affairs, his time in World War II, among other personal 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 demons. His writing was great and immortalized because it came from a deeper place within 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.
Stephen King: 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. He had written some of his best works while under the influence.
Stephen King is a household name for many of his novels turned films. Carrie, The Shining, IT, The Green Mile, and Pet Sematary. He wrote 63 novels in his time.
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 even remember writing at the time. Even so, many regard the majority of his best works being written at that time.
One snort and cocaine owned me body and soul. It was my on-switch, and it seemed like a really good energizing drug.
The Connection of Great Writing and Addiction
This post is in no way stating that in order to create great writing a writer should pick up an addiction or even put off getting sober. The purpose of this discussion is to explain that, although troubling, addiction has created some of the most influential works as well as the most memorable authors. I want to clarify why that is.
Those with substance abuse are trying to solve a problem of theirs in a destructive way ... or just the opposite, avoiding those problems. Writing allows us to do the same thing. It's both a form of closure and a form of escapism.
Writers are people that see the world a little differently than others. We tend to see life as one long novel. The people in our lives become characters and the roadblocks become plot points ... writers often disassociate from reality. Addiction is the ultimate dissociation.
Some addicts swear they are more creative when they are under the influence. Others claim a drink or shot in the arm allows them to focus on the page in front of them without distractions. Many were already addicts and don't see an alternative ... by default, it applies to their writing because they were already addicts to begin with.
Regardless of what the reason is, often writing has nothing to do with addiction. It is completely separate. Writing doesn't create addicts. Life creates addicts. Addicts can become writers or become addicts along the way but not because of writing.
Why are the writers who are addicts so damn good at writing?
Because they let down their inhibitions.
They're blunt, unruly, and unpredictable. The authors who experience addiction have the potential to create masterpieces because there is a method to the madness and all genius begins as madness. There is sense in the senseless. All the things that make for interesting fiction are the same things that make alcohol and drugs so tempting.