Literary Drunks and Their Imitators

Hemingway is almost as well known for his drinking as for he is for his writing. A high tolerance for alcohol is an indispensible element of his rugged, macho celebrity image as “Papa.” And there are almost as many writers who try to emulate his persona — drinking problem and all — as there are who try to mimic his prose style.

Henry Miller was a famous drunk. So was Dorothy Parker. And Dylan Thomas died on a barstool, as legend goes. These are the examples you’ll be bombarded with if you ever suggest to a writer that maybe they’re drinking too much.

I studied writing in undergrad and grad school, working as a bartender the whole time and seeing the rationalization from both sides. My face-to-face experience with the less-romanticized incarnations of alcoholism at work every night made me irritated, even repulsed, by my classmates trumpeting of their own budding addictions as badges of professional advancement.

Many great writers may have been drunks, but that doesn’t mean that being a drunk will make you a good writer — in fact for many it does exactly the opposite. Just because the two occasionally overlap doesn’t mean one causes the other. If drinking too much made you a better writer, every corner bar would be full of laureates and Nobel Prize winners.

This very simple causation vs. correlation logic seems to be no match for the self-serving rationalization of many young geniuses. A lot of the greats killed themselves, too. Luckily most over-eager poseurs cut their emulation short before they reach this grand final gesture.

Literary Drunks and Their ImitatorsWhenever someone focuses so hard on the persona of a craft rather than the craft itself. it immediately makes me wonder about the quality of their work. This applies to a musician who spends more time grooming their rock-star hair than playing music, a gym rat who maintains their membership solely to show off their expensive workout outfits and not to actually sweat in them, or a writer who wears tweed, drinks too much, and says inane things with what they hope is gravitas. People who truly care about what they’re doing — whether it’s writing, playing music, working out or whatever else — tend to focus on the activity in question, not on letting everyone know how fully they embody the persona of the musician, athlete or writer.

The troubled alcoholic-creative type is ubiquitous in pop culture: Drinking at work doesn’t first call to mind a puffy red face rummaging around in a bottom drawer for a pint of cheap vodka. Rather, it’s embodied by television’s beloved Don Draper — cool, calm and collected, sipping scotch and staring out the window, swept up by the inspiration of his next great idea. But elevating alcoholism to a noble, romantic trait is ignorant rationalization at best, and insensitive, offensive and belittling to those with a real problem at worst.

The sad truth is that a lot of the best art in the world has been made by people who felt a lot of pain. Virginia Woolf wrote about how a creative soul drives people crazy if it don’t have an outlet to express it fully or adequately. Then she killed herself. Henry Miller didn’t drink because it helped his writing, he drank for the same reason that his writing is so intense and sometimes violent: He was not a happy person. To emulate effects that dissatisfaction had on some of the greatest creative minds is to cheapen their misery and completely miss the point.

I’d like every wet-behind-the-ears, yet-unpublished novelist who carries a flask as a fashion accessory to sit down and have a long talk with someone whose promising writing career went down the toilet in a soup of post-binge vomit. I’d like them to look into a pair of pained, bloodshot eyes and extol the inspirational power of alcohol — to tell someone whose family couldn’t deal with the rages anymore how a consistent buzz is just part of the job.

 

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