Patrick White worried about his drinking. He told biographer David Marr there were times when he drank half a bottle of spirits a day and wine as well. He consulted doctors, almost hoping, Marr suggests, for a diagnosis of alcoholism, which would relieve him of responsibility. White gave up drinking for months at a time but always went back to it. This is a pattern familiar to drinkers who are not physically addicted to, but emotionally dependent on, alcohol.
Alcoholism and heavy dependence are common features in the lives of writers. At a rough count, more than ten per cent of the 294 listed in John Sutherland’s compendium Lives of the Novelists fall into this category. Some of the better-known are Samuel Johnson, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, John O’Hara, John Cheever and Kingsley Amis. For better gender balance, one could add Dorothy Parker and Jean Rhys. There are poets like Robert Burns and playwrights like Eugene O’Neill.
It’s easy to see why rock musicians, performing at high voltage night after night, need something to keep them going, even if they are getting money for nothing and their chicks for free. But why is it that alcohol should loom larger in the lives of writers than, say, architects?
In his study of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill, The Thirsty Muse, Thomas Dardis argues that genetics is the critical factor predisposing these writers to alcoholism. The drug, he believes, may have stimulated their early work, but ultimately led to a decline into mediocrity or worse for all but O’Neill, who quit.
The argument holds up well for these four and would certainly apply to Chandler, whose father was an alcoholic. But whether it would apply across the board is doubtful.
Of interest to me is, while it’s easy to establish that the writers mentioned and many others drank, it’s harder to tell whether they drank while they were writing.
We know that Hemingway, after his back was injured in a plane accident, wrote standing up with his typewriter on top of a refrigerator. Did he have a bloody Mary on top of the fridge as well? We don’t know. Chandler claimed he could type accurately while he was drunk, which suggests he drank while writing.
When writing, I usually work for about an hour in the morning, from around 11 o’clock to noon and in the late afternoon, from around 5 to 6 pm. During both sessions I drink a sizeable glass of wine, sometimes two.
I believe that alcohol releases certain inhibitions and helps me project myself into my characters, to imagine actions and scenes I’ve never experienced or to transmute actual experiences into the material of fiction.
Over the years, for various reasons, I’ve given up drinking for quite long periods. I’ve written books in these dry spells and no one has deemed them better or worse than others. So I can write without booze if I have to, but it’s not as much fun.