Does Alcohol Help Or Hurt Your Writing?

I’m putting it out there on this post with some personal information and opinions. It might also be controversial or confronting for some people. But bloggers need to be true to themselves and their ideas, so here goes.

I spent last weekend suffering from a hangover after too many drinks on Friday night. It literally wiped my weekend and I didn’t get any writing done. I like a glass of wine but I’m not very good on it, and I was very angry with myself for going too far. I have a lot to do at the moment, so I need that time.

I don’t drink to excess very often nowadays but in my 20s in London, I definitely had a drinking problem. It was a way I used to cope with my life and the way I felt about myself, but it was short-lived escape. I left the London corporate environment partly to get over drinking. I was sick in body and soul and spent 3 months in the Western Australian desert recovering. The recovery time was creative, the drinking time was not.

Nowadays I certainly like a glass of wine or two, but that is usually my limit. However, I have friends who still blow their weekends away drinking, and alcohol certainly makes time disappear. Last weekend reminded me of the wasted time I would rather spend productively writing my novel or blogging.  I continue to enjoy a few glasses with dinner and friends, but for me, drinking alcohol does not serve my writing. I’m not judging you if you do drink a lot more than me, I just wanted to broach the subject.

Here are some perspectives on writing and alcohol, and also some comments from Twitter below. Which camp are you in?

Alcohol helps my writing.

It is true that many great writers have been alcoholics. The list includes Hunter S.Thompson, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski, Jack London and Truman Capote among many others.

Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald  and Dylan Thomas died from poor health related to the complications of alcoholism. Ernest Hemingway committed suicide after alcoholism, depression and mental illness. They have all truly suffered for their art.

Given most of them drank their entire lives, I have put them in this camp. Alcohol helped them write, or survive the writer’s life.

“I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink.” Jack London

Alcohol helps get rid of inhibitions, and perhaps this helps some people write the truth, or frees the imagination to write crazy things.

“As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind.” Jack Kerouac

Alcohol can also make us funnier, wittier and more attractive – or at least it seems that way after a few drinks. It can give false confidence that helps us get through a situation that might be daunting. Many writers are shy or under-confident so it may help in this situation.

Alcohol hurts me and my writing.

(I mean too much alcohol here, most than 1-2 glasses. I am certainly a fan of a moderate drinking). Image: #mce_temp_url#Flickr CC Victor_Nuno

The above examples of great writers suffered terrible things because of drinking, and several of them died of it. That seems like too much of a trade off to me, even if you think alcohol does help creativity.

Anne Lamott, author of the fantastic “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life“, is a recovered alcoholic. She writes honestly about her experiences and recovery and is a brilliant example of someone who rejected alcohol for creativity based on her sober self.

Stephen King in “On Writing” also talks about his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. He almost lost his family during that time but managed to give it up, and continues to write bestsellers.

From this perspective, alcohol steals time and your true self. Your health as well as your relationships can suffer. You may write things that perhaps you shouldn’t share, especially in these days of instant publication through blogs and social networks.

“alcohol becomes a weapon to kill something inside … a worm that would not die.” Baudelaire of Edgar Allan Poe

Alcohol is unrelated to writing

Nobel Prize for Literature winner William Faulkner said he did not drink while writing, and that drinking did not help the creative process. He drank as a pressure release from daily life so it was separate from his writing.

Here are some famous writers who were not alcoholics: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Mary McCarthy, Upton Sinclair, Emily Dickinson, Henry Thoreau, Zane Gray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saul Bellow, William Golding, Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, James Michener, Lillian Hellman, Tom Wolfe and Flannery O’Connor. Of course, there are so many more!

You can have a few drinks without it affecting your writing or your life. It can be a pleasure, if not abused.

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lovely wine we drank at Christmas

lovely wine we drank at Christmas

Here are some comments from Twitter in response to my question “I’m writing a post on whether drinking alcohol helps your writing or not? Any opinions out there?”

@JodiCleghorn When I took up writing seriously, I gave up drinking. For me the two simply can’t exist.

@eleanorvannatta re alcohol, I get my brain juice flowing with exercise, some of best writing sitting on recumbant bike; alc stifles that.

@abelpharmboy I don’t know if it made my writing better but it seemed to make it easier to get started and quiet the inner critic

@tsrebel alcohol only helps the perfectionist; to silence his inner critic so that he can write

@Pensm I gave up drinking over a year ago as it really curbed my creativity. Although it relaxed me, all creativity vanished :-(

@drugmonkeyblog first mission, dissociate *I think it helps* from it really helping.

@HeatherMeMaher Write my arse off when I drink:) Typically, it’s unworthy of any sort of rewrite–assuming I’ve remembered to ‘save file.’

@kate_eltham Yes for the first two glasses of wine, after that, law of diminishing returns! :)

@pointman74250 Drinking during your writing: Absolutely not. After your writing: Sure, get wasted.

@mrgunn Depends what I’m writing, but yeah, I like a little creative lubrication sometimes.

@BoraZ I never drink and write, not just because of a personal rule, but it just does not work for me.

@Deemms No. In the morning, the light would make all my twists and turns look quite scary – It can be hard enough without!

Image: Flickr CC Whisperwolf

@janetgoldstein Yes! Good wine when I’m in the high-energy immersion groove of book-length work; helps w/what Buddhists call “soft eyes.”

@ChrisChartrand A drink helps me not to worry about what I should be doing instead of writing. Six or seven help me not to write.

@skinnydog23 funny fiction glass or two loosens the juices! Non-fiction a sip for the pen tip nothin more or the truth goes out the door

@chrisbardell booze/writing a double-edged sword, I reckon. Sometimes helps hugely with creativity, sometimes kills all work ethic :-(

@deformedcoffee Drinking never helps me write. It only makes me sleep.

@AllenaT sure does something for looseness. I did research on why alcohol helps you speak other languages better less inhibitions

@scolefiction It helps on occasion. Only wine. Puts me in that state of aloneness you go to in when there r too many ppl at the bar.

@ravenpearlink I guess depends on what u r writing. 4 me, no. If I use alcohol, it disconnects me frm my work.

@sharonrainey only if I don’t want to remember what I wrote!!! definitly no alcohol if i want it to be worthwhile . . .

@BraQueen sometimes it does make me relax before I write but it depends on my head space at the time

@SJWhipp re: alcohol, a little bit can definitely help! I think it helps to write more openly without filters.

Image: Flickr CC Kirti Poddar

@AshleyTenille Not generally, but perhaps it could help with the Writer’s Block? lol help relax the mind and lessen the tension.

@leapetra in truth, sometimes if a scene is rough a glass of wine relaxes me, but no more than that.

@leapetra I don’t know about alcohol, but my husbands acting coach told him once, you learn your lines stoned, you perform stoned.

@RegimentalBooks Some great Australian writers enjoyed a drink or 3 – Ion Idriess springs to mind!

@producerpaul I find the occasional Scotch loosens up the brain a bit, but any more than two in a night is counterproductive.

@AlanBaxter Depends what you’re writing!

@brendakinsel Alcohol has never inspired a good writing session for me. But great music played loudly does! And also, walks in nature.

@metaphorial Re: drinking. Not at all, no. But drinking does improve my opinion of my writing.

@szvan Best advice: “Never let your writing depend on anything you might have to quit.” — James McDonald

@cweselby I think it impairs my writing. Clear thinking = clear writing. Old news room quote: Write drunk; edit sober.

@AsILayWriting I think so. It allows one to be uninhibited and freer with language/thoughts.

@QuiltinRedhead It just puts me to sleep!

Do you need help?

This is a serious subject, and many individuals and families suffer because of alcohol. Regardless of whether it helps your writing, does it help you as a person, or your life and health in general?

If you are concerned about your drinking, please do see a professional. If you don’t know whether you drink too much, take this test.

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Comments

  1. Mads Gram says

    Anything you write when drinking, no matter how long or short, witty, deep or simply good, will always be nothing more than a radical note. It will always need rewriting. Usually at least 3/4 of it will need to be removed. The other 1/4 you can try to work with. Write things when drunk. Never try to write.

  2. Mark says

    Joanna, thank you for writing this. It has really helped me a lot. I am currently learning piano and write music. I find in all honesty that alcohol destroys not only my creativity but my motivation to be creative. I live in Australia and I feel pressure from everywhere to drink.. Friends, co workers and even some family members either directly or inadvertently make me feel like there is something wrong with me because I don’t enjoy drinking anymore. I have recovered from alcohol and drug addiction that nearly ended my life many times and I don’t feel the need to travel back down that winding dark road that I have been down many times before. I am 28 years old and feel that I have made more progress in my life and creative pursuits in the last 12 months without alcohol than I did in the previous 5 years with it .. anyway I’ll stop rambling I am just happy to read that I’m not the only one that finds creativity to be hindered by alcohol . Thank you.

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  1. […] Does Alcohol Help or Hurt Your Writing? Joanna Penn looks at the history of alcohol and writing. Some of the best writers have been alcoholics, but does that mean we should all take up a drinking habit? […]

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