Wannabe a Writer?

Writing Under the Influence

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First published in Writing Magazine March 2009

I have noticed, through reading articles about them, that many creative people like to drink alcohol and that several famous authors openly admit to writing under the influence. I know I have a tendency to speak rubbish when I've had one too many so would I write that way too? Or is it worth experimenting? I'll try anything once.

Bill Winters
Whitstable, Kent

What an excellent question and one I have had a most entertaining time trying to answer! You are right that many artists and writers over the centuries have used alcohol or various mind-altering substances (there is an exhibition on this very theme on in London right now called Voo-Doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit that you may be interested in – see www.riflemaker.org) and some of them have turned out great masterpieces while doing so. Ernest Hemmingway is a famous example and the great Stephen King admits in his book "On Writing" that he can barely remember writing one of his novels – Cujo – because he was so out of it on drink and cocaine. The book still sold in shed-loads but he became a drug-addicted alcoholic who had to be forced by his family into rehab, so we'd perhaps better not take experimentation too far! Having said that, most of the writing friends I have like a drink and I must say I use wine myself to loosen up the inhibitions at times (any excuse!) even if often I find that what I thought was so wonderfully insightful and creative at 10pm reads like the confused ramblings of a lunatic in the morning. But often there is usually something there that I can use and sometimes I can come up with strange ideas that I simply wouldn't have thought of when completely sober. The main thing to remember is that you're going to have to give whatever you produce a long hard look in the morning. But as long as you do that, and regard anything you write as a draft or a set of ideas rather than any sort of finished product, then why not!

"I do find that ideas tend to come more easily after a glass of wine or two," says writer and editor Jo Good. "If I'm sitting in the lounge in the evening with a large one, I very often reach for my notebook and scribble down some thoughts. I think alcohol helps because it takes away our inhibitions and the sub-conscious comes to the fore. I don't often attempt to write properly when I've had alcohol though, and certainly not edit. But it's great for scribbling in the notebook."

"I often try to write while merry" says novelist Lynne Barrett-Lee. "Mostly when I'm nearing the end of the novel and feel compelled to return to my computer at all hours. I mostly can't read what I've typed at such junctures but there's often a gem or two buried in the dross – particularly in dialogue – so I persist. Curious, really, as real dialogue when drunk is mostly as boring as hell, as anyone who's been to the pub with their mates while on antibiotics will confirm..."

"I'm sure a glass or two helps the creative process along, although I don't think someone who completely lacks imagination is going to turn into Tolkien after a small dry sherry!!" says writer Anne Catchpole. "I think alcohol helps to temporarily silences your inner editor, so you write more bravely, and perhaps therefore more honestly and intuitively, exploring things you might otherwise dismiss as daft/embarrassing. For that reason, I'd say it's probably a good idea to write sex scenes with a glass in your hand."

I would agree with this myself. Years ago I attempted the opening of a Mills and Boon romance which did not come as easily to me as I had hoped. When rejecting the manuscript the editor picked out chapter three as being closest to what they were looking for. Which was the one I'd written – in some desperation – while three sheets to the wind. So why not try unlocking your imagination with a large shot of what you fancy and see what happens. If I can offer a word of warning – do be careful where you put your glass. I have had to replace more than one keyboard after it has drowned in red wine (strange how even half an inch of liquid when spilled can flood a entire desk) and move any important documents out of the way – I've soaked a manuscript before now too. It is for such reasons that writer Penny Alexander who says " I don't drink while writing as I wouldn't be able to hit the right keys" recommends Garvey's Ginger Still as her potion of choice and many other more sensible writers than me tend to work on nothing stronger than tea. "I write during the day and drink wine in the evening," says novelist and writing tutor Sue Moorcroft "and I'm certain that routine has developed for a reason! Wine makes me dopey in both meanings of the word – sleepy and stupid."

But if you've never tried it then I should certainly give it a go. Mainly because I am a great believer in writing something – however bizarre – rather than staring at a blank screen and if a stiff drink gets you going then it can only be a good thing. (May I also recommend milk thistle tablets to help regenerate the liver and a couple of nurofen plus for a hangover). I think it was Katherine Mansfield who said it was better to write twaddle than nothing at all with which I would heartily agree – even if it's drunken twaddle that going to need a damn good edit later. Cheers!

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