Why Do Writers Drink?

October 21st, 2013 § 0 comments

A new book by Olivia Laing called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink explores the mysterious and murderous relationship between American writers and drinking.

Although there are numerous writers who would qualify for inclusion in this book, Laing focuses on six: John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

American literature is littered with hard drinkers such as Poe, Faulkner, Hart Crane, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”), Ring Lardner, Raymond Chandler, O Henry, Jack London, Delmore Schwartz, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton and Patricia Highsmith to name a few.

Laing’s book which is part travel log, part memoir as well an exploration of the link between whisky and literature was inspired by her love of these writers and the affect alcoholism had on her own family.

She takes her title from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where one of the characters says “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring” – his nickname for the drinks cabinet and the brand of bourbon it contains.

Laing travels across America, bringing to life the backwater towns and watering holes that these writers frequented. In the process she describes their lives and how alcohol both shaped and destroyed their relationships with friends, families, lovers and work.

Tennessee Williams won three Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana, but he died in February 1983 in a small New York hotel, lonely, unhappy and with his best writing years far behind him.

He suffered from depression for most of his life and drinking eased his anxiety. A diary entry from 1957 reads: “Two Scotches at bar. 3 drinks in morning. A daiquiri at Dirty Dick’s, 3 glasses of red wine at lunch and 3 of wine at dinner. Also two seconals so far, and a green tranquillizer whose name I do not know and a yellow one I think is called reserpine or something like that.” He was in rehab at the time.

When his long-term partner, Frank Merlo, died in 1963, Williams’ already fragile life, nosedived. Somehow he survived for another two decades on a daily diet of black coffee, alcohol and barbiturates. Each year he put on a new play and each year, it failed.

He was interviewed in the Paris Review a few years before he died and he said, “American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.”

From Berryman’s Dream Songs to Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, there exist dozens of works of art in which an alcoholic writer reflects on their own disease and tries to uncover its mechanics as well as its effects.

Probably one of the most telling lines ever written about alcoholism comes from the play, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof when Big Daddy asks Brick why he drinks. Brick says he drinks until he hears “the click…This click that I get in my head that makes me peaceful. I got to drink till I get it.”

Is this what Williams and the others were chasing, the click, the peace? There is no question that the creation of art, in whatever form, forces the creator to delve into the depths of their conscious in order to reveal the truth of the human condition. But creating art also demands mental agility.

“A short story can be written on a bottle,” Fitzgerald told his editor Max Perkins, “but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows.”

As with Williams, all of these writers, who continued to drink, suffered physically and creatively because of it. Fitzgerald was sacked from MGM and took to writing stories for Esquire magazine about a small-time hack, which is pretty much what he’d become.

Both writers and alcoholics have to be good at lying in order to survive and many of these writers told themselves a clever lie: that they needed the drink in order to create. Hemingway was famous for this and regarded his ability to drink and write as a sign of his manhood; although he did also say, “write drunk, edit sober.”

By the time Hemingway had reached sixty, his liver was so swollen it protruded through his skin, an embittered internal organ, straining to escape the man that had poisoned it. In the end, Hemingway put an end to his misery when he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. John Berryman went to a bridge and jumped off.

Only two of these men, Raymond Carver and John Cheever, managed to dry out in later life. These two men met for the first time in 1973 while teaching at Iowa and recognising a madness in each other, became drinking buddies.

Carver had his last drink in 1977, moved away from his family, the source of much of his problems and moved on to a sober life. He fell in love with the poet Tess Gallagher and built a stable life with her, one that enabled him to continue writing, proving the old adage, a writer writes, and the real writer can do it just as well without alcohol.

When Carver was interviewed in the Paris Review, he said, “if you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’ll always be an alcoholic, but I’m no longer a practising alcoholic.”

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