A Guest Blog from Dexter Petley. Dexter is the acclaimed author of a number of novels: a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). White Lies was shortlisted for the Dazed & Confused Most Promising Writer award.
I don’t see much discussion here about writing when you’re pissed. So pop the cork, unscrew the cap, make it a double and pull up a pew. You’ll be in dangerous but illustrious company, of course. You’d be hard pushed to name one American writer in the last 100 years who didn’t drink on the job. It’s still one of the few remaining professions where you can not only do so, but which lends itself to saying “I write better when I drink”. Of course, before I take the motion further, this blog does carry a health warning, apart from the obvious: don’t balance your glass on the laptop. I know two writers who fried their novels after dousing the keyboard in a delete of Sauvignon and a whisky wipe-out.
Writing this in the cold light of day, it goes without saying that 90% proof of the writer’s daily grind is best done sober. From pub to publishing, from bottle to bookshop is not the best route for either a deal or a balanced life. Those great American drinkers caused havoc. They also had saints for editors who scraped the vomit off their manuscripts and put them to bed; they also attended a lot of funerals. But we cannot deny that booze is aqua-lingua. Muse on the rocks, biblio-bibendum. It is efficacious and there is evidence. Compile a list of the top ten 20th c. novelists and poets of most countries, and you have their top ten boozers too, male and female. You won’t find the tea-totallers or homeopathics mustering a team to beat them on the literature modules.
So what comes first, the tipple or the typing? And where, then, does alcohol fit as an actual writing tool? Writing is necessarily a lone occupation, a predisposition for lone drinking perhaps. Nothing radical there. But morning writers of tea and coffee novels do tend to clog the British bookshelves with their understatement, while the American novel, it’s been said, was floated on whisky in the small hours. Is there really a different approach to writing American fiction? Well, maybe.
The other obvious fact to consider first, before rolling out the barrel, is the sheer slop of bilge that drunk writers actually have produced, pouring maudlinity into their cups and leaving their empty bottles in the drawer, their broken glasses for critics to cut their teeth. Alcoholism, then, is not a writing tool to promote. So if you’re going to emulate those binge novelists you’d better be a twisted genius with a death wish or a bottom drawer full of transplant livers.
But, where a jar, snifter, coup, slug of whatever grape or grain you prefer aids the writer is in the interaction with the word itself, not the demons within; a couple of drinks breaks down the inhibition of the sentence. Liberates the stiff within, unblocks the sink. It’s better to have a few thousand “Jesus did I write thats” to read next morning than the certainty you stayed at home and played patience over a blank page. Waking up beside an unfamiliar novel after a lifetime of rejection slips can be the start of a new chapter.
Let me delve into the practical. Exclusively, for Writers’ Workshop, on my own tab, I carried out an experiment under controlled conditions.
My current work in progress is a crime novel with literary “pretensions” (being an uptight British novelist who is rather sniffy about alcohol abuse).
My writing routine is bowler-hattish. At the desk by 10am, five hours non-stop writing fuelled by a big red coffee pot. These are the lucid hours, undulled by food. Three years in the making, this October the novel had hit a series of brick walls which threatened its very existence. I’d been coasting on a fictional trunk road with an empty tank. By mid-afternoons I’d simply rebuilt the same brick walls from the day before. By evening I’d had all I could take from the damned thing and took the freeway home to forgetting; a bottle of blanc, convert the laptop into a radio and slump into failed writer mode with old comedies on BBC 4extra. Next morning, dreading going to work, all the coffee in Columbia just wasn’t coming up with a novel I could expect to sell. Something radical was called for.
On the first day of winter, I reversed the working day. First, I cut myself off the internet at 5pm. At 6pm, out with the chardonnay mentor. The result was kryponite. Writing like a ball and chain, I demolished the fragile narrative edifice I’d been poncing with all those mornings and within a month I had breakthrough. The alcohol gave me that “devil-may-care” editorial recklessness, the Dutch courage to take risks, slash and burn, throw all the rubbish obsessively horded out of the window. Finding yourself alive at midnight with a novel on your hands is one of life’s wonders, a writer’s North Face. Drunk or not, you can see half the world.
At first, yes, I dreaded the next morning, turning on the laptop, the oh god what did I do syndrome. Instead, it was joy, relief, excitement. Now, I rush to the office without the bowler hat. The coffee has a new motive. Caffeine does the 0° proof-reading, gives me the will to tidy, clean and polish after the parties. Writing has become fun again; but then so has the drinking.