It’s no secret writers—especially American writers—like their drink. In fact, one of my earliest memories from English class in high school was one of my teachers telling us: Never become a writer because as an American, you could win the Nobel, yes, but you’d more likely end up dead before your time or at least, a hopeless alcoholic. I was skeptical at first, but I started to do some research starting with some of the American writers who won the Nobel. And turns out, my English teacher was right. Here’s a list of 15 writers (not all American) who were alcoholics and many of whom died before their time. In the end, it’s all quite sad and tragic. Especially, somehow, the loss of Fitzgerald who died at 44.
But somehow in my mind, the Writer-Drinker Prize goes to Hemingway, although he was a teetotaler compared to Fitzgerald. Just pick up a work—any work by Hemingway—and read a few pages. Among many other things, you’ll soon be encountering wine, beer, spirits, aperitifs, tonics and beverages that you have never even heard of. (Of course, some of this has to do with the fact that many 20s/30s drinks are no longer are popular.) But it’s also clear he knocked back more than a few. Which all leads us to the supposed Hemingway quote on writing:
“Write drunk, edit sober.”
So, what do the scientists say? Well, I found some scientists in a lab who are willing to help us decipher…Actually, no…but I did find a blog post of dubious scientific worth which takes up the issue. According to it, there may be some benefit from a micro-dose (1-2 drinks) of alcohol.
Alcohol has been shown to depress certain responses in the brain resulting in unusual connections/associations being formed… Alcohol boosts your imagination and inner consciousness.
When I had first heard about this, I was dubious. So, what did I do? That’s right! I tested it!
Now, this was not scientifically studied by yours truly. And I used myself as the test subject which violates all sorts of rules, I’m sure. As well as making it statistically questionable. Anyway, after a drink or two, (which kind of breaks the premise anyway), I wrote one day. Just, you know, to see what would happen. I wrote about 1,000 words and put the results away for a couple of weeks. And what did I find when I pulled it up???
It was junk. Almost immediately, I saw it was auto-trunkable, un-publishable, irredeemable prose. So, I ascertained, at least for my biochemistry, “writing drunk” was a horrible idea. Thank God for that.
What about coffee or tea though? Caffeine? A stimulant, not a depressant? The world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug? Well, our article has something to say about that.
Caffeine provides us with more working memory …Coffee also helps you ignore distractions…
Turns out, I have also tested this. It’s true. But my experience with caffeine/coffee has been much different. On days I drink coffee I feel I write and edit better. I also feel it helps in pre-writing, drawing connections between ideas that had not been synthesized before and creating new directions in existing ideas. I find when I don’t drink coffee the writing doesn’t comes as easy and I’m not quite as optimally sharp as I should be.
So, if I had to rewrite Hemingway’s dictum it would be:
“Forget drinking. Write caffeinated, edit more caffeinated.”
Of course, the correct dose is a big question here, but it’s safe to say you don’t want to overdo the caffeine. You want to write, you don’t want to feel like you need to climb the walls. And there’s the related question of combining your caffeine with your chocolate (tryptophan). But that’s a blog post for another time.
So…what about the man himself? Did Hemingway actually ever say this, let alone do it? For starters, I can find NO evidence Hemingway actually did say this. It’s not on Hemingway’s Wikiquote page. In actual fact, it seems that it’s a quote from Peter De Vries from his book Reuben, Reuben. It seems in that passage in De Vries’ book, it’s a quote from the main character—an alcoholic poet—who has condescended to give an interview to a New York journalist about his “working habits.”
In other words, there is NO evidence Hemingway ever said the phrase. In fact, from what little evidence I could find, he only drank AFTER he finished writing for the day. Now, there’s no doubt he liked a good drink, but it seems he only indulged on his down time. Here’s the first quote.
When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?”
Which seems to indicate he would start drinking AFTER he worked “hard all day.” Then, there’s this from the great, great Paris Review interview of Hemingway.
So I got dressed and walked to Fornos, the old bullfighters’ café, and drank coffee and then came back and wrote “Ten Indians.” This made me very sad and I drank some brandy and went to sleep. I’d forgotten to eat and one of the waiters brought me up some bacalao and a small steak and fried potatoes and a bottle of Valdepeñas.
And then, the there’s this rather long-winded story about how the owner of the pension and the waiter try to get him to write although he’s been drinking. Hemingway doesn’t budge.
The woman who ran the pension was always worried that I did not eat enough and she had sent the waiter. I remember sitting up in bed and eating, and drinking the Valdepeñas. The waiter said he would bring up another bottle. He said the Señora wanted to know if I was going to write all night. I said no, I thought I would lay off for a while. Why don’t you try to write just one more, the waiter asked. I’m only supposed to write one, I said. Nonsense, he said. You could write six. I’ll try tomorrow, I said. Try it tonight, he said. What do you think the old woman sent the food up for?
I’m tired, I told him. Nonsense, he said (the word was not nonsense). You tired after three miserable little stories. Translate me one.
Leave me alone, I said. How am I going to write it if you don’t leave me alone? So I sat up in bed and drank the Valdepeñas and thought what a hell of a writer I was if the first story was as good as I’d hoped.
So, I really doubt that Hemingway ever “wrote drunk” though there is an awful good chance he wrote hungover at least some of the time. And there you have it.