Did Hemingway “Write Drunk, Edit Sober”?

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 teHemingway drinkingachers 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 response 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.

,DJ

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Time to (Re)Read A Moveable Feast?


Can’t let this pass without mentioning it.

I’ve had a lot of fun over the years making fun of Hemingway, I admit it. But A Moveable Feast is a great little novel. And obviously, the Paris attacks have been on everyone’s mind this past week. Today, I was very moved to see Hemingway’s memoirs of his younger days in 1920s Paris skyrocket to the top of the bestseller charts in France.

It’s interesting to see a book by an American author heralded as an exemplar of French culture. But you know what? It is. A book written by a Midwesterner is, for me, one of the greatest touchstones of French culture. It’s full of cafes, and writers and great art. What could be more French than that? HemingwayLoeb

And it’s full of great quotes like this one:

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties now what ease, it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.

Well put.

So, here’s a suggestion. Get a copy of the book: physical or digital, it doesn’t matter. And take it out to a café this weekend, order the most insane caffeinated drink you can imagine, tip well, sit down and read the book. And celebrate French culture along with Hemingway. Whether you’re in Paris, or anywhere else in the world. I can’t think of a better way to stick it to the dark forces which struck the City of Light last Friday. Hey, Hemingway would do it if he was still around. Don’t you think?

And believe me, I’ll be right there with you. Except, truth be told, I’ll probably be writing. All for now.

Until next time,

Darius

On Keeping the Day Job

We’ve all got to make a living somehow. Some of us have to write, too. We can’t help it.  It’s a kind of compulsion. It would be great to have all day to create, to edit, to do some social media duties and never have to worry about paying the bills. But if you’re likoffice-spacee me and weren’t born independently wealthy, you’ve got to work.

So what to do? How should you make a living? And how do you square making a living with pursuing your creative avocation? Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way. Most apply to writing, but they could apply to any creative line of work.


Rethink that Super-High-Stress Career
Maybe becoming a lawyer or a surgeon isn’t the best path for you. If you’re really dedicated to becoming a writer or an artist, you might want to consider putting away that LSAT, MCAT or GMAT test book. There’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer, doctor, etc., but you have to think realistically about work-life balance. Sure, those are fine ways to make a living, but you have to put in a lot of time (measured in years) and money (measured in the $100,000s) to get a career in those fields. And even when you get there, being a top-notch lawyer, doctor, or business manager will probably not give you lots of free time to write.

Sure, there are people who have “shot the moon” in those professions, making a lot of money and cashing out. But this is unlikely and a risky proposition. And it requires incredible self-discipline and a long wait for the payoff.

Consider a Job that Pay the Bills, but Is Flexible
Instead, you might want to consider the middle path. Not a job that’s a dead end or meaningless for you, but something that pays the bill and allows for the max time for other pursuits.

One of my best writing gigs (and realistically, probably a relic of the 90s) was as freelance ad copywriter. It paid well and left me a decent amount of time to write. On those days when I wasn’t writing ads for money, I could have a long breakfast, a couple of cups of coffee and go for a walk along the beach. Around 11 a.m., I’d hunker down and start writing for the day. It was epic.

Or take my friend, Daniel. He’s a neo-natal nurse. It can be stressful, no doubt. But the great thing? It’s three-days on, three days off. You get three solid days to recuperate and write. A nice writing gig.

I’ve heard teaching can also be a great writing gig: lots of time off in the summer and a stable income. A great combo for writing. I always personally thought that being a security guard at a car park or a warehouse down by the docks or some other low-priority target, would be a great gig for a writer. There are other great gigs out there too. Anything that lets you turn off completely, is stable and gives you the flexibility and energy to write is ideal.

Consider a Day Job that Includes Writing (or art, music, etc.)
Also, don’t forget to consider a job that makes use of your talents. If you’re a writer, consider a  writing gig. If you’re artistic, consider something artistic.

For example, Mario Vargas Llosa worked for years as a journalist, before writing his first novel. If you’re someone who’s considered writing fiction seriously, it’s probably because you have some talent at writing to begin with. Why not take advantage of that talent and look for a job in that field?

For years, I’ve made a living off of writing. Not fiction writing, mind you. But writing for companies and clients. If you get some experience you can actually make some decent money at it.

The same thing goes for artists: consider working as a graphic artist at an ad agency or company. Or for a musician: consider being a session musician or teaching. There might be a way to make a living at what you love to do though you’ve never considered it.

When to Make the Jump
Of course, there may come a time when you decide to ditch your real job. A time when you feel you’re close to success or have already achieved it. It’s hard to say when the right time will come.

But, for a writer, it’s probably when you’ve got the contract for your first novel signed, if not later than that. After all, it’s your life here and it seems to be getting harder and harder for writers to make it these days…which brings us to our last point.

Don’t Forget: Jobs Can Give You Great Material
Sure, it would be great to move to Europe, get bankrolled by your parents and write the great novel we’re all waiting for. Though it’s usually glossed over, that’s what Hemingway did when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. I can’t not support this. Hey, man, if you find a sustainable way to bankroll your creativity (parents, lovers, a sponsor) I’m all for it. You just have to make sure that it’s sustainable or that you have an escape plan for when the funding dries up.

But don’t forget one important point: you need something to write about. Some of the greatest books ever written came from experience out there working. Would Melville have written Moby Dick if he had stayed at home in Nantucket? Would Dashiell Hammett have written The Maltese Falcon if he had only read stories about detectives? Would Chekhov ever have been able to capture the despondent ennui of provincial Russia if he hadn’t been a village doctor in the same? If Ken Kesey hadn’t worked at a mental hospital, would he ever have written the brilliant One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Conversely, would Lovecraft have kept writing longer if he had a sustainable career outside of writing? And would Hemingway have written a broader, more interesting set of novels, if he had not struck the jackpot in his mid-20s?

Of course, we’ll never know. But  it’s something to think about while you’re slaving away at that day job. Just remember: keep going.

Until next time,

Darius


What else could it be for the musical conclusion today than “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday?

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Sing it, Girl.