Arts, OldVenue

Alcoholic – Or Secret Genius?

“Write drunk, edit sober” is often misattributed to Ernest Hemmingway. Yet, whilst the American author was notoriously fond of drinking, he refrained from doing so whilst writing.

When asked in an interview if the rumours of him taking a pitcher of martinis to work every morning were true, he answered: “Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one”.

However, there seems to be a correlation between many popular writers and alcohol. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s spirit of choice was gin, poet Dylan Thomas’s last words were allegedly “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies; I think that’s the record”, and the poet John Berryman ultimately decided that drinking alone in his room was best, allowing him to down crates of red wine whilst he carried on writing.

For some, this allowed them to tap into a creative well unable to be reached when sober. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan in 1816 after he experienced an opium influenced dream. Yet, it could not be completed according to its 200-300 line plan, as multiple interruptions caused him to forget, and it thus remains unfinished. The use of the narcotic was able to spark some previously untapped genius that Coleridge was never again able to reach again and complete.

Yet, for many, alcohol simply masked deeper signs of mental illness. Prolific writer and journalist, Evelyn Waugh, in his essay ‘Drinking’ wrote “At one time, I used to drink a tankard of beer for breakfast. But I was alone in that… It is tedious for the young to be constantly reminded what much finer fellows their fathers were and what a much more enjoyable time we had. But there you are; we were and we did”. Although this suggests a positive consumption of the alcohol, this was not translated into his personal life. He was a perceptive writer who used his own experiences to humourous effect, but such was his detachment within his own writing that he was able to fictionalise his own mental breakdown in the 1950s.

Similarly, almost a century after his birth, the myths of Dylan Thomas’s life still eclipse his work. However forced, the image of him as a tortured, alcoholic genius is one that still endures today, and it is arguably the legend, rather than the literature that captivates so many. He acquired a reputation, which he encouraged as a “roistering, drunken and doomed poet”.

Thomas’ binges characterised a large part of his life and his wife’s, leading Caitlin to write: “But ours was a drink story, not a love story, just like millions of others. Our one and only true love was drink”.

It is the familiar tune of another high profile star that lost their promise to alcohol, and is one that continues throughout the centuries. From Jack Kerouac to Truman Capote, many young writers sacrificed their talent, and in a few cases their lives, for alcohol.

But why? Alcohol is used as a moderator for stress for people who are highly driven, and often hugely talented. It can be used to help them switch off from their talent. Although it is a depressant, it is not always used for that – instead it slows the metabolic rate, in order to stop you thinking and to allow you to switch off. Perhaps this is why alcohol is so entwined in literature: with great talent, comes great responsibility and a huge amount of pressure.


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January 2022
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