Julia Cameron says early in her book The Artist’s Way that before she quit drinking, she thought writing and drinking went together like scotch and soda. Before I quit drinking, I agreed. Writing and drinking seemed the perfect couple, like Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (acrimony, schizophrenia, and alcoholism notwithstanding). Pouring a glass of wine and sitting down to the computer or mixing a martini and curling up with a moleskine notebook was the most romantic pairing I could imagine.
I idolized the likes of Hemingway and Cheever, who wrote beautiful prose while marinating in wine and gin. Even contemporary writers like Burroughs, Karr, and Knapp, whose quintessential memoirs chronicled their respective roads to recovery, seemed to have honed their craft while under the influence.
When I was writing my first book, I procrastinated…a lot. I feared writing poorly and wanted to “get it right” the first time. So I developed avoidance techniques. For example, I wouldn’t write unless I had eight uninterrupted hours. This happened rarely, and when it did, I managed to spend most of that time cleaning, paying bills, rearranging my library…you get the idea.
The other thing I did to avoid the blank page was drink. I convinced myself that the glass of wine would loosen me up, allow the words to flow, grease the finger joints a little. One glass invariably turned into two, which made it difficult to concentrate and hold the thread of an idea. It also made a nap seem like a wise alternative to “forcing” the writing process, after which point no writing would get done.
When I drank, I spent more time thinking about writing than actually writing. Although every thought I had seemed brilliant, when the time came for capturing those brilliant thoughts on paper, they fell flat. Though my idols could drink and be struck with bolts of creative lightning, I needed to be fully present for every word. The book I was writing required targeted research, short spurts of writing, and careful editing. Drinking didn’t aid this process; it stopped it in its tracks.
It wasn’t until I created a strict schedule that included specific, achievable goals and brief bouts of writing – and banished alcohol until the writing was done – that any real progress was made and I finally completed the manuscript. Six months after my book was published, I quit drinking.
In his book On Writing, the famously prolific Stephen King writes about getting sober, “…I never stopped writing. Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there…Little by little I found the beat again, and after that I found the joy again.”
My romantic ideal of the drinking writer has dissolved like sugar cubes in a mojito. Writing, at least for me, isn’t romantic; it’s much more banal – and wonderful, enlightening, and useful. I too have found the joy again.
I still procrastinate when I have to face the blank page (some might say I’ve replaced drinking with the Real Housewives of NYC) but once I let go of my expectations and renew my commitment to the practice of writing, I can finally get some work done.
Jenna Hollenstein blogs about quitting drinking–what she lost and what she gained–at Drinking to Distraction.