What do Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Hunter S. Thompson, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, and O. Henry all share in common?
They were all alcoholics at one time, many of them for life, some of whom actually died as a direct result of their affliction.
Frighteningly enough, the above list only represents some of the greatest names in English literature over the past 150 years. This raises another alarming question: Is a grossly unhealthy dependence on alcohol necessary to become a great and prolific writer? Should writers follow Hemingway’s advice when he once mused, “Write drunk; edit sober”? While a humorous, pithy, and catchy suggestion, was Papa onto something?
Fortunately, the answer is a resounding NO!
Just ask Stephen King, who since quitting drugs and drinking has produced arguably his best work; David Mitchell, who’s an insanely responsible person and health nut; Murakami Haruki, who quit smoking and left his heavy whiskey-drinking days behind long ago at his former Tokyo bar and now takes solace in jogging, not the bottle. I’m pretty sure Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are on the straight and narrow, too. Then there’s Isaac Asimov, Anne Rice, and Stephenie Meyer, each famous as a writer for different reasons, but all of whom are teetotalers (abstinent from alcohol).
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been binge-watching Intervention Canada, an intense documentary that spends a few days following drug and/or alcohol addicts (and by “addict” I mean so far gone in most cases that it’s actually difficult to watch sometimes) before facilitating an intervention and offering treatment at many of Canada’s top treatment facilities. (Sidebar here: is it just me or are all the best rehab centres in Canada located in British Columbia?)
While watching an episode of IC a few days ago, I was struck by the courage one young woman summoned up when coming to grips with her demons, so I decided to write it down:
“I do not know what it is to be brave. And I do not know what the word bravery means to other people. What I do know is that strength is brought about by confidence. What I do know is that hardship fosters understanding. I believe kindness and thoughtfulness are the keys to ensuring a successful life. As I move forward, and embark on a new life, a life free of alcohol, free of pain, a life free of poison, I take to heart what the word bravery might actually mean.”
Scientists and philosophers have long tried to determine what exactly leads to genius. I think the only thing people can agree upon is that there is most definitely a biological factor; some people are simply blessed with a formidable brain. But it’s not all nature, I think. There is most certainly a nurture component – hard work, dedication, and a passion for a particular field of knowledge. At the same time, I feel equally confident saying that crutches like OxyCoton, meth, heroin, crack, whiskey, gin, beer, etc. (ad infinitum) will get a person nowhere, especially an artist like a writer, who already spends enough time alone and possibly dredging up memories and emotions that could sink even the strongest person if not handled with extreme cerebral care.
So if you’re interested in getting started on that story you know you have in you, or perhaps you’re brash enough to want to become a professional writer (ha ha ha ha ha…that’s just dumb and dumbly), do so with a cup of Joe or a mug of herbal tea, preferably in the hours before the sun rises, and you (and your liver) will be grateful for the decision in the years to come.