Monday, March 14, 2011

Does alcohol breed good writing habits?

In a recent blog post, Jess talked about the extent to which writing and publishing go hand in hand with booze, and the plusses and effects of this pairing. Here, I’d like to have a quick look at how the two may have come to be wed in the first place.

Say what you will about the quality of my writing (I know, I know, as many sentences as not are run-ons, and I totally overuse parentheses, I sometimes can’t resist going a little un-artfully sentimental, and I’ve never been published outside of this blog), but about the quantity of my writing I feel pretty good. I write one line poems on subway cars headed back to Brooklyn after long days at the office, I have notebooks filled with novel openings, and I’ve got several blog posts lined up and waiting to be polished. When I started taking writing workshops again about a year ago I promised myself to never workshop the same story twice, and so far I’ve been able to stick to that.

No, I’m not bragging. I don’t think I’m a particularly inspired writer, or that I suffer writer’s block any less than any other aspirants. The key is that the very moment a good (or, let’s be honest, even decent) idea—be it for a blog post, a short story, an opening line of an as yet-to-be-determined project, or even a screenplay I have no aspirations to write—comes to me, I immediately pick up the nearest pen and closest piece of paper and scribble away. Sometimes this commitment requires ducking into small bodegas to buy an overpriced pen that usually doesn’t last very long even though I have an entire drawer of pens at home. On more than one occasion the only available paper has been a cocktail napkin or the margins of an already published book. My boyfriend Ben (the biggest Michigan football fan around) and I made a big to-do about watching last year’s opening game out at a bar. A tribute at half time inspired a short story idea that I spent the second half of the game filling cocktail napkins with until, line by line, the story was finished. Thursday nights are pretty sacred for Ben and me—we watch NBC’s sitcom line-up (The Office, 30 Rock, etc) over a beer or two and generally unwind after a long week. But when the idea for the Alice Munro/Grey’s Anatomy post that I wrote a few weeks ago hit me while he was on a quick beer run in between shows I still put the whole thing down, word for word. (He’s known me long enough that when he came home to see me scribbling furiously all I had to say was, “I thought of a blog post” for him to retreat gamely to the other side of the couch to wait for me to finish—he’s the best, that one.)

This habit wasn’t born out of discipline, determination, or even a willing time commitment to my hobby. They key to doing this is being aware of the fact that the ideas that come to all of us suddenly, at odd times throughout the day, are not going to stick around forever. (How many times have all of us though, “huh, that’s not a bad idea, remember that for later,” only to never give it a second thought?) After all, if you’ve forgotten you had a good idea in the first place, you don’t realize there’s a problem. You’ve forgotten that there was anything to be lost. You’ve forgotten that there’s anything that was worth saving that wasn’t saved.

And here’s where the alcohol comes in. The channel through which I first realized how well fleeting thoughts can serve a writer in the end was the not small amount of alcohol I drank in college, as undergrads are wont to do. As many of you well know, alcohol—and more particularly having drunken quite a lot of it with masses of close friends in the midst of all kinds of seemingly compelling drama that the young love to breed—makes even the most cynical a bit whimsical, sentimental, or poetic. As an English major, I used to drunkenly text myself the one liners and notes that were inspired by the things and people I saw when I was out on Saturday nights far past when I should have been. The next mornings I would always wake a little stunned to see that I had over a dozen or so texts, and was always both relived and a little bit embarrassed to see that they were all from me to me, and all scraps of drunken creativity.

After engaging in this horribly embarrassing quirk enough times, I realized that, in the midst of the sea of ridiculous senselessness and jumble of horribly misspelled words that resulted, there were actually a few gems worth saving and building a piece for one of my workshops from. Once this became apparent, I started saving all the random ideas I had for the pieces I was working on, whether they came to me in a fraternity lodge at two o’clock in the morning or in the corner of the library at four in the afternoon. I had seen first hand that a line or a thought or an observation pulled from thin air could eventually become something much fuller, and after seeing that proven true enough times, was more than game to cultivate the scraps that came to me, even if some of them (okay, most of them) amounted to nothing. Thus, the habit I outlined at the start of this post—writing down every little thought, essentially—was born.

Perhaps this alcohol-spawned pattern offers some small insight into why so many of the writers that dot the literature landscape’s past were total boozehounds. Maybe the flashes of brilliance that inspired their great works came to them in the middle of a shin digs of Gastsby-esque proportions, or after a wine fueled dinner with the one who would eventually get away. Maybe they only captured those flashes of brilliance that would eventually be fleshed out into staples of freshmen lit classes for years to come because they felt sentimental enough, there in the glow of a candlelit bar room, or under the intoxicating lull of champagne bubbles, to write it down and cherish it. Maybe if those ideas had first come to them in the middle of a meeting with an accountant, or at a lunch with their boss at an average nine to five gig, the details of the every day and the demands they make on all of us would have made the more practical portions of their brains that were currently being engaged convince them to put away their fanciful aspirations, at least for the moment? Maybe writers don’t happen to have a fondness for a glass or two of the fermented, maybe they became writers because said glasses kept them up, engaged in activities worth writing about and compelled to do so?

1 comment:

  1. Love this post! Makes me wants to pour a fat glass of red wine and do some writing...