Does Alcohol Improve Writing?

There’s an old myth that writing and alcohol complement each other to achieve a state of transcendence. As American novelist John Cheever put it:

The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.

And the wisecracking Dorothy Parker quipped:

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
Kerouac_by_Palumbo
“Kerouac by Palumbo”. Credit Tom Palumbo

According to a study outlined in a 2011 article in Slate,

…71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)

I lived in Denver for several years and drank at a bar on the corner of my street that was allegedly frequented by Jack Kerouac when he passed through to spend time with fellow beat writer Neal Cassady.

The dark, pitted wood tables and bar made a perfect setting for listening to old-timers tell tales of Kerouac’s drinking sessions.

But the only sign of the writers’ heritage was a framed letter from Cassady asking his friend to pay the bill next time he was in Denver.

Why do writer’s drink?

English novelist Kingsley Amis, himself a famous drinker, wrote that fear drives writers to drink:

Alcohol not only makes you less self-critical, it reduces fear.

He surmised that good writers are acutely aware of what their ‘invisible’ audience thinks.

Hemingway thought alcohol boosted creativity:

what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?

In a 1992 study, researchers  challenged students to think of as many uses for an object as possible. The sober group handily defeated both those who were drunk and those who thought they were drunk.

Does alcohol improve writing?

There’s no simple answer. There are great writers who were heavy drinkers like Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And there are teetotalers like Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Franz Kafka.

What do you think?

David James

David James

A Brit living in the United States, I'm interested in how we can better use technology to learn and collaborate. My interests include history, creativity & innovation, British culture and travel, philosophy in business, and educational technology.

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