Writing While Wasted

I mentioned in my first post on here that I was working on a project about Hemingway- the great bear, “Papa”, the man who invented himself into his own legend, and then couldn’t live up to it. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be working on the project with two of my favourite people, a Canadian acting legend and his amazing partner, Wendy, a dazzlingly fabulous professor and book reviewer/interviewer who won me over the first time we hung out outside of work by suggesting a coffee shop to meet at and then adding, “it’s a great coffee shop because they serve whiskey”. I knew we were meant to be soulmates after that.

For this project, which is a theatre piece, I’ve read almost every novel good ol’ Hem wrote at this point, along with a landslide of short stories and many biographies, and at some point, out of sheer amazement, really, I actually began to keep a list of the types of drinks and alcohol he mentions throughout his writing and the stories of his life.

There’s the good ol’ bottle of champagne, which he was known in later years to drink for breakfast (with cold vodka) the way the rest of us start out with a cup of coffee, and he was very picky about his champagnes, too- he once anchored a boat during a storm near a restaurant that didn’t have a wine list he favoured, and since the restaurant had no dock, he wrapped his clothes around a bottle of champagne and swam with one hand from the boat to the restaurant in choppy, angry waters just to avoid drinking something he didn’t like.

A typical day in his early years would begin with cold cups of Pernod, move on to glasses of Scotch with half a lime that he preferred to squeeze himself, and finished with brandy in the evening to calm his life-long night terrors. He liked to carry goatskins of wine with him whenever he was travelling, and you have to remind yourself when you’re reading everything he records drinking in a day that he didn’t include wine in that list because he didn’t really consider it alcohol. In his rowdier years, which was basically all of them, he did love a glass (GLASS, not a thimble, not a rinse, not a shot, a GLASS) or two of absinthe, of which he once remarked in a letter to a friend in 1931: "got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano.” In fact, a “pleasant drink” he enjoyed was a jigger of absinthe, topped up with champagne, of which he recommended you “drink 3 or 5 slowly” (and then, I presume, die, since he called the drink Death In The Afternoon after his book about bullfighting). 

Although an odd choice for one of the world’s self-professed manliest men, he adored daiquiris which he discovered when he lived in Cuba, and he dedicated some great poetic lines to it, remarking once that the frothy drink "looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots” (I’m assuming this was after the time he reportedly drank 16 double-shot daiquiris in one sitting, when presumably EVERYTHING looked like it was swimming in waves). 

Later on, perhaps tiring of writing and dreaming of a get-rich-quick scheme, he declared he had invented a method "that would make him famous" whereby he would pour water and whiskey into a glass, put it in the freezer, and then remove it later with the water frozen on top of the whiskey, so when you drank the whiskey it melted a path through the water and emerged ice cold, like drinking an ice berg. He began any old day with a pitcher of Bloody Mary’s, and his recipe makes me want to gag, personally, because I’ve never understood the drinking of cold tomato juice, worchestershire sauce, and vodka, but this was a meal to ol’ Hem, washed down with a few shrimp that he insisted eating whole- head, tail and all. And of course it was common sense to him that you drank tequila WHILE you sailed a boat, since Hem called this “the steering liquor”, and you drank beer AFTER you sailed, once you’d wrestled a giant marlin from the deep seas. There was a real method to the madness, supposedly, but it seems to me more like his madness WAS his method, the method he used to write the stories that would make him the century's most famous writer.

Now either you're reading all of this and never want to drink again, or, like me unfortunately, you now find it hard to sit down and read a Hemingway without a drink in your hand; I’ve taken quite a liking to his favourite Scotch on the rocks with half a lime, and I do in fact have one beside me now as I type. 

But, there is a connection here beyond the fact that Hem had strange and obviously diagnosis-worthy drinking habits. This legendary manly man believed that all the cavorting and drinking and passing out and hangover nursing was not only key to the writing process, in fact it was essential to the writing process, and he has influenced entire generations of writers to believe this to be truth. This strange belief that a lifestyle of excessive drinking and drunkenness will somehow turn you into the next Hemingway, I’ve come to find, is a sort of rumour that Hemingway himself invented and encouraged. Not that he believed anyone could become the next Hemingway, but he did seem to believe strongly that unless a writer was willing to completely obliterate himself in the name of “books!” and “story!” and “adventure!”, he would have nothing to write about. His famous quote, “in order to write about life, first you must live it”, has come to mean to many writers that which Hemingway demonstrated: “living life” apparently means abandoning your loved ones whenever you are bored, taking off to Paris to avoid previous commitments, and drinking insatiably until you've blacked out, all so you can wake up and write about it.

Now, over fifty years after his death, his alcoholic blur of a lifestyle has taken on the hazy rosy sheen of the “romance” of the writer, and I knew many a young writer throughout my education who took this to heart, even bringing flasks of whiskey to class as if the burden of learning were too ordinary to bare for these desperately unique souls (okay full disclosure- the person with the flask of whiskey was me during a particularly angsty period of my masters degree, but it proves my point, yes? This myth of the perpetually tragic writer is practically taught in first year poetry classes).

This romantic torch was taken up by future generations of tragic (mostly male) writers that came after Hem- the Bukowskis and the Kerouacs, who sent many of us young artists on drunken road trips in search of the elusive “experiences” we were taught we needed in order to call ourselves writers. Hemingway himself was insistent that writers only write about what they know, so he took it upon himself to experience everything, and that took a good amount of energy and, apparently, drunkenness, to survive the broken marriages and broken friendships and broken bones that came from his extraordinary desire to experience everything he deemed worthy of writing about. This type of obscenely adventurous lifestyle wasn’t even liveable by the great adventurer himself, however, as the pain of all the brokenness mentioned above eventually led to him to take his own life quite young, at age 61. And yet that’s the part of the story many of us writers forget about.

Many people that come through my writing workshop are so nervous that their lives are too boring to write about, that they often end up starting out the first class or two with cliched stories about stereotypical characters we’ve heard speak many times before. This is not wrong- in fact it’s a wonderful place to start from where we feel safe telling stories we know, stories we are familiar with and that have been proven to work. But I think that fear comes from the detriment that has been done to the idea of what a writer should know and have experienced, rumours and precedents set by writers like Hemingway that said unless we were tragic figures ourselves- unless we were drunk by noon, destroyed our relationships, and perpetually hungover, we haven’t lived exciting lives worthy of writing about, and that belief is so so so so dangerous, not to mention dead wrong.

What my students learn over the course of the workshop, what I deeply desire to instil in them, is the knowledge that their own stories- the mundane public school, the childhood in the suburbs, the life of a mother or father with a 9-5 job- is JUST as worthy of telling as the story of a drunken spree across Spain in 1925. The vivid picture one student painted of waking up in her grandfather’s hand-built cabin to oatmeal sprinkled in brown sugar on a cold winter morning, or the quiet moment one student penned of holding her young daughter in a pool for the first time, or the memory one writer wrote of a man in his small Saskatchewan town who made the papers by joy-riding his truck down Main Street- these stories are gold- they are life truly lived, and most importantly, they NEED to be told.

You don’t need to have lived a life like Hemingway in order to call yourself a writer. You don’t need to have travelled widely, had four wives, countless lovers, houses in multiple countries; you needn’t have almost died in two consecutive plane crashes on safari in Africa, or been blown up by an Austrian trench mortar in WWI, or almost bled out from scratches made by lions you tried to tame at the local circus, and you CERTAINLY do not need to have been drunk out of your mind the entire time. ALL you need to do to be a writer is to have lived. You don’t even have to have left the country, or your hometown, or even your house. As the writer Flannery O’Connor puts it: “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” 

So if you’re not writing because you’re worried you haven’t lived enough yet, or had enough bizarre adventures, or had your Eat Pray Love moment, I beg you not to let this stop you. Hemingway was a legend for a reason: legends aren’t necessarily real- they’re like fairytales, and the more I read about him the more I see beneath the legend to a man who needed to drink in order to live a life he felt worthy of writing about, and even then much of it was embellished or a flat-out lie. You- I want to know YOUR life, not the tragic life of another overly dramatic man drinking his way through Europe or America- I’m bored of those stories, we’ve heard them too many times. I want to know instead about the strange nightmare you always had as a child, the unsightly thing your father kept under the porch, that one night you climbed up a tree to spy on your neighbour. Sure, you might need that glass of wine (or Scotch on the rocks with half a lime- I highly recommend it!) beside you for the courage to write truthfully, but you certainly don’t need it to give you a life worth writing about. 

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"