Romanticizing Alcohol (or Why Writing Drunk Is a Terrible Idea)

Bottles and typewriter

 

I’m a drunk. Or, rather, I’m a recovering drunk. Coming up as a writer it’s easy to romanticize alcoholism. And, in some ways, drinking is pretty romantic. From an early age, a lot of aspiring writers go through their Bukowski phase. Hopefully that ends quickly, because Bukowski was an awful writer and I’m sure the liquor had something to do with that.

There should be a disclaimer before I go on. It might be a bit premature to write this article. I’ve never written about my alcoholism. I’m almost nine months sober and I’m still trying to understand it all. Maybe this will help, though.

I got started early. I was 14 when I started drinking. Between the ages of 17 and 25 I didn’t go more than three days without a drink and between the ages of 26 and 30 I doubt I went a day at all. I was writing the whole time and at 22 I turned professional. The stuff I was doing as a journalist was pretty good, but my fiction and poetry was abysmal at best. I look back at that output with embarrassment. The best I could do was rip off Raymond Carver and, I will tell you, it was not a flattering homage.

Here was a typical day for me a couple years ago.

Wake up around 9am still drunk. Take a shower. Make coffee. Put a shot of whiskey in the coffee. Check my work email (I worked from home). Communicate with my coworkers via company GChat. Open a beer. Drain that. Open another beer (my sipping beer). Feel the wash of normality roll over me. Start my actual work.

By around 2pm a six-pack is sitting in my stomach and I’m feeling balanced again. Push through until around 6pm, trying to produce some journalism that reaches just above acceptable.

Head to a bar. I had several options depending on how wasted I wanted to get. Meet friends who had no idea I’d already consumed a six-pack (maybe more) and a few shots of whiskey. Alcoholism rarely takes the form that they show in the movies. It’s an easy disease to hide. It’s rare that I’d be falling down in my own vomit screaming at people. Take another shot of whiskey and crack open a cheap beer.

If I wanted to get wasted I’d half-jokingly chug a Long Island iced tea (because that’s funny, right?). By midnight I’d be roaring drunk and virile as hell. Then I’d go home feeling just amazing, open my laptop and write some of the greatest sentences ever poured onto paper. Then the next day, repeat.

There is one detail of my morning that I left out, though. Before taking a shower I’d peel my face off the pillow and read what I’d written the night before. And even in my still fermented state, I knew it was trash.

The sentences were an unbelievable combination of sappy and hyper-intellectual. Imagine David Foster Wallace and John Keats decided to write a mumblecore romantic comedy. The vacillation between raw emotion and failed postmodern acrobatics was tragic in a way that would make Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings look like Shakespeare.

But this is alcoholism. It’s a fantasy. It’s the only disease that I know of that makes you feel better when you’re in the throes of it. Or at least you think you feel better. For a long time I thought that I had started on the path to being a drunk with fervent intent. But being sober now, I realize that I’d never intended to be an alcoholic, but rather once I became one, thinking that it was all my idea was the only way to deal with it and not completely break down.

Raymond Carver is my literary hero and he sums it up best in a Paris Review interview.

“You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.”

Ray almost gave up everything for his drink and I was heading in the same direction.

“It’s very painful to think about some of the things that happened back then. I made a wasteland out of everything I touched. But I might add that towards the end of the drinking there wasn’t much left anyway,” he said to the Paris Review interviewer.

I remember reading that interview right after I got sober. I’d read it before, but mostly for writing tips. A month into sobriety I read it to understand how he stayed sober.

“If you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’ll always be an alcoholic, but I’m no longer a practicing alcoholic,” Carver said in that 1983 interview.

I showed that interview to my then-girlfriend, a brilliant abstract painter whose parents had struggled and beat alcoholism. She was in tears. As an artist she understood. We do these things that are so important to us and yet we willingly destroy them chasing an addiction.

It’s true. You never stop being an alcoholic. I will struggle every day with it. But with my amazing friends and family at my side I will stay sober. I wish I could name them all here, but I know I’d forget a few and that would be just terrible. They all mean so much to me and I would probably be pretty fucked without them.

On June 2, 2012, almost three months after my 30th birthday and 35 years to the day after Ray got sober, I gave up drinking. That was almost nine months ago. Since then I’ve written 70 good short poems, am halfway through the first draft of a novel, and have started writing nonfiction outside of journalism. Now my writing retains the emotion and the nod to postmodernism, but I’m able to pull back the reins. I can step back and evaluate it.

Emotion is a wonderful thing, but unbridled it can destroy art. I’ve always said I want to write the way Cy Twombly paints. I remember seeing his 1978 painting The Fire that Consumes All Before It. For me that’s what I strive for in sobriety, a balance of bursting emotion and playful intellectualism. That painting keeps me sober.

Now the sentences sing to each other and that song is no longer a death dirge. For the first time it’s sober, thoughtful, exciting writing.

 

Ryan McDermott

About Ryan McDermott

Ryan McDermott is a journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. He’s held just about every job in a newsroom over the last eight years and has fumbled three attempts at writing a novel. Ryan enjoys listening to Taylor Swift just as much as reading David Foster Wallace and has no problem watching Die Hard while hanging a Robert Motherwell print.

16 Comments

  1. Kathryn Quigley on March 1, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Great essay, Ryan. Now THIS is good writing

  2. Mark Ames on March 1, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    go man go

  3. Wordsmith11! on March 1, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Thanks, Kathryn! That means a lot coming from you.

  4. Ryan McDermott on March 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks, Mark and Kathryn! Sorry, I don’t know how to comment properly on the site for which I write. Haha!

  5. Caleb graham on March 2, 2013 at 8:01 am

    Very well done. A good and insightful read. And some new things to explore for my philistine self! Thank you for both.

  6. Fritzie Fritz on March 2, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Keep it up Ryan, as someone who is also in recovery reading about your struggles and then achievements is inspiring to not just myself but to us all. Drink that soda pop like a boss. #so-bro-ity

  7. Ryan McDermott on March 3, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Caleb and Fritz – Thanks so much for reading. And Fritz, keep it up with recovery, it’s not an easy road (as i’m sure you know), but it’s well worth it….ya know, being sober and happy. #so-bro-ity for life.

  8. Gregory Pleshaw on March 11, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Not many folks have the brass balls to state the truth – Bukowski *was* a terrible writer.

  9. christina on March 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    amazing. tiny mouse heads for you <3

  10. Brandon Russell on March 19, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Wow I didn’t t know. That was a very interesting read. I find myself associating the best times in my head with alcohol but perhaps it’s truly the opposite.

  11. burgerbarn on May 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Thank you for this!! I got sober 3 years ago and even though I know I’m more effective this way, and my work is more balanced, sometimes I still wonder if I’d be better drunk!! Perhaps the romanticizing still going on a bit? You reminded my how awful it all was- I felt like crap and everything I made was crap. The challenge to create is now real and authentic, not the disingenuous cheating I felt I was doing while intoxicated. Now it’s all me, all the time. Keep ‘er going!

  12. Christine Infanger on May 30, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Hello, Ryan~ I stumbled upon this looking for info for a piece I’m working on and thought I’d say ‘hi.’ I, too, am a writer, and can’t imagine writing with anything other than a clear head. I’d imagine it has a lot to do with the type of writing you’re doing, though. At any rate, I hope you’re still thriving creatively and enjoying sobriety, difficult as it may be at times.
    XO~ Christine

  13. ZbOROVAN on February 4, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    In my booze-soaked-brain days, I would come out of a 3-day blackout and see a completed canvas on my easel, without the slightest recollection of painting it.

  14. ZbOROVAN on February 4, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    A few days after my 1st anniversary (of sobriety), a revelation bored its way into my skull. I wasn’t having trouble adjusting to sobriety, I was having difficulty trying to make head or tails out of a life a drunk set up for me. It’s been smooth sailing after that.

  15. Here’s to Celebrating Alcoholic Writers! on January 14, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    […] you’ve ever tried to capture insights while your drinking, you know that it’s a terrible idea and Ernest Hemingway’s famous quote, “Write drunk, edit sober” is bad advice (and possibly a […]

  16. Mark on January 24, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Thank you for this. I am on the same path out of alcoholism. Slowly – but surely. One of the hardest things to lodge for me is the romantizing of alcohol – that it lends, creates, romance to life. Thank you for your excellent essay.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.