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Why you're on the write path if you need to battle the bottle

By Mary Kenny

Published 04/01/2016

Tempestuous two: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were both fond of alcohol
Tempestuous two: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were both fond of alcohol

Hands up anyone who's quitting alcohol for the month of January? Oh, yes, I can see there are quite a few. It's a fashionable practice among the young crowd - post-Christmas is the new Advent, you might say. Give the liver a month's rest. And it's proof you aren't an alcoholic.

Although it's also sometimes said that "going on the dry" for a month or so can be a sign of being an alcoholic. So you can't win. But you're in good company. What's astonishing is the number of creative people, particularly writers, who have been self-destructive topers.

We know about Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas - both perishing before their time because of the eggnog - but the list of great writers enslaved by the bottle is formidable. James Graham, in his astonishing book, The Secret History of Alcohol provides the following roll-call of American authors who were certified dipsomaniacs: Edgar Allan Poe (a desperate case), Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill (whose family life was ruined by liquor), Edna St Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker (whose talent was corroded by the drink), F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John O'Hara, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, ee Cummings, Edmund Wilson, James Thurber, Jack London, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, Raymond Chandler.

Also in the frame are Jack Kerouac, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Elmore Leonard and - I find this hard to believe - Margaret Mitchell, she of Gone With the Wind. (Other women writers with a liquor problem, according to Graham, included Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Marguerite Duras and Elizabeth Bishop).

Throughout history, Graham claims, drunkards have wreaked havoc upon millions. Stalin - who had a huge tolerance for drink - probably murdered 25 million, essentially arising out of a drunken rage, which led to paranoia. Then there was Henry VIII, Alexander the Great and Ivan the Terrible, all similarly powered by liquor. Apparently. But if tyrants have had recourse to strong drink (and some, like Hitler, were stone-cold sober), it's the writers who still dominate the intoxication chronicles.

F Scott Fitzgerald would imbibe 33 cans of beer in one day. Scott thought "beer didn't count" as alcohol - his normal tipple had been Gin Rickey (a highball of gin, lime and fizzy water). Hemingway would take "60 ounces of 80-proof rum in one night". John Steinbeck would drink 27 martinis in a night. William Faulkner dosed himself with mint juleps (bourbon, water, crushed ice and mint). Hunter S Thompson's poison was bourbon, and in more recent times, Stephen King has confessed to a compulsive beer habit.

Among the general population, it's said 5% of people are serious alcoholics and 15% have a drink problem. Among writers, it's claimed 30% are addicted. Among film actors, according to another American study by Lucy Barry Robe, 38% are alcoholics. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were ferocious boozers, and Burton would sometimes go on benders with Peter O'Toole (and sometimes O'Toole would partner Richard Harris in their drinkathons).

Yet, when you delve into the sources of drinking among writers - as Olivia Laing did for her sensitive and sometimes lyrical book, The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink - you begin to understand what demons drove them. They suffered from nerves, insomnia, self-doubt, self-hatred, pathological shyness, sexual doubt and a number of both real and imagined illnesses. John Cheever had a difficult start in life: as soon as his mother conceived him, his father wanted him aborted, and "invited the local abortionist to dinner" to discuss it. His strong-minded mother resisted, but all his life, Cheever was haunted by a feeling that he was "a fraud" and an imposter. Booze made him feel better and so he took to it.

The great playwright Tennessee Williams, too, suffered from an overwhelming sense of anxiety, as well as a number of illnesses, which were soothed by drinking - until the moment when drink made things worse, and caused aphasia (forgetting of words).

Hemingway and Fitzgerald met one another for the first time in a bar in Paris in 1927, and the drinking went on from there. Hemingway had an exceptional capacity for tolerating and holding his drink - which, in itself, can be the road to alcoholism - though in the early years, it didn't affect his work. His biographers reckoned he had been drinking continuously since the age of 17: in the end, he killed himself, and the depression that liquor often brings was surely a factor.

For F Scott Fitzgerald, only drink could steady his nerves. Yet he admitted in his letters that "drinking was slowing him down - but felt he could not get through without it".

He also wrote that "drink heightens feelings: when I drink it heightens my emotions and I put it in a story". And that's the dilemma for many a writer: the bottle seems to open up the imaginative pathways, at first, but then it impairs the ability to put it all down on paper.

It's always healthy to go on the wagon for a month. But maybe it's useful to examine why alcohol is important enough in your life to need a period of abstinence. Is it an excuse for life, or a prop to genius?

James Graham nominates Beethoven as being one of the most bad-tempered alcoholics of all time. But then, look what he left behind.

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