Sunday, April 18, 2010

Alcohol and the Writer, Part Two

The above photo was taken by Thriller Guy's daughter as she and TG were tucked into the Lee Street Lounge in Charleston, WV, a cozy neighborhood bar suggested by TG's brother-in-law, Francis Fisher.

Part Two.

One of the troubles with blogs is they live life backwards. Thriller Guy is presently caught in the throes of explaining why drinking (alcohol) can be helpful to your writing. So if you are new to the blog, or at least new to this thread, take the time and read the entry directly below this one. The rest of us will wait while you do so. (Sound of fingers drumming impatiently on tabletop.) OK, TG is tired of waiting any longer.

Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter, (Body Heat, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) once said, “Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life.” Absolutely true. It is one hell of a lot of work. Writing is much more (though civilians don't understand this) than just putting a story down on paper. The structure of what one is attempting to write is at least as important as the characters, the voice is all important, the damn title is crucial. As you work your way through a 500 page manuscript, the plot must, and will, shift and break out in directions you never envisioned, at least at the beginning. There are scores, no, hundreds of decisions to be made and problems that have to be solved along the way. And no one is there to help you work through them. You're on your own, Bunky, so shut up and start writing.

But first, maybe it's time for a drink.

Here's TG's take on the situation: A writer's mind never stops working, (remember having homework for the rest of your life?) at least while you are actively banging away on a novel or even thinking up a novel. When TG is immersed in the process, he is up and down at least a couple of times every night, getting out of bed to write down stray bits of prose or solutions to problems that have arisen during the day. But sometimes TG gets stuck, and no matter how hard he thinks, he can't come up with an answer. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) used to say that whenever he would finish writing a novel, he was empty. That he could not write another word. He had no ideas about what he would write next, no creative thoughts whatsoever. But if he waited a night, a day, a week, the “well” (his creativity) would fill back up and before he knew it, he was back working on his next project. TG has found, over the years, that sometimes the solution to thornier problems involves just STOPPING his brain from working, taking a break from the constant barrage of problem-solving and word creation. At least for one night. And the best way to do this, at least for TG, is by drinking. (Twain was a great drinker. He left his wife written instructions that she was to, everyday without fail, put a shot glass filled with whiskey on his bathroom sink so that in the morning he could brush his teeth then down the shot of whiskey so his day would start out in the right direction. This is not something TG has ever tried, but, the man was one of our greatest writers. Maybe he was on to something.)

Sigh. TG is going to get so much grief from suggesting this problem-solving method. Let's all try and remember such drunks such as John Cheever, Dylan Thomas, Raymond Carver, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway and a host of others, all alcoholic, all doomed by their alcoholism at least to some degree. For more on the perils of the bottle, go to this article, which is titled Writers and Alcohol and appeared some years ago in The Washington Post. It contains the authoritative statement, “ More writers die of cirrosis of the liver, a disease associated with alcoholism, than people in other occupations.” so Be Warned. Please, do not take TG's suggestions here as license to drink to excess, to sink into the slough of alcoholism thinking you are just working out your plot. Use your head, people.

Here's the deal: say you've got a problem that you can't figure out – your character has been captured by an evil CEO and Our Hero is imprisoned in a laboratory where the resident mad scientist and his minions are threatening to suck the very essence out of his body. (Think Neo in The Matrix) How is Our Hero going to escape? TG can tell you from long experience, if you don't know how to get your man (or woman) out of this pickle when you head into this scene, the answer is probably not going to just jump into your head. Trying to hammer out a solution to a problem like this can drive you nuts. What you need to do is to stop trying to figure out the answer, and let your subconscious come up with a solution. To do this you need to stop your brain from working so hard, to let the well fill up, by itself. Send the kiddies off to bed (if there are any kiddies) kiss the wife goodnight, (if there is a wife) pour yourself a stiff drink and settle into your chair. Then have a couple of more drinks. You can noodle away at the problem while you're sitting there, but only in a general way. Drink too much, stagger off to bed, and go to sleep. And if you're lucky, the next morning, when you go back to work, the answer will pop into your head. Almost unbidden. Ditto if you're trying to come up with a title, solve a plot problem, searching for a “voice” to tell your story, a structure on which to build your novel. You need to stop trying to sove the problem, and let your writer's brain solve the conundrum on its own. This is actually one of the few thrilling moments when being a writer seems almost like magic.

So...when the Little Ones gather at TG's knee and ask such questions as, “Please, sir, I don't know how my story is going to end, how will I ever know?' TG tells them, relax, just write your book, the answer will come if you just let it alone, if you just stop trying so hard. And if it doesn't, have a drink. Or two, or more. And it will come to you as if in a dream.

Trust me.

Stay tuned for Alcohol, Part Three.

And here's another photo of the Lee Street Lounge.


  1. Thank goddess, another reason to have a drink!

  2. Now now, Marcia, the advice is only applicable if you're working on a piece of writing. And a blog entry doesn't count.