Writers, Brewers, and Booze

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I was recently reading an article about writers and booze—a famous and much-discussed association. There’s a weird romance with the drunk writer; it’s the one profession in which we forgive the frailties of the alcoholic, seeing it, I suppose, as part of the spooky madness of genius. Well, maybe not the only one: the brewer-as-happy-lush doesn’t have the society-wide fame, but It’s an enduring one among those aware of the lives of brewers.

But let’s stick to writers for a moment. I did some googling and discovered that the writer-as-drunk is an evergreen topic. An article in the Washington Post from 1989 covered the same material I was reading last week. The thirty years in between are studded with the appearances of nearly identical articles. In case you’re not familiar with the genre, some excerpts: 

  • “While Capote was writing "In Cold Blood," he would have a double martini before lunch, another with lunch and a stinger afterward. After he was arrested for drunken driving on Long Island, he went to Silver Hill, an expensive clinic in Connecticut for alcoholics. Dried out, he was soon drunk again.”
  • ”In 1939, Hemingway was ordered to cut down on his drinking. He tried to hold himself to three Scotches before dinner but he couldn't do it and, in 1940, he began breakfasting on tea and gin and swigging absinthe, whiskey, vodka and wine at various times during the day.”
  • ”Between 1933 and 1937, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald was hospitalized eight times for alcoholism and arrested at least as often.”
  • ”Nancy J. Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa with a PhD in English, did a 15-year study of 30 creative writers on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where students and faculty have included well-known writers Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor. She found that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of nonwriters.

Countless articles and a number of books have been written on the subject, and the article-writers all leave mystified as to why these authors might favor the hooch. And that is mystifying to me; the reason seems so obvious. Writing is a witchy business, and a unique turn of phrase, a metaphor, a certain music in the prose—all of this issues from a place beyond rational cognition. It seems to come from outside the writer’s mind. It’s why the concept of the muse exists, that elusive creative spark that can be coaxed—possibly—but never commanded. Writer’s block, the moments when the muse does not visit, is misunderstood as a the inability to write; in fact, it’s the inability to write well.

On the day you’ve written beautifully, everything is glorious. But the next morning when you wake up, you wonder—will it come back again? If this spark comes from outside the writer, perhaps it the force is spent. No exercise of will makes a writer produce something rare and sublime; it comes from the ether—or it doesn’t. The anxiety that it might never return is certainly reason enough to tuck into a whisky or six—and there’s the reason a third of writers are drunks. 

I’m on shakier ground when I look into the heart of a brewer (or brewery worker). I’ve heard stories. Rumors circulate about brewers half in the bag by noon. That recent ugliness with Melvin ended with a brewer in rehab. Ask around a bit and you’ll uncover quietly-told, disquieting rumors. 

I was at a conference years back and I was talking to a retired brewer who’d worked for one of the big companies (Anheuser-Busch?). We had been discussing this subject and he relayed a story from a few years earlier when he’d gotten moved to the new non-alcoholic division. His first week on the job, he realized he wouldn’t be drinking actual alcohol as a part of his work. He paused and said it caused him to worry because it had been decades since he’d gone a day without drinking. What if he needed the beer to get trough the day?

When I was in Ireland a few years back, I heard a far worse story of the dangers of the Brewing life. A cabbie told me that he used to brew at Guinness back in the 60s or 70s. Beer was everywhere, and people drank like fish all day long. Employees also received a vast amount of free beer, and that could be topped up with a wink and a nod. By his telling, the non-alcoholic was a rarity. He left, in fact, because he was watching himself descend into alcoholism. 

There is a shadow to this beverage we love, one we almost never discuss. Beer is great and drinking is great, and nearly all the social momentum is in the direction of drinking more, not less. Hey, it’s 9 am—wouldn’t it be amusing to make like the Germans of old and have a weissbier with breakfast? Ha ha. Who among us hasn’t had a pint (or two, or three) more than we should have?  

I’m no moralist or scold, but I do worry about this stuff. Back when I was a freshman in college, I had a very boozy year. Sometime that spring, after a typically fun and beery Saturday night, I woke up, got the percolator humming with some Folger’s, and strolled out to survey the damage. In the common room, one of my classmates was studying the stray beers left from the night before. I was good and hung over and the last thing my body wanted was alcohol. But this guy was actually swigging the cigarette-free bottles (It was 1987), joking about how funny it was, although he was clearly doing it out of need, not comedy. Those of us who witnessed it knew we were looking at alcoholism; the ugly, uncontrollable shadow of our lighthearted Saturday nights. (He ended up flunking out and heading to rehab.) At one point near the very end of that year, my drinking buddy and I were have a candid discussion and he told me he thought I might have a drinking problem. When that happens, it’s time to evaluate just how close you are to crossing the line into that shadow-world beyond the fun.

Beer is a wonderful, wholesome beverage—until it’s not. We probably romanticize the dangerous parts too much, or at the very least examine them too little. I’m not really qualified to offer much more than this blog post, but I hope everyone’s being careful out there. There’s a dark side to alcohol, and there’s nothing romantic about it.