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I Realized I Was a Cliché: A Drunk Writer Who Couldn’t Write Drunk

During my Year of Sherry, I realized that I was essentially losing money by writing.

by James Wilt
Jan 6 2016, 7:00pm

The piss-colored and sickly saccharine sherry comes in a 750 mL clear plastic bottle with a shitty black screw cap and sells for $7.89, making it 40 percent stronger and 25 percent cheaper than a mediocre bottle of wine. In short, it's a highly repulsive and economical way to get sloshed.

I devoted most of 2014 to two things: ingesting a heinous quantity of the swill and penning newspaper articles for pay, in that fairly critical order. So while my roommates worked real jobs in construction and data entry, I drank and wrote and spent money I made from writing on drinking, pretending to live out the tortured ideal pioneered by the Holy Drunken Trinity of Hemingway, Hitchens, and Hunter S.

Days started at 10 AM, alcohol by noon. It wasn't until I lined up at the local liquor store behind an overtly intoxicated homeless dude and noted our shared interest in purchasing Kingsgate Reserve Canadian Apera that four equally unfortunate and related things started to sink in: a) my overwrought writing will never compare to the work of my literary heroes; b) two of those legends offed themselves, and the third smoked himself to death; c) I was buying a slightly fancier version of Listerine; and d) the whole writer-as-alcoholic shtick is hazardously romanticized.

Despite such thoughts, I still bought the bottle, drank most of it in the subsequent three hours, and spent the remainder of the night playing Borderlands 2 while subsumed in a massive bean bag chair instead of doing actual work. That quickly turned into a nightly occurrence because playing first-person shooters while drunk is hilarious, but also quite the impediment to meeting deadlines. One time, I just completely forgot about an article and my editor had to hastily come up with filler to get the issue out the door.

Art and intoxicants have always had a blurry relationship, yet writers seem to possess a lock on the most extreme and irksome form of self-aggrandizement on the subject. Spend an hour in a newsroom or writing circle—or even worse, a classroom of overly eager creative writing students—and you're bound to hear an assortment of cringey dad jokes regarding whiskey bottles hidden in desks and drinking before noon: former Slate editor Jack Shafer once mourned the loss of the Mad Men era when "alcoholics were celebrated or at least regaled in newsrooms for their heroic immoderation." Absent from such deification was the fact many such writers were misogynist assholes or faux-contrarian conservatives.

There's no denying that there's a time and place for alcohol in the journalistic process. It's much easier for me to interview rappers or CEOs after a few sips of something. But such indulgences can swiftly become a problematic habit, one that culminated in me conducting a 9 AM phone interview with a 79-year-old Catholic ecofeminist theologian while buzzed off boxed wine (tbh, I had a great time, even though she was a bit hard of hearing and yelled into the phone for the duration of the call.)

I exceeded Statistics Canada's seemingly conservative classification of "heavy drinking" as "five or more drinks, per occasion, at least once a month during the past year" almost every day, often before sundown. Then Manitoba's liquor stores started retailing 473 mL cans of my favorite IPA for $2.50, leading inevitably to a two-month bender at roughly 250 calories per can. In other words, I was receiving half my daily caloric intake via beer. The shed in our backyard quickly filled up with empties. Luckily, the desk I worked at was in a room with laminate wood flooring, making it much easier to clean up drunken spills than, say, carpet.

Alcohol certainly allows for exceptional efficiency at writing. The first time I ever got drunk was from chugging Growers Cider while camping somewhere in British Columbia with the family, after which I meandered to the lake and cranked out a half-dozen semi-legible poems about angsty bullshit in like 15 minutes. Today, I can pen 800 words in a few hours with a couple of gins. Unfortunately, the kind of writing I care about—somewhat heady shit about politics and environmental policy integrating plenty of interviews and research—takes a fair bit of fact checking and attention to word choice. Such work, just like piecing together an academic paper, requires discipline and awareness. In my experience, alcohol isn't especially conducive to that.

Research and writings on the subject bears this out. While intoxicants can aid the unlocking of free associating forms of creative expression (like lakeside teenage ramblings or the dude who drew self-portraits under the influence of 52 distinct drugs), it often detracts from precise thinking that relies on traits like memory and linearity. That's why debates tend to become considerably less productive after the third or fourth pint, with emotion largely trumping rationality. So, sure, I could banter with the jovial rap duo Run the Jewels at 10 AM while in that twilight zone between buzzed and drunk (courtesy of my friend's homemade everclear-based drink that she gave me specifically for the task), but translating that experience into a sensical narrative was an arduous undertaking unless I gained a degree of sobriety.

Absurdly, my infatuation with shitty sherry—and, if I was feeling fancy, a 750 mL bottle of Copper Moon malbec—was something I'd make subtle quips about in social settings, presumably hoping to rack up some of that esteemed bad boy cred I missed out on by skipping high school prom to play Star Wars video games with my friends. It probably never worked. Despite that, my go-to anecdote for nearly a full year was the tale of being unable to complete a cover feature on time because I was stuck in Indiana on a Sunday (when there's a preposterous ban on packaged liquor sales).

In my Year of Sherry, I'd talk myself out of the detrimental aspect of the practice, re-attributing that already misattributed Hemingway quote about writing drunk and editing sober. Problem is that intentional writing isn't just about word choice (which can be quickly revised) but concerns things like thematic progression; fuck up an argument in the first section and it can take hours to rectify as logical errors snowball into sentimental and incoherent bullshit. I have a frighteningly poor memory, but there's something especially disturbing about revisiting old articles—sometimes for reference and other times to shamelessly feed the ego—and not recalling when or where I was when I wrote the material. On the other hand, it's especially odd when you read your own argument and think, well, that's a good point.

To be fair, it's easier to make clever dick jokes when buzzed, but that rarely serves as the foundation for airtight arguments about the merits of a higher minimum wage or carbon pricing framework. As uber-bougie University of Toronto professor Joseph Heath put it: "There is no getting around the fact that most moderate, progressive positions are frankly difficult to explain." The presentation of radical alternatives to the bullshit society we inhabit tends to require a fair bit of imagination. But it also requires rational thought to offer up such ideas in a logically sound argument. Drinking may enable the former, but rarely the latter.

There will always be savants who defy this problem: James Joyce and William Faulkner were both mad alcoholics and technical masterminds. But most of us plebes operate on a different wavelength. It's hellishly important to accept that. And maybe get different role models; David Foster Wallace and Stephen King, while wildly different authors, shared common ground in producing some of their cleverest work after sobering up (Infinite Jest and The Shining both partly served as meditations on alcoholism).

That isn't to say that I've ditched drinking as a mandatory activity for writing: I tend to oscillate between teetotalism and dipsomania every few weeks with fairly vigorous dedication to each. The problem for me is the attempted justification for drinking alone—that I can make funnier dick jokes—quickly slips into just drinking alone all the time. Which could be fine for some, but I like bourbon and ginger ale way, way too much. Throw in a season of Fargo and any semblance of productivity vanishes. The day after the double-binge, more liquor would have to be ingested to numb the hangover and be able to actually focus on work. Such habituation cost hundreds of dollars a month. In short, I was essentially losing money by writing.

The image of the drunken yet effective creative mind is indeed a prominent one. Perhaps it's time to admit that most of us who try to practice it just end up as pathetic alcoholics and mediocre writers. But talk to me next week and I'll probably be singing a different tune, likely with a bottle of something in hand.

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