Why do Writers drink?

Why do writers drink?

It is well known that many writers – established or not, and regardless of gender, genre, or age – drink. Why is that?
This essay will investigate the use of intoxicants to both enhance and dull the cognitive functions of writers and their many, many demons.

why writers drink, alcoholism, authors, writing, alcohol


It isn’t just fiction or non-fiction writers who drink either, many professional copywriters often battle the demon in the bottle, but that is a topic for another article.

I have my own theory on why writers drink which I will address at the end of this essay.

“I’d rather die of drink than of thirst”

  • Ian Fleming. ‘Thunder’

Intoxication is nothing new.

In fact, in texts as old as ‘the Odyssey’, dating back some 3000 years, we can get a good understanding of addiction from the chapter about the Lotus Eaters, a group of men so addicted to the consumption of the lotus flowers, they would forget everything in their world – even returning from war to their loving families – in favour of endless excess.

Let’s bring the narrative closer to modernity, before we take it back again. Starting in the middle, moving to the end, back to the beginning and then again to the end is a narrative technique often called ‘in medias res’: in the middle of things.

Very few people seem to know that Sherlock Holmes was a substance abuser. In fact, there were few substances he wouldn’t abuse. His favourite being a merry little concoction called ‘7% Solution’ a mixture of cocaine and morphine.

Whilst the writers behind the current BBC hit version of ‘Sherlock’ postulate that Holmes may be somewhere on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, in prior years it was possible his cognitive functions had simply been improved by stimulants.

You can make your own mind up about which of his habits are canonical.

The Symposium or “Drinking Party”

Long before Sherlock’s worshipping of cocaine, hundreds of thousands of warriors and farmers were doing a very different kind of worship.

Festivals to celebrate Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) were incredibly popular in ancient Greece and Rome, and would often attract licentious libation bearers from all walks of life, from Socrates to Julius Caesar.

Before the symposium was the ‘Bucolic’, a period of peaceful, solitary farming in which romantic poetry as we know it first took form. It was from this period that religious cults sprang; consumption of strong wine was a by product of the coming together of ancient loners.

It was in this period that my hypothesis begins to emerge. Our ancient colleagues had ‘The Sight’. They could see what we had, and what we stood to lose.

Modern writers understand that in the place of ancient romance – flowers and gestures and the exchange of pleasantries – we have instead an empty space filled by technology.

It has become easy to keep in touch across a distance, the result being that we stay distant and rarely touch.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Most famous for the incredible ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Coleridge was obsessed with death and addiction.

His intoxicant of choice had been Laudanum, a tincture of heroin and brandy. After many years – 18 – of abuse, he died alone, alienated from his family.

A victim of his own, desperate talent.

Edgar Allen Poe

Let go from his first job as an assistant editor for being drunk, Edgar Allen was a key companion to alcohol from early on until death did him part.

Poe eventually – in spite of everything – went on to help define the genre we call Gothic, penning such classics as the Telltale Heart and Berenice.

The pain, drabness and pervading grey of the pictures he paints are subtle signs of an alcoholic on the wrong side of the creative fence.

Ernest Hemingway

“for sale: baby shoes; never worn,” – Ernest Hemingway, on being asked to write a story in six words

Pioneer of the Iceberg Theory, Ernest believed we should give our audience the benefit of the doubt. Something we are want to do these days. A proponent of the “show, don’t tell” style, Hemingway was able to use ambiguity and metaphor to great effect, allowing readers to interpret his stories in their own way.

This type of writing has – in my humble opinion – greatly informed gothic literature. Were the ghosts psychological? After all, there’s a ghost in all of us.

Isn’t the threat of the danger, so much more frightening than the danger itself?

Montague Rhodes James

Montague James Rhodes was not noted for being a prolific drinker.

However, much can be gleaned from his actual writings, and the writings about him once he passed.

As a Cambridge boy and an antiquarian, he was taken to having dinner parties, with an abundance of alcohol, and speaking his stories to an audience.

He remains the greatest teller of ghost stories.

Hunter S Thompson

“I don’t want to be a pretty corpse, I want to be buried in the ground, thoroughly used up” – Hunter S Thompson, paraphrased, on the topic of death.

Sarah Kane

“Lie with dogs, rise with fleas”

“You held my life in your hands, your brutal hands”

Kane was a woman of serious, crippling talent.

Unsurprisingly, she has found more fame since her death.

Her addiction to prescription drugs as a result of depression is widely documented. Her last work ‘4:48 Psychosis’ has been described as a suicide note and has been the subject of controversy.

She had the sight, and knew that as a result of her eyes being opened to the horror, the unfairness, and the unrelenting storm of emotion life brings with it, the work would never end. Unless she ended it.

Stephen King

There is nothing I can say here that King cannot say infinitely better in On Writing.

However, both ‘The Shining’ and its sequel ‘Doctor Sleep’ are excellent examples of modern ghost stories. These would be considered “masculine gothic” rather than the “feminist gothic”.

Myself – the Ghost Story Writer

Do all these writers have self-destruction in common? Did they drink because they hated themselves?

I don’t think so.

They drank because they were ‘The Other’. Not products of their environment, writers become pariahs as soon as they can describe ascending cadence in an office environment.

They self destruct upon realising what caricatures we all are.

Upon understanding that there is something worse than nihilism: we know so much, but never enough.

We learn constantly, but like with an addiction, our thirst for knowledge, endorphins and adrenaline increases exponentially.

“Why do I smoke? Because I want to live as much as I want to die” – Anon

“Children become adults when they realise they’ll have to watch their heroes die” – The Men in the Snow by The Ghost Story Writer

“I tore a contact lens from my eye, so the horror I could see might be halved” – Window Pain: Fatal Inheritance by The Ghost Story Writer

If there is one thing I know about writing – professional or no – it’s that you have to trust it will be there when you wake up in the morning.

Alcohol is thought by many to be a depressant.

In my experience this is far removed from the truth; it is a mood enhancer.

If you drink happy, you write happy.

If you drink sad, your words are bleak, stark, and everything non-writers look for.

A certain verbosity arrives, unwelcome, in sober writing.

Drunk writing cuts through all of that, in a heartbeat, and what you are left with are powerful, hopefully coherent words. The balance lies in knowing where the line is, and bringing yourself back from the edge. If you can do that, you might be on to something.

It doesn’t matter what you create: an album; a painting; a novel; a short story; a poem, you are only as good as your last piece.

This is why we drink.