Some Great Reward: Boozing the Muse

No. I’m actually not talking about the name of a Depeche Mode album. I’m talking about the lubrication we artists and creative types often require before diving off the deep end. That device of loosening up the gears comes in a variety of flavors, but you might know them as drugs and alcohol.

Modern pharmacological advancements have not caught up to the demands of the muse, the requirements creatives have for a substance to safely guide us from the chatter of mediocrity, away from the distractions of social media, from the pulls of adult life and its trappings of repetition that slow the heart, and dull the very core of the mind.

We still rely on the poisons, for lack of a better term, that wreck upon the shore of the body, and with an army of bedazzled pirates with nothing better to do than to rape and pillage, the body declines to a vast washup of useless sand, devoid of life, and dead from the possibility of future life.

If only it were easier to get that muse to wake up without indulging, for don’t we all know of countless stories of artists succumbing to the very thing that perhaps kept them going at all. It’s an ironic predicament. But this all has to be taken in with that little ol’ proverbial grain of salt. Artists that adhere to the straight-edge approach, or only moderately indulge in some offbeat substance, don’t sell magazines or newspapers. We aren’t a culture that finds interest in the middle ground. We like extreme everything.

Hunter S Thompson. Boy, did he like the “poison.”

It also should be noted that the “poison” really lies in the eye of the beholder. In some cultures, drinking anything is strictly prohibited and can lead to some extreme reaction, where in others no one blinks an eye at finishing a bottle of wine in one night.

My poison? I’ve sampled in the past from the tray of options, but I’m a moderate. Currently, I consume two bottles of red wine over the course of four nights. (Keep in mind when contemplating my body’s reaction to alcohol, I weigh 120 lbs and am female). I used to consume way more, some eight years of nightly red wine drinking to the tune of three full glasses a night, a habit started while living in Spain. I don’t like other types of alcohol, or wines with white or pink colors. Red is it, and red is all.

But as a creator with varied interests, I find some outlets require the straight edge approach, and others absolutely need alcohol to get things flowing, sometimes forcing me to break my two bottle a week rule.  I’m currently finishing up a first draft of a novel, while also working on two new screenplays. One requires the “lube,” the other shuns it. Can you guess which one falls into favor of dear old Bacchus? If you guessed novel writing, big gold star for you!

 Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras in France, 1955. Photograph: Robert Doisneau

The novel writing process these past few months has been so intense, growing more intense as the word count has gone up. It could be the desolate cold setting of the story, and its dark tone, piled on to the fact I’m writing it in the dead of winter in a house by myself (when I don’t have a cat in my lap.) Sometimes, getting the wine buzz going has been the only way to push forward, to open up the tap to unusual word combinations, to take risks and fully slide into that dark cold world and witness my characters do horrible things to each other. Trying to do this sober has been wrought with tension, with frustrated tears at times, or I’ll walk away from the work, welcoming a distraction from the reason I carved out an hour or two in my day to write at all.

Strangely, while working on screenplays, the alcohol does not help one bit. If I start drinking and working on a screenplay, I soon can’t make the connections from something starting on page 10 to something happening on page 67. I am not able to think big picture anymore, or think about characters arcs, tying up loose ends, and I get stuck in the minutiae. I don’t drink when I’m working in pre-production for films or screenplays. But something about making that first draft of a novel appear just requires it.

How many writers go to the bottle? I am sure we can all name more than one without even typing “writers that were alcoholics” in Google. (Here is a really fascinating piece in The Guardian on women writers and alcohol.) What is it about writing novels that makes drink so attractive? For me, it has a lot to do with the maddening process of novel writing. It’s largely a solo activity until one is ready to start workshopping, hunting an agent, etc. Being such social creatures, there is something just a little unnatural to shun human contact in the name of art, to listen to the maddening hum of the inner critic, and stare at the sharp downward slope of the empty page. While many can write with lots of human activity going on, like in a coffee shop, I cannot craft prose while people are gabbing away at the table next to me and the barista is calling out the third time for James to come pick up his double latte with soymilk. I require isolation, usually listening to dark ambient drone music (Soma FM Drone Zone is my go-to), and then the two glasses of wine. An hour and a half later, I’ve coughed out 1000 words, my daily goal on workdays, and I brush my teeth and go to bed, my brain usually still working on the novel until I finally sleep.

Well, certainly those 1000 words must be crap, you might think, coming from the place of booze. Actually, they aren’t. The stuff that comes out is usually daring, the pacing and rhythm of the language defined, and with some slight reworking, ends up becoming something I really like. I’m also not a blundering drunk when I drink wine, pushing over my pencil cup, kicking my cats and tripping on my own feet. My head is just nice and warm, and novel-land is not such a scary place to be.

Oh, Oscar Wilde. Loved the absinthe.

Still, one does wonder about the sustainability of requiring drink to write novels. If this is something I want to continue, perhaps two (sometimes three) bottles a week is not a big deal, or maybe I’m slowly desiccating my poor liver into a something resembling a sundried tomato. Research on the effects of alcohol just can’t seem to get shit straight. Good or bad? Who knows anymore? And if I get crushed by a Mack truck or die in some plane crash this year, does it matter how much wine I drank?

So until the research “ducks” are all in line on booze and health, I’ll keep pulling forth that sadistic muse with my cabs and malbecs, as I listen to her guide my stubby little fingers over the keypad. Sorry screenplay muse, only herbal teas for you.