Columns > Published on March 20th, 2015

Boozing Like Famous Writers

I hate to think of myself as a pile of stereotypes, a bunch of checkboxes with marks for either yes or no. But if I'm honest, there are some stereotypes that are true of me.

I'm a white male. I'm a terrible dancer. This is true about me. I'm ridiculously bad at basketball. Unbelievably bad. If you want to disprove the stereotypes there, find someone else. I'm not your guy.

The stereotypes don't end with dancing and sports. I'm a librarian, and I had passionate discussions as a youth regarding whether 311 should be at the front of the music section at the mall's music store or the back (my friend said in the front because numbers go in the front. I said in the "T's" because if someone calls on the phone, you don't have to ask if it's the digit or the letter. Also, that put 311 further towards the back, which would make me pretty happy). I care about the way things are organized.

Here's another stereotype. I'm a writer. And I like to drink.

I'm not a drunk by any stretch. I'm super careful about never driving, I haven't thrown up from boozing for quite some time, and I can go weeks without a drink and not even notice.

But I am a writer, and like a lot of writers, I like to have a drink now and then.

And when it comes to this stereotype, I'm in pretty good company.

In March, this month of green beer and drunken public parades, this month when many an amateur boozer tries to step up his or her game, I decided to see what would happen if I did the same. What would happen if I tried to drink like an author?

The Stephen King Method: Beer Until You 'Cujo'

Stephen King was pretty open about his drinking. And cocaine use. Most famously, King says he doesn't remember writing Cujo. He sat to write, and he drank beer until...well, until Cujo happened. I guess. It turned out okay as far as books go. As far as King's personal life, it took a pretty serious intervention to bring him around. He's sober now, but it wasn't easy. He was pretty open in saying that, at one time, he figured if he stopped drinking, he'd lose his muse.

Drink beers until I can't be sure what's happening? Does the Stephen King method work?

Several Beers Later...

Here are the first things I noticed. I put a couple away, and it was harder than ever to resist leaving my document and heading online. I commented on a LitReactor post. I started up one of my favorite wordless soundtracks, a 2-hour playlist of Nintendo 64 music (don't judge me. Or, if you insist on judging, wait to judge me. The really sad part is coming). I Googled "racing game part motorcycle part person" because I vaguely remembered a racing game where a motorcycle was made out of a lady and you saw her in basically a machine costume and then a thong. I thought, "That can't possibly be real" and Googled away.

There was just so much in my head, and the differences between what was important and what wasn't seemed to fade into the background.

I don't know if the game was real or not, but what I can tell you is that the internet is composed of about 30% pictures of women on motorcycles wearing thongs, and those search terms are not helpful in locating an old video game ad.

At this point, it was pretty clear that writing had taken a backseat.

A few beers in and the words were still decent. I was having a good time, in case you were concerned. But the work, the work seemed to fall by the wayside pretty quickly. There was just so much in my head, and the differences between what was important and what wasn't seemed to fade into the background. It was all equal, which is a problem when you're working on a piece of writing and also wondering whether a video game of be-thonged rollerblade/motorcycle/future people really existed.

Maybe it's my distractible nature, or maybe it's that a lot of these classic author alcoholics, they didn't have the options I have for distraction today, options that are located in the same tiny rectangle that just so happens to be my writing tool.

Whatever the reason, I can't hang with the Stephen King beer method. At the risk of sounding like the lushest of lushes, I deem it too fun.

The William Faulkner Method: Blood And Whiskey At Hand

Faulkner was said to write with whiskey both in him and nearby at all times. There's a famous story where Faulkner showed up to a meeting with a bottle in a bag. He sliced his thumb open trying to get the bottle opened. Rather than do something like, I don't know, get a bandage, he simply moved a trash can from across the room, let his hand bleed into the garbage and got down to business. The business of drinking and writing.

It worked for Faulkner, at least from a writing standpoint. Safety, not so much. Does it work for me to keep whiskey at hand?

A Few Drinks Later...

I have to say, the feeling of a big gulp of whiskey is pretty nice on a winter's eve. Even if the winter's eve came after a day that was in the mid-60's, because Colorado seems to consider seasons more of a suggestion as opposed to climate.

That gulp, it spreads a nice warmth throughout your chest. I can see why they call this Grandpa's Cough Medicine. It sure seems medicinal.

I can also see why they call this, Pete's Overindulgence Juice. Or why they might start to pretty soon, anyway.

I kind of figured I'd cheat my way through this one. All Faulkner did was keep whiskey at hand. I never found out exactly how much he drank. I figured I'd gulp a little down and get to writing, and everything would be good.

But there's something about  a glass of whiskey. It's like a little challenge. I have no problem leaving a half-full beer at a restaurant. Because, basically, I'm an adult and I decide how much of a thing I want. But there's something about a glass of whiskey. It will not be denied.

I drank more whiskey than was necessary to fulfill the requirements of this column. There was a party in my mouth. Not everyone was invited to this mouth party, but eventually I was lit enough that there was no preventing anyone else from crashing.

How did Faulkner's whiskey-at-hand writing method treat me?

Ehhhh...I wrote. I wrote a story about the characters from the NES game Contra. The story was a takeoff on buddy cop movies of the 1980's. Which sounds great in the sober light of day, but I wouldn't say I put forth my best effort when it came to the actual words.

Also, I can see why Faulkner kept his booze at hand. You really have to stay on top of this drinking in order to keep the magic flowing. Never let up. Never surrender. Don't go sober into that warm bed. No, you must rage against the cotton in your mouth, you must...

I'm saying, you need to be a little more consistent than I was. That's all, really. When you start to feel total sobriety sneak in, you're already done for.

Whiskey is not for amateurs. You have to have a plan, you have to stick to that plan, and you have to love that plan. And maybe it's a good idea, when you're ready to come back to earth, to listen to Plans by Death Cab for Cutie. The kindly tones will help you settle, for sure.

Carver Break

Of course, what would a drinking column be without Raymond Carver?

One kind soul was kindly of soul enough to round up a list of several Raymond Carver stories and list some of the cocktails consumed within. Although I don't have the intestinal fortitude to drink the same AMOUNT as Carver's characters, I could certainly try a couple of their beverages.

Carver Break #1: Scotch and Milk

Yep, you heard it right. Scotch and milk. As in dairy milk.

Apparently, word on the street is that this concoction was invented not on a dare, but because someone had to come up with a way for sufferers of ulcers to keep up their boozin'. They hadn't yet invented the ingredients for my famous Mylanta-Bombs, so they mixed a little scotch and a little milk. A little country, a little rock and roll. Oh, and throw a bit of powdered sugar in as well.

The result? Uh. Pretty not great. I can't say I recommend this drink. I mean, if you like scotch, it's kind of an abomination. If you like things that taste like anything besides scotch, this still tastes mostly like scotch.

Also, it's got that weird orange dreamsicle look that doesn't really work on any other objects besides orange dreamsicles.

Maya Angelou's Bottoms Up Wake Up

This idea of drinking first thing before work came from none other than Maya Angelou. You read that right. Apparently, Maya Angelou would start off her writing day around 6:30 AM, and she'd do so with a little sherry. Seems maybe the caged bird sings because it's loaded and can't find a good karaoke joint first thing in the morning.

Yes, I could tell that I wouldn't be at an inaugural address. Of that I was certain.

Morning drinking. Seemed simple enough.

I kept trying to come up with the alcohol version of the phrase "wake and bake". The snooze and booze? No, that would mean I was still asleep. The rise and...(moon)shine?

A Few Sips Later...

My partner was in the room, and a little ways in she asked whether it was working. Whether I was becoming a great scribe. The next poet likely to be involved in an inaugural address.

To be honest, I couldn't tell.

Yes, I could tell that I wouldn't be at an inaugural address. Of that I was certain.

What I couldn't tell was whether the drink had altered how I felt. I feel really horrid most mornings. You know how Garfield isn't a morning person? That's like me, except I engage in more liberal use of the word "fuck" and more angry looks and, well, generally it's a lot less fun and more scary and off-putting than Garfield. Nobody would call the morning version of me cute. Or syndicate it in a newspaper.

What was hard to tell was whether it was the morning that had me out of sorts or the drink. The combo of the two just made everything difficult to parse.

The typing wasn't too hard. I didn't feel as disoriented or distracted as I did during the previous attempts at boozy work. But it didn't quite get me there. I kind of just felt like I might fall asleep at any moment.

What I needed was a little pick-me-up.

Carver Break #2: Coffee and Whiskey

Now, normally I would assume someone was talking about an Irish coffee when they said coffee and whiskey. An Irish coffee usually involves some sugar, maybe some Bailey's or something. But after Carver Cocktail number one, bourbon and milk, I have to assume we're going straight-up here. Something about the afterglow of dairy and dark liquor really made me think there's not a lot of sugar involved in Carver's drinks.

Whiskey and coffee isn't the easiest thing going down. I'll tell you that right now. What the hell was Raymond Carver thinking? I mean, I know people had to get drunk in his stories. Maybe he got tired of typing "beer" or "bourbon" all the time and wanted to get creative?

Carson McCullers and Sonnie Boy

Carson McCullers had a system. Every day she made a drink she called her Sonnie Boy, a mixture of sherry and tea, and she put it in a thermos. That way she could maintain a level of drunkenness throughout the day.

Seemed like a workable solution. The thermos was a nice touch too. Very blue collar. Very industrial revolution. Or Fred Flintstone. 

A Good Bit Of Sonnie Boy Later...

What's smart about this plan is you avoid the come-down part. Even after a few beers, the feeling of sobering up, it's like my body is rebelling against the very idea of unaltered life. Like my entire soul is saying,  We want to stay drunk forever! Let's party forever!

Then the phrase "party forever" gets me thinking about the Lego Movie song, which makes me drink another beer because that's the best way to enjoy that song. And at that point, when I'm cycling through thinking about the Lego Movie song and drinking beers, the working day is officially over.

If you go the McCullers route, maintain a consistent, low-level drunk throughout the day, then you avoid that whole Lego Movie mess.

Sonnie Boy isn't a bad cocktail. I could see growing to love this over time. It kind of scratches the same itch as coffee and whiskey, but it scratches with a kind hand as opposed to a cheese grater.

How was the work?

I have to say...I did this on a Sunday morning. Yes, I know, but don't worry. I totally went to church on Saturday night in preparation. We're good.

The thing that sucks about a Sunday is you can't help but feel like the weekend is already over. For me, for writing, that just feels like crap.

With a little booze in me, I just didn't give a shit. The time passed pretty quickly, I'll tell you that right now. An hour of typing was like nothing. I barely even noticed, and I didn't feel the sand in the hourglass the way I usually do on a Sunday.

I do think the McCullers method warrants another stab. Not being blind, stumbling drunk, but having a little something in your system that keeps you on the page instead of the rest of the room. Kind of fuzzes the background a little. That doesn't seem like such a bad proposition.

The Hunter S. Thompson Method Of Complete Destruction

I looked up the famous drinker and drugger to see what I could find. It turns out the man had a routine, which was surprise number one. I always thought he was kind of putting any nearby substance into his body based mostly on what was close and how easily it was absorbed.

Surprise number 2 was the routine itself. It's a doozy.

Thompson woke up in the late afternoon, and his routine went like this: whiskey and cigarettes, cocaine, whiskey and cigarettes, coffee and cigarettes, cocaine, orange juice and cigarettes, a lot more cocaine, and then a lunch of beer, two margaritas, two cheeseburgers, fries, tomatoes, coleslaw, taco salad, onion rings, carrot cake, bean fritter, ice cream, a cigarette and a beer, plus some cocaine. And on the ride home from lunch, a snow cone. Which is flavored with whiskey instead of a snow cone flavor like cherry or blue. Then a little cocaine, acid, marijuana, more cocaine, and at midnight, Mr. Thompson is prepared, bodily, to write.

I'm not even kidding. This is not a fabrication. There was a man who lived this way.

Listen. I love that people read what I write here. But there are certain bridges that are just too far. Am I willing to wake and slake (my thirst) like Maya Angelou? Sure. Will I beer it up with a matrimony between the King of horror and the King of Beers? Absolutely. Will I make an attempt to imitate Thompson, an attempt that will make for a cool column and an obituary that could go viral? Probably not.

Here's what I did. I had a few drinks too many, I had a burger, I ordered at appetizer that was called "Bucket of Onion Rings," which came in a basket. Seriously, if you want to disappoint someone, call your appetizer a bucket of something when really it's a basket. No greater downgrade known to man than that from bucket to basket.

One Disappointing But Nonetheless Fried Appetizer Later...

It was impossible. I don't know how Thompson did it. Truth be told, I don't know how he did anything. How the guy could stand up straight is a mystery to me. How he could even commit this routine to words is baffling.

I tried to write, and I failed. I tried to do laundry, and I kind of failed at that too.

The Thompson method is pretty serious.

I feel like we left writing methods behind quite a while ago in favor of lifestyles. I have to wonder whether Thompson just had a crazy capacity for this stuff and was a good enough writer that he could do what he wanted. This just doesn't seem do-able.

Carver Break #3: Vodka

Okay. Last one.

I had a choice here between vodka/cranapple and vodka/instant coffee.

The coffee called my name. What can I say?

Well, I can say that there are times when a person is called by name and should not answer.

Not as...flavorful as a whiskey and coffee, but still has a weird sting on the end that coffee just doesn't need.

Probably doesn't help that instant coffee isn't my favorite.

Probably also doesn't help that I really needed a cup of unadulterated coffee after all this drinking.

Pete's Balanced and Potentially Foolish Decision

After all this drinking and writing, or drinking and ATTEMPTS to write, where's my sweet spot?

Here's the part that's irresponsible. Two beers in? Not bad. I might even go so far as to call it helpful. I was having a good time writing, and as much as I enjoy writing, the act isn't always a blast. Maybe beers and writing are two things I like by themselves, maybe  it's a better combination than you'd think. Either way, a couple drinks doesn't seem to have too bad an effect. It seems to work just fine.

All this has left me with a couple ideas about writing and drinking.

I have to wonder a little about the ritual of it all. If drinking became the ritual tied to your writing, and if your writing worked on the level of a Faulkner or a King or an Angelou, that would be pretty good reason to keep it up. That would make it tough to stop.

For me it's a tough call. I'll probably have to try and stay away for the most part. I like to get a lot of writing done on lunch breaks and such, so unless my boss would extend my break so I have time to get a little drunk and write and sober up and come back, it's probably not going to work. I could always ask, I suppose. They say there are no stupid questions, although I'm pretty sure whoever said that never got asked whether it would be cool, as an employee, to leave work for three or so hours to drink and write and sober up and come back.

All that aside. On a Friday night, I could definitely see working on a fun writing project with a beer or two by my side. Or possibly a shot of whiskey and RC Cola. Which is Carver Break #4 that I just couldn't make happen. It's tough to get your hands on RC these days.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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