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Writers and drinking


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...this is a fun read.


Writers & drinking

CBC News Viewpoint

June 10, 2005

At least one generation of Canadians knows the line, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." Pierre Elliott Trudeau made it famous, but the line belongs to Martin O'Malley, who wrote it when he was with The Globe and Mail. He's written eight books, his latest "More than Meets the Eye: Watching Television Watching Us."

I have been drinking for 50 years. You name it, I’ve drunk it – beer, rye, scotch, rum, gin, vodka, tequila, cognac, brandy and wines from around the world.

The last time I had a drink was five days ago, on a Monday evening after a practice round for a golf tournament. Three of us, all mature men, sat on the deck of a cottage on the south shore of Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, as waves slurped on the rocky shore.

We discussed Laos, Cambodia, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields, Karla Homolka, even golf. We all got drunk. If anyone eavesdropped on our conversation they would have assumed we were all demented.

The next day, at the tournament proper – a worthy affair designed to raise money for literacy – our best-ball team finished last, an accomplishment that won us the “most honest golfer award,” which consisted of two bottles of wine. I gave mine away, then stopped drinking again.

This amazes my friends. I will stop drinking booze for days, weeks, sometimes a month. I don’t really like the taste of alcohol. I rather enjoy expensive reds, those that cost upwards of $40 a bottle, but I can’t afford them on any regular basis. I appreciate that they are good for you, that they are anti-carcinogenic (unlike sweet whites, which are carcinogenic).

I miss cigarettes far more than booze. I have been off cigarettes for 3½ years but every day I get at least one serious pang, which I fight off by popping a Nicorette into my mouth. If someone passes around a joint I eagerly partake, enjoying at least the liturgy of smoking, even though I know when I get home I will eat half an apple pie with cheddar cheese.

People often wonder why so many writers drink to excess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting just writers of the calibre of Dostoyevsky or Kafka, I mean anyone who tries to earn a living by writing, even the lowliest newspaper (or online) columnist.

Stephen Vizinczey, who wrote In Praise of Older Women, once compiled a list of 10 rules for writers, one of which was: Don’t drink alcohol. He reasoned that alcohol poisons the brain and the brain is the most important bodily organ for a writer. If this is indeed a rule for writers it is mostly observed in the breach.

The reason so many writers drink to excess is that when they are drunk they stop writing. The little gears, geegaws and blidgets in the brain stop turning and the writer’s mind goes silent. The writer then can enjoy being a total idiot. It is very relaxing.

Thomas Wolfe – the older Wolfe, the one who wrote Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t go Home Again– called alcohol a “life-enhancing genie.” That’s the way I regard it. Drinking enhances whatever mood I’m in. Drinking when I’m happy makes me happier; drinking when I’m sad makes me sadder.

I am aware of the old alcoholic saying – or is it an old C&W lyric? – that one is too many and a thousand’s not enough. A bartender once told me how to keep a drunk happy by always replenishing his drink but only running a finger soaked with booze around the rim of his glass; he’ll keep talking and sipping, not knowing the difference.

I am aware, too, that some of this is an aging thing, as the aphorist La Rochefoucauld suggested when he said we pride ourselves on abandoning our vices when in fact our vices are abandoning us.

At this stage of my life the longer I go without drinking the better I feel. I get out of bed easier. I wake up faster. On beautiful summer days like we have been having, and when I have been utterly sober for several weeks, I get more of those happy, contented feelings like the ones of long-ago summers.

As a college newspaper editor I once wrote an essay based on the natural state of the world being total inebriation. Everyone is soused, driving their cars into trees, falling down stairs, socking their bosses in the jaw, and then someone invents a beverage that sobers you up.

My God, the one-eyed king!

Newton sits under a tree sipping the new drink when an apple falls on his head and he asks Jake sitting across the way why the apple fell down and not up? Jake raises the lampshade on his head and replies, “I don’t know what you’re drinking, Isaac, but I’d like a shot.”


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