When Ernest Hemingway first met fellow American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was in a Paris bar on the rue Delambre. Fitzgerald was drunk after three glasses of champagne and felt so sick that when the two writers met for lunch later in the week, Fitzgerald had little memory of the raucous evening and brushed off his behavior as a side effect of fatigue.
I doubt Hemingway was ruffled. One of his closest companions was alcohol; “write drunk, edit sober,” he famously said, and was known for starting trouble, like the time in Costello’s bar when Hemingway accepted a bet from writer John O’Hara (in drinks, not money, allegedly) that he could break a walking stick with his bare hands. After a valiant attempt, the stick remained badly bent, although not entirely broken. When the two declared a draw, Tim Costello offered another round of drinks on the house.
Writers have a storied history of tumultuous relationships between the pen and the bottle, a topic Olivia Laing explores in her book The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers And Drinking. “For a surprisingly long time,” she writes, “writers saw drinking as an essential feature of the act, a complement to the act of authorship.”
And some of their favorite drinks are as famous as the writers themselves:
Drink of choice: Martini
Drink of choice: Mojito
The mojito was invented at La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar in Havana, Cuba, where Ernest Hemingway drank them—often.
Drink of choice: Mint Julep
According to William Faulkner: “There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others.” He’s said to have written often at night, with whiskey within reach. His personal recipe (whiskey, 1 teaspoon of sugar, ice and mint) is on display at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s former home in Mississippi, along with his favorite metal cup.
Drink of choice: Sonnie Boy
Carson McCullers drank a blend of hot tea and sherry—a cocktail named “sonnie boy”—and sipped from a thermos while she wrote.
Drink of choice: A Brandy Blend
In a letter, E.B. White once wrote out the following cocktail recipe: “Equal parts lime juice, apricot brandy, honey and dry vermouth. Stir this all together (you only need a tiny amount of the whole business), then add 4 times the amount of gin. Plenty of ice, stir, and serve.”
Writers spend hours inside their own heads, dedicating focused energy to the tasks of reading, thinking and typing, and diversions are usually welcome. Alcohol’s appeal, with its inhibition-lowering effects, can certainly help release tension after a long day of work. A cocktail hour with friends or fellow writers might be dangled as a reward, motivating the writer to finish her chapter. Drinking is also a spectacularly effective procrastination tool.
Tales of famous authors’ alcoholic escapades have become legendary, mythical and even comical. And although the exploration of writing and drinking is lighthearted on the surface, there’s a darker story at the bottom of every bottle. The difficult truth is, when alcohol beckons beyond an occasional indulgence, it can lead to anxiety, paranoia and addiction.
“In the morning I am deeply depressed, my insides barely function, my kidney is painful, my hands shake, and walking down Madison Avenue I am in fear of death,” John Cheever wrote in the 1950s.
Drinking can temporarily mask shame, anxiety, fear and unresolved pain, yet its long-term effects have the potential to damage creativity, fracture relationships, and cause physical harm. Fitzgerald crashed his car into a building. Poet and professor John Berryman vomited in strangers’ cars. Hemingway’s liver swelled. When William Faulkner was hired to write the script for Road to Glory, he arrived at a meeting carrying a bottle of whiskey wrapped in a paper bag, and proceeded to cut his finger while unscrewing the cap.
A writer’s journey has never been easy, but some roads, it seems, are more treacherous than others. These days, you’re more likely to hear about nurturing self-care practices to support creativity—like yoga or meditation—than a writer’s favorite cocktail (unless, of course, it’s made with kale juice). Are writer’s drinking less? It’s hard to say. Perhaps they’re just using different libations to arrive at the same destination. After all, Charles Baudelaire didn’t think your spirit of choice mattered. “One should always be drunk,” he wrote. “But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.”
Whether drinking heavily while typing out a first draft or taking cleansing breaths in tree pose between a novel writing workshop, there is a common thread: to coax out the muse, to undo mental knots, to encourage creativity to flow more abundantly, and hopefully—what every writer chases after—to discover truth on the page, whatever it may be.