Portrait of the artist as a teetotaller

I spent this evening in a pub, on my own. Sitting in the corner, with a bottle and a single glass in front of me, writing. Eventually, the bar staff started wiping tables around me and chatting amongst themselves, and I realised that I was the last person left. But there was still a drink left in the bottle, so I trespassed on their good intentions long enough to pour and drink it down before heading back home.

This is the sort of thing that happens if you don’t have space of your own, I suppose. There’s a whole thesis here on public spaces as an extension of private spaces; after all, the word ‘pub’ is a contraction of ‘public house’ – literally, a house offering hospitality and comfort to all with enough money to share in it. But I’m tired, and I’ve been writing all evening, so I’m not going to write a thesis tonight.

I was at the pub because I want to write properly, and by properly I mean a novel, and I can’t write a novel in the tiny gaps that I have torn in the domestic weave, at least not entirely. So I told Lovely Husband that I wanted a night off every week, a night where he does dinner and bed and any housework that needs doing before the morning, and that is my writing time. It’s not much, but it’s something.

But the problem is that of course if I’m in the house, the children want me, and the laundry calls to me, and I’m uncomfortably aware (as I am now, typing) that Big Girl’s lunchbox lies festering in her schoolbag and tomorrow’s promised after-school activity needs ingredients I don’t have, and all the other tedious things. So I said that’s it, I’m taking the iPad and I’m heading out. But where is there that is open on a cold Monday evening, that will let one sit undisturbed for hours on end as long as one is buying the occasional beverage? Only the pub, and so that is where I went.

It’s an odd experience, sitting alone with a bottle of mineral water (of COURSE it was mineral water. You knew that) in a pub. I didn’t feel deprived, but I felt out of place. An imposition. I wasn’t taking up a table that could have been better used elsewhere – it’s not the busiest night of the week, obviously – and I don’t live in a country where tipping, for example, is expected, so really it makes no difference to anybody what I drank or didn’t. And yet.

And here’s another thing. I thought; what a wasted opportunity! For the first time in my adult life, I live walking distance from a nice gastropub, and writing a novel; well, what better excuse could there possibly be to sit alone with a bottle of wine once a week? Writers are drinkers, everybody knows that. Hemingway, Parker, Fitzgerald … and all the others … actually, you know, I can think of a million writers and only three who I know were known for their alcoholic tendencies. And I’ve only read one of them.

But it persists, this myth that alcoholism and writing go together, to the point where I can actually see myself convincing myself that writing a book is a legitimate reason to sit alone in a bar. Why is this particular myth so powerful? Is it just because I’ve always wanted to write? I don’t think so; I think this is one with great cultural resonance, but I don’t really understand why. Fitzgerald died just after forty. Parker made it to 73, but her brilliance had faded some two decades earlier. Hemingway committed suicide. These aren’t the glittering case histories that anyone should try and emulate, not really. Nor have they been replenished; it is pretty clear that these were writers of a certain era, writing in a certain culture, and no matter how much we might long to be them, the time is long past.

And how lucky that it is. These days, writers live longer. They write for longer. Doris Lessing, who died last year, was 93. Toni Morrison is still brilliant at 83. And I don’t know about you, but when I am introduced to the books of a new writer and fall in love, which happens to me time after time, I am always ravenous for more. Each book introduces me to the next, and the best ones become dog-eared with age in my hands and like a new lover whose every story of childhood is endlessly fascinating, I want more and more and more.

If you write, I want you to live. If you write well, I want you to drink celery juice and run every morning and attend regular health check ups, because if you write well you are a jewel and a wonder and I want you to be around forever. And one day, maybe I will meet you in a bar and we will both have our iPads and our bottles of mineral water and we will smile, because this is what writers do. They just write.


23 thoughts on “Portrait of the artist as a teetotaller

  1. The writer as drunk thing is overly romanticized, no doubt. I think most writers know the score and the very few of the elite writers who drank eventually fell prey to their own brand of misery. I too used to see blurry stars in the drinking-as-inspiration thing and found my work horrible and disjointed the next morning. Writing sober is much more intense and legible…ha ha. Ask Stephen King, who is one of us sober writers. (He talks about it openly)

    Glad you took some time to yourself. Myself, I usually hit the coffee shops. I hit the pubs when I am with others and we’re going to have a bite. Everyone’s comfort level is different 🙂

    Good to see you at the writing 🙂


    • Coffee shops around here aren’t open at that time of night – it’s mid-winter here and I live in a semi-rural location, so everything’s a bit limited. But if it becomes a problem, I will go elsewhere. LH and I have a plan to create a space out of a disused room underneath our house, actually. I’d forgotten about King; now there’s a man who’s been to the bottom and back.

  2. I love this. I really struggle with the idea of being a writer and a drinker. My best writing friends (and the ones who happen to be the best writers I know) are heavy drinkers. I want to print out your final paragraph and send it to them all with a bottle of celery juice! Meanwhile, back to the poems and the water…

  3. Thank you! I really needed to read this message this morning. The voice in my head has stopped yelling “drink, drink, drink!!” and has started whispering “tell your story.” I love the image of a writer in a bar with a bottle of mineral water. Writers write.

  4. It’s good to hear you’re getting quiet writing time. I think you’re such a great writer, and I know you really need chunks of time to get anything done. Have you read Olivia Laing’s book about alcoholism and writers? She really takes apart the myth that booze feeds creativity–a myth that denies the sheer work of writing, making it seem instead like it’s all inspiration and magic and muses–plus it’s a super great read. As for the pub thing, I’ve had some great pub moments since I quit drinking. Even pubs aren’t really all about the drink! Who knew? Take care, and happy writing! xo

  5. I used to spend hours alone in cafés drinking a huge bottle of mineral water and reading on hot summer afternoons. It feels less weird drinking mineral water in a café, trust me.

  6. Keep writing . . . it’s my saving grace right about now. Most days it feels like everyone needs to drink to do their thing, whether it be writing or something mundane. I am truly inspired by the thought of you sitting in a put without the drink!

  7. I had this mentality for a long time as well. It was only after I started reading sober blogs that I realized a LOT of good writing was happening without the booze. Now I realized that some good writing happens DESPITE the booze.

    Soon after I started reading some of Hemingway’s autobiographical stuff, and even tho he is famous for saying “write drunk, edit sober,” there are places in his writing where I can tell he believed that drinking didn’t equal fantastic prose. Particularly in regard to Fitzgerald actually, where he’d lament that Zelda was getting him to drink again and would get no good work done.

    The boozy writer is a myth perpetuated by unhappy, blocked alcoholics who happen to want to write (I know many and happened to be one for a long time). A really great read on blocked creatives is The Artist’s Way 🙂 Anyway, I’m stoked you’re writing your novel. I will be in line to pick it up once you’ve published it!

  8. I loved this post SO much. The greatest and most surprising gift of my own 373 days of sobriety has been a return to writing, which I’d pursued seriously in my 20s but drifted from in my 30s. I drifted for many reasons, not all of them related to drinking, but I can see now that my low-energy, low-clarity, high-anxiety lifestyle sure didn’t set me up to produce great work, or any work, really. I’m working on a novel now and it feels so hard and scary and deeply, deeply FUN to be back at it. I’m not an iota less creative than I was when I was drinking, but even if I were, it would still be a net gain because now I actually *show up* and do the work like a grownup, vs. making excuses or saying ‘next year, next year…’ I hope you keep at it, and yes, maybe someday we’ll recognize each other in a bar by our iPads and fizzy waters. 🙂


  9. Fabulous writing. I’ve only recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying it. I’d love to read a novel or anything else you get round to publishing. I haven’t given up alcohol (though your blog has prompted me to think quite hard about drinking habits), so I can’t share experiences there, but I love what you have to say about balancing motherhood with other things, about the need for space and so on. Please keep writing, in one form or another!

  10. Pingback: It’s exhausting being funny: on the intersection between comedy and addiction | And Everything Afterwards

  11. I missed this post first time round and came across if in your post about comedy and alcohol this morning.

    Have you read The trip to hope springs: why writers drink? I’d highly recommend it. I went through a phase of obsession with F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemmingway’s drinking when I was trying to quit myself and this book fascinated me.

    Think you’d enjoy it 🙂

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