The aphorism ‘Write drunk, edit sober’ is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. He was famous for both writing and drinking, so it makes a lot of sense. The thing is, it’s not true. Hemingway wrote in the early morning and drank in the evening. If anything, he both wrote and edited hungover, which is a lot less appealing. The myth of the heavy drinking writer is partially true, but their talent is arguably despite booze not because of it.
The origins of the saying
The website Quote Investigator lived up to its name and looked into the origins of this. There are actually two variants of the saying:
Write drunk, edit sober.
Write drunk, revise sober.
According to the site, there has never been a record of Hemingway saying either of these and the first appearance of the quote they could find was in a novel called Reuben, Reuben by an author and humorist called Peter De Vries. In the book, there’s a character based on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who famously loved to drink. The character says:
“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
In Stephen Fry’s More Fool Me: A Memoir, Fry attributes it to someone else and writes:
“I can write drunk, but must revise sober,” F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have told his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
No matter the origin, the concept is well-known with numerous famous authors seemingly reinforcing the idea with their penchant for a tipple while banging out works of literary genius.
Is it common for authors to ‘Write drunk, edit sober’?
The short answer is — no, not really. But there have been some famous exceptions and it is because of them that this idea has remained popular.
Not only did Hemingway not drink while working he was actually against it. Three years before his death, Hemingway gave an interview with Reader’s Digest where he said:
“Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes — and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.”
So Hemingway didn’t work under the influence but William Faulkner famously did. There is a well-known story that in 1937, Faulkner was with his French Translator, a man called Maurice Edgar Coindreau. The translator asked Faulkner what he meant by a particular sentence and the author looked at it for a while and burst out laughing. He explained to Coindreau:
“I have absolutely no idea of what I meant. You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.”
Ian Fleming was likewise a high-functioning writer and drinker who at one point was drinking a bottle of gin a day. His doctor even advised him to switch to bourbon as that might be healthier. At no point did the quality of his literary output alter in accordance with the quantity of his alcoholic input.
There is a lot of tragedy surrounding these heavy drinking writers
As mentioned before, Dylan Thomas was fond of a drink. Too much so, it was one of the main things that killed him when he was just 39. The talented F. Scott Fitzgerald was an alcoholic who likewise died young when he was just 44. Both were incredible talents who were eventually brought low by drink.
Famous for his pioneering of gonzo journalism and all-round excess, Hunter S Thompson was fond of imbibing all sorts of substances. Sadly, like Hemingway before him, he tragically committed suicide.
Charles Bukowski lived into his seventies. He has claimed in interviews that he drank because he was cripplingly shy and that he could write better when he was drunk. He then discovered, after an illness that meant he couldn’t drink for a few months, that he could write just fine sober. (It didn’t stop him drinking though.)
Stephen King likewise went through a period where he drank heavily and took part in substance abuse to the point where he actually forgot writing books like Cujo. After hitting rock bottom and then sobering up, he discovered that his writing was still just as good as before. He continues to do pretty well to this day.
Writing is not enhanced by alcohol
It seems clear that many works came about despite booze rather than because of it. In many cases, it was a talented writer fighting their internal demons. Some got through the battle, some sadly didn’t. Even though a couple of authors seemed to be able to function relatively well while drinking, there is very little evidence that it enhanced their writing and quite a lot of evidence that they wrote just as well when sober.
Journalism, my career of 30 years, has been tarred with much the same brush. It is perceived, (occasionally correctly,) as a job populated by hard drinkers. From personal experience and that of numerous colleagues, writing is a skill that can be learned and alcohol, no matter how delicious and fun does not enhance that ability.
Like any other job, really.
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