by Peter J. Fusco
The largest bottle of Jack Daniel’s I can buy costs forty-one dollars and three cents. I get about ten to fifteen thousand words out of it, gross. After culling the drunken idiocy and sheer pap out of them, I net maybe half. You do the math.
But what glorious stuff some of that is.
There are lists upon lists of truly great writers who drank. I don’t call them alcoholics since it would mean having to look in a mirror. I’m not comparing talent, just the label. If you look inside their prose, there are telltale signs as to love of, or hatred for, booze.
You can always tell a writer who loves alcohol because they write about it, not against it. Booze is couched in their narratives as part of daily life. It is a joy, not a curse.
William Sydney Porter (better known as O. Henry), loved drinking and made reference to it in several of his short stories. On the other hand, Edgar Allan Poe had a love/hate relationship with alcohol as is evident in stories like The Cask Of Amontillado where the desire leads to murder. No one knows from which one of his alleged addictions Poe died—perhaps it was a combination of drugs and alcohol—but suffice it to say Poe’s genius was fueled by them both. No one could write as darkly as he without being a part of the darkness, and it is impossible to be in that particular darkness without it being self-imposed.
Hemingway, Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald—all booze hounds, all great writers. So why does such genius pursue so destructive a path? Because writing is lonely and often painful. When a writer adds booze to his art he or she is socializing which becomes a party—maybe a destructive one—but a party nonetheless. It’s amusing, if not always fun.
The sappy psychobabble in vogue, which attempts to ply us with flavor-of-the-moment reasons including bad childhoods, sexual issues, gender problems, religious affiliations, are meaningless. Writers drink to socialize with their best friend—themselves. We get drunk for the entertainment value, since so many of us find real life boring. I am my best source of entertainment and my best audience. No one entertains me better than me. When I write, I do so not because I necessarily want to, but because I have to if I’m going to be the least bit stimulated. And if you write at all, you know the process cannot work without the symbiosis of stimulation and imagination.
When pie-eyed, there is a tendency to also be loose-lipped, especially when whoever is listening is not really there. As writers, what we say goes down on paper, after which, in hopefully finely-tuned form, a reader becomes a listener. Trouble is, what you said cannot be taken back, and, having said it on paper during a night on the town with yourself and a thousand characters you made-up, a great deal of you is out there naked.
A head full of liquor, for some writers (not all), is a place to see heartbreak in its most agonizing variations. It is a dangerous place which threatens to spill your guts to the world when you are most vulnerable and least able to prevent the total exposure of your soul’s humanity. The compulsion to write at those times is as strong, if not stronger, than that which forces us to drink. What comes out is many times elegant, always raw, always wounding, sometimes all of those things over and over again.
You can keep your clarity of thought. That is work without pleasure. Give me the drunken haze of a character falling down, trying desperately to rise, fighting every delicious demon in order to simply survive. Show me the details of a slobbering, drooling life. Make me laugh out loud when the character you thought was a man turns out to be a closet belly-dancer. I want to see colors, but I don’t want to know their names. I want to be in the front row of a porn movie without clothes on, but I don’t want anyone to notice me. And I don’t want any of those things the next day.
That part of the human experience which is universal, whatever it may be at the time of writing, requires an expression of will. Most of the time it is the will to overcome fear—real, imagined or both. The sheer entertainment value in telling a story as part of a mental and spiritual free-for-all liberates the imagination. Let me tell you what I really think, but allow me to use someone in my collection of characters to say it, and let me do so through the filter of liquor. That way, you are assured of the truth at no one’s expense, especially mine.
I’m not advocating becoming a drunk if you’re not one already. Art is an intensely personal endeavor and it may not be necessary for you to consume copious amounts of Tennessee whiskey in order to turn an idea into 150,000 properly arranged words. But I can say from experience, it makes the effort almost fun.
No, there are too many positives in the drinking column to waste any words on temperance. And screw the inevitable physical fee, a good time is worth it and a great story worth even more, regardless of from what pickled persona it arises. Great literature is many times not great because of the virtue or strength in the way it is written, but in spite of it. You don’t see much of it around anymore because the lay of the land is still mapped out by traditional publishing houses, whose first concern is no longer the writer or the reader, but the cash. There’s no room for a drinker there, no matter how creative a genius. There’s business to be done, and if you’re a writer writing too far out there, you don’t fit the formulaic mold.
But, like in any genuine drunken barroom brawl, half the fun is tearing the place apart, which is precisely what we are doing when we publish our own material, the products of drunks and teetotalers alike.
Finally, pass no judgment on a skilled drinker who writes, but prevent him from driving and be careful around him when he’s writing since he’s likely to cause an accident either way.
Teacher, journalist, talk show host, politician and gifted writer, Peter Fusco is a master story-teller in the best tradition of American literature. Born and raised in Utica, New York, Mr. Fusco earned a B.A. in English and the M.P.A. from Albany State University’s Rockefeller School of Government. Husband, father and grateful observer of life, Mr. Fusco is the author of “Quelle”, “Acts”, and “Revelations”, as well as “Frankie Tomatoes Goes To Confession”, “The Conservative Gentleman”, “My Father’s Recipes, My Stories”, “Running – How To Design and Execute A Winning Political Campaign”, “A Madman’s Short Stories”, and “Ellen.”