I can confidently say that there are people who don’t understand this blog or it’s intent- they think that I’m touting alcoholism and writing as something funny or glamorous. So it seemed like today was a good opportunity to delve into this debacle.
“Write drunk, edit sober,” four little words that seem to stir up debates no matter how you spin them. Let’s start with who said it- this quote is most commonly attributed to Hemingway, you can look at nearly any Etsy store with a literary theme to see his name plastered right beside it. Although more recently, some in the community have been contesting it, making a firm stand behind American novelist Peter De Vries as the true author. In fact, he has another quote that strikes a suspiciously similar chord:
“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation- the Apollonian and the Dionysians, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
Sounds pretty familiar, right?
How Hemingway may have been erroneously attributed these little words of wisdom that have caught fire in the writing community is no real stretch of the imagination. He was a known alcohol in an era that is somewhat romanticized for it’s creative boozers. Acting as a devil’s advocate- even if he did speak these words, they were not a practice he followed. Hemingway was actually quite sober when he penned his famous works. He was a morning writer, up and working with the first rays of dawn, generally working from 6am through noon. He would do some editing in the afternoon, and usually didn’t start tipping the bottle until about 3pm, hours after his projects had been put to bed. It never seemed to matter how much he drank- he was always up and ready to work again the next day. He spoke of his work, not like a man who needed a drink to discover his muse, but as a man who needed one when he was not in her company. He was an innately creative soul who struggled when he wasn’t in the active pursuit of his writing.
Which brings me to the real point, the crux of my argument, if you will- regardless of who actually uttered the fateful words- what was their real intent? Now, you could take it at its fact value, following a literal word-for-word interpretation. I guess that would give you a good excuse to start taking shots like there’s no tomorrow- and who would I be to stop you? Hell, maybe you’ll manage to conjure up a vision of your muse (though you might not remember it the next day). Unless you are anything like me- then you’ll have a few drinks, laugh at your own jokes, sing a few Disney songs while doing your best impression of dancing- and fall asleep before you ever power your computer up (and if you manage to make it far enough to see the glowing backlight of your monitor- kudos to you, good luck not getting sucked into the Pinterest void).
Now, as a writer- I struggle with the literal interpretation. It could be all of these years of English classes throughout my education that force me to see symbolism in things as innocuous as the color of the drapes- but I believe this quote is more than the sum of its words. After all, the author of this quote was most likely a writer- a creative soul filled to the brim with literary tricks, so why would they do something as bland and boring as a literal translation? No, I think there’s more hidden under the surface, and it really doesn’t take a lot of scratching to see what is hidden underneath.
When they say to ‘write drunk’ it’s more of a state of mind. Any writer who carries a passion for words knows that feverish zone you occasionally find yourself in; when your mind is buzzing, your fingers cant move fast enough, you can see the flash of your story right before your very eyes, and hear the voices of your characters. You want to be brave and bold in your work, open to fresh ideas and new twists, alive with the heartbeat of the world you created thrumming through your blood. You want to be drunk on the words as the paragraphs slip from your mind onto the page. It’s about writing without inhibition, fully exposing yourself and allowing your ideas to stretch beyond your typical boundaries. Writing drunk is about the passion, that driving force that brings us to the blank page day after day because we have a story inside that must feel the light of day.
After the moment has passed, the passionate writing has run it’s course, then it’s time to be sober; to be calm and methodical about your work. It is the tedious process of editing, where you have to look past your emotions and evaluate the bones of your creation. You need to keep a wary eye on your work, view it with the appraising mindset of an outsider, someone who doesn’t intimately know and love your project simply because it is your own heart and soul bled on the page. You refine it, clean up the ‘drunken’ work and make it presentable. You correct grammar, spelling, and all of the other banalities.
As De Vries said, its about the balance. You need both to function in this little world we have created, too much of one will send you spiraling; they are the yin and yang of the writer’s world. So yes, I am a huge proponent of writing drunk and editing sober- and I can do so without a drink in my hand. So write to excess, work without inhibition- be brave and bold- you might be amazed at what you come up with.