Published by graham on Thu, 02/06/2014 - 10:08
I’ve just finished Olivia Laing’s excellent The Trip to Echo Spring, rightly shortlisted for last year’s Costa Biography Award. It’s a beautifully written exploration of the swampy badlands between creative endeavour and the crutch some writers use to make it to the end of their journey.
Ms Laing takes the train and a couple of flights to criss-cross the US and try and figure out what happened inside the brains (and livers) of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and poet John Berryman. The travel passages alone are worth the purchase price but the real clue’s in the book’s subtitle: Why Writers Drink.
Why, indeed. A quote from John Cheever was one of many that caught my eye. He’s trying to nail that special delight that can attend a successful session at – in those days – the typewriter. “It’s a sense of ecstasy”, he writes. “As simple as that. The sense that this is my usefulness and I can do it all the way through. It always leaves you feeling great. In short you’ve made sense of your life.”
These are large claims to make but I think I get the drift. A particular image that unlocks a landscape, or a passage of dialogue so unexpected that it sets the narrative panting off in a totally new direction, are part of the pleasure and the mystery of becoming a writer. The stuff of raw experience, cured in the smokehouse of what I can only call the imagination, can leave you astonished, a little bit shaken, but altogether glad. Where did that line come from? Who gave that character permission to tear a hole in my careful plans? And will this strange magic work tomorrow? And the next day? And the day after that?
In this context, Cheever uses the word ecstasy. Amongst a handful of definitions this can mean a trance or trance-like state in which a person transcends normal consciousness. In my experience, this is exactly what the process of writing can achieve when the juices are flowing, and you’ve got the engines on full power, and the flap settings are bang-on, and you haul back on the control column and kiss goodbye to gravity. You’re up there with the angels and touch-down, if you’re lucky, is many hours away.
But here’s the irony. I’ve been drinking regularly for my entire adult life. Over the last fifty years, I can’t think of a day when I haven’t had a drink. I tell myself I’m probably not an alcoholic because I never drink during the day but the rhythm of our lives is fine-tuned to the click of the fridge door opening at six’o’clock.
Am I dependent on that first glass of Perlenbacher lager (Lidl: £4.99 for six 500ml bottles)? Yes. Do I have another one afterwards? Yes. And do we open a bottle of red to bless the meal that follows? Of course. So what lies at the bottom of all those glasses? In a word – yes – ecstasy. I’m tranced. I’ve transcended normal consciousness. I’m back in the clouds with the angels, a subtly (and sometimes unsubtly) different person. Another word for this, of course, is lightly pissed. But writers tend to avoid the obvious.
So here, says me, is the proof that writing a book and taking a drink are keys to the same door. Come nine’o clock the meal is done, the bottles are empty, and I go back upstairs to review the day’s work. Thanks to alcohol, this is revision plus. Why? Because I’m a different person. Because I take the words on the page wholly by surprise (or maybe vice versa). Because everything I’ve done that day seems new…and sometimes off-key. And so I change a sentence, rewrite a paragraph, adjust a character, and next morning – back on terra firma – those revisions have always made an improvement.
So what are my conclusions here? Number one, writing and booze are the same short cut to a different you. Number two, I owe more than I should comfortably admit to the blessings of Perlenbacher. And number three, I feel no less lucky on both counts.
The Trip to Echo Spring can last a lifetime. I’ll drink to that.