Write Drunk, Edit Sober (good bad advice on how to tap your creativity like a keg)


This quote has often been misattributed to Hemingway, just as it is here.

There’s no evidence that this piece of advice ever originated with Ernest Hemingway at all. According to Quote Investigator, the most likely source of the original quote was a novel by humorist Peter De Vries, Reuben, Reuben, written in 1964, three years after Hemingway’s death. The De Vries novel had a character modeled after poet Dylan Thomas who is the earliest known source of a similar phrase. Consider the following excerpt:

He remembered something he had told a New York journalist in an interview about his “working habits,” a dull subject about which people remained curiously interested in the case of writers and artists. “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.”

While Hemingway had some positive comments to make about alcohol, he never followed this advice. Sure, he was a heavy drinker, but he always wrote in the early morning and didn’t start drinking until the afternoon. If anything, he was writing sober and editing drunk. Also bad advice.

I’m not endorsing the quote as a valid writing tip, nor do I intend to glorify substance abuse of any kind. Even if Hemingway had actually said it. But, when I see these words on a coffee mug or a T-shirt (two places good, solid advice can always be found), and, especially when I consider it in juxtaposition to the above De Vries passage, I can’t help but think that there is some fundamental truth to be discovered here.

The faux Hemingway quote has succinctness in its favor, but the word “drunk” is problematic. I doubt even William Faulkner could string coherent sentences together when he was falling-down drunk (although there is some evidence to suggest that he may have tried). I don’t believe that’s the lesson to be learned here.

There’s a television commercial popular in my part of the US now, a public service announcement warning the viewer that “buzzed” driving is “drunk” driving. From a legal perspective, that is very true, and you should never drink and drive.

However, those of us who have been known to occasionally imbibe—and not drive, of course—understand the distinction between “having a buzz” and “being drunk.” In my opinion, getting drunk is an unfortunate result of bad decision making, not a valid goal for an evening. The 21-year-old version of me may have had a different opinion, but I’d like to believe age has brought me a certain measure of wisdom.

Getting pleasantly buzzed—or moderately tipsy, to use a term that may have fewer negative connotations—may actually be a beneficial state of mind for some writers. Moderate alcohol use can lower your inhibitions, silence that nagging internal censor, and facilitate stream-of-consciousness writing, allowing the writer to make certain mental leaps and connections more easily than when sober.

In the past, I have been known to write while having an adult beverage or two. I’ll admit that it does seem conducive to freewriting or brainstorming about a project, even in creating rough outlines. I’ve gone back and re-read, while sober, some things I’ve written when I was less than. And, there were golden nuggets to be mined in what I found. Also a lot of stuff that read like James Joyce at his least comprehensible and poetic. I make a lot of bold leaps in that frame of mind, and qualify my statements less. It reminds me why alcohol has been referred to as “liquid courage.” So, not always a bad thing for generating ideas.

When alcohol consumption affects your judgment in this fashion, a one-person brainstorming session epitomizes the “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” approach to coming up with ideas.

But, I also found that my thoughts were less focused, and that a single idea could rarely keep my attention for very long. Stephen King continued to write best-sellers while battling alcohol and drug dependence. As if I needed a reminder: I am not Stephen King. I can’t string enough coherent sentences together to write effectively while drinking at all, let alone while drunk.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I don’t necessarily require alcohol to achieve this relaxed, flowing, dreamstate of mind for brainstorming. Writing without fear of anyone else reading your words is often an euphoric experience. This sort of writing-without-rules process forms the backbone of the cubing prewriting process, which I do endorse and have written about before. While no substance use is necessary, this type of writing can result in an altered state of consciousness, that feeling of being in flow.

In effect, you are writing drunk. Or, at the very least, tipsy.

My first drafts are invariably messy, disorganized affairs. Sometimes my final drafts are as well, but my first drafts definitely are. I don’t call what I do on my next pass editing. Instead, I prefer to use the word rewrite. To me, editing is correcting punctuation and spelling errors, and perhaps excising the occasional extraneous word (adverbs are always suspect). My first drafts require more attention than that. I’m often convinced I may have been drunk when I wrote my first draft, even when I know I wasn’t drinking at all. My rewrites are about honing the message of the initial draft, if there is one to be found. Sometimes even I don’t know what I was talking about.

Again, I’m not glorifying substance abuse of any kind. But, I find that my rewriting process is helped along by the use of focusing agents. Until about eight years ago, nicotine played a huge role in this for me, but after I quit smoking I discovered that caffeine also serves me well in this regard. I do more real, focused writing while drinking successive cups of coffee. The gained ability to achieve a laser focus helps me to mold the results of my freewriting into something that, in theory, will transcend the source material.

I imagine that if I applied myself I could achieve this focused state of mind without the use of caffeine as well. However, I like coffee, so—-

My takeaway from this, and the message I’m imparting to you, is that the phrase

Write Drunk; Edit Sober

doesn’t really seem like good advice to me.

It certainly doesn’t apply to me. The advice I personally follow doesn’t flow so easily from the tongue:

Brainstorm As If You’re Drunk; Rewrite While Caffeinated

I know that you can easily rattle off the names of many famous writers who were also alcoholics. Don’t fall for the romantic notion of the hard-drinking or drug-abusing writer, though. Booze or drugs aren’t necessary for you to loosen the restraints on your imagination, or tap into your creativity.

There is a kernel of truth in the T-shirt slogan, though. I really like the De Vries comments about the Dionysian and Apollonian, spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline. It’s all in there, in the statement, and it has the ring of Truth, with the capital ‘t.’

Write Drunk; Edit Sober” is a commentary about the dichotomy of the writing process itself, the symbiotic relationship between Art and Craft. You need both sides.

Hemingway didn’t write that, as far as I know. He did, however, say—in A Moveable Feast— that all you need to do is write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

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