A Portrait of the Writer as a Drunk

by Charles Deemer

(originally published in Oregon Magazine)


Like many writers of my generation, I studied in the
school of liquor and lit. Previous generations of
American writers pointed the way. My literary heroes
when I was learning the craft in the 1960s were (or
had been) hard drinkers if not outright drunks:
O'Neill and Saroyan and Williams, Faulkner and
Steinbeck and Hemingway, Mailer and Baldwin and
Cheever, James Agee. The hard-drinking American writer
was a figure of mythic proportions, and by the time I
graduated from UCLA I was eager to join his ranks.

But I came both to literature and to drinking
relatively late. In high school I was one of those
science nerds who didn't date and got A's. My idea of
a good time was to get up at three in the morning to
look through my telescope and fulfill my obligations
as one of the country's younger members of the
American Association of Variable Star Observers. It
took Uncle Sam to give me an appreciation for liquor
and lit.

I joined the Army at the end of a cycle of confusion,
a major life crisis at 20. I went from high school to
Cal Tech as a math major, but none of my previous math
and science teachers had informed me that I wasn't a
genius. When I discovered the truth by sitting next to
an authentic genius or two at Cal Tech, I was crushed.
I wanted to be "a pure mathematician" more than
anything else (the mathematician as artist), maybe an
astronomer next; I learned that I didn't have the
brains to be a pure mathematician and that
professional astronomers rarely look through
telescopes. I didn't want to become an engineer, but
this appeared to be my destiny if I stayed at Cal
Tech. I left with a B average in the middle of my
sophomore year and transferred to Berkeley, telling
myself I was now a philosophy major.

Berkeley in 1959 was like the Internet in 1994, full
of dazzling, chaotic energy. I became a street person
in no time at all, finding the street life  much more
exciting than classes, and for a while I even lived in
a tree house I'd built in Strawberry Canyon. I was
beginning to drink beer and wine regularly and, for
the first time, to read literary books that weren't
required in a class.

I ended up joining the Army because I was broke -- and
because the draft was hanging over my head. An Oakland
recruiter decided I would make an excellent spy, and
so he put me in the Army Security Agency. After doing
well on a battery of tests, I was assigned to the Army
Language School in Monterey, where I was trained as a
Russian linguist. This proved to be a major turning
point in my life and a strong push toward a career in 
liquor and lit.

Assigned to a company of Russian linguists in Germany,
I found myself surrounded by former graduate students
with Masters degrees in Literaure and History and
Philosophy, majors that would not give them deferments
to escape the draft as they worked on their
doctorates. They'd joined the Army to avoid being a
foot soldier, and they became my tutors. As one of
three odd-balls in the company who didn't have a
college degree, I became a sort of intellectual
mascot, and my colleagues fought among themselves to
influence me, one trying to turn me into an historian,
another into a psychologist, still another into a

I was still drinking in the minor leagues at the time.
My fellow Russian linguists, most of them five years
older than I, inspired me to try out for the majors.
Shy by nature, but looking up to these older, bright
colleagues and wanting to join their drinking clique,
I discovered a capacity to belt shot for shot with the
best of them, far into the night. I may be younger and
less well-read, but they couldn't drink me under the

And so my Army career was highlighted by heavy
drinking and heavy reading in the most stimulating
intellectual environment of my life.

When I was discharged and returned to finish college,
I majored in English at UCLA. I was drinking regularly
by then, although I didn't really consider the one or
two six-packs I consumed daily to be "drinking."
Drinking was consuming hard liquor, which usually I
reserved for weekends. I was a student, after all,
with books to read and papers to write. Beer was what
you drank along the way because it tasted better than
water. A six-pack a day didn't keep me from graduating
with honors, Phi Beta Kappa.

After UCLA, I went off to graduate school at the
University of Oregon, where more than ever liquor and
lit were the engines that drove my considerable
energy. I was "someone to keep an eye on" in the
English Department, already publishing book reviews in
national journals and short stories in literary
magazines by the time I arrived. Although my first
marriage had failed, I quickly met my second wife, a
brilliant graduate student who liked to brag that she
had never met a man who could drink her under the
table. Then she met me, and it must have been love at
the seventh or eighth pitcher.

Everyone, or at least everyone worth knowing, was
hanging out at Maxie's tavern near campus, and when it
closed many would come over to our house for
nightcaps. Literary talk was loud and heated, at least
until the guitars and auto harp came out, and a few of
us sang folk music as others passed around joints and
mellowed out. My generation was too young to be
beatniks and too old to be hippies but we prided
ourselves on being academic bohemians all the same,
seasoned students in the school of liquor and lit.

When I graduated with an MFA in Playwriting in 1974, I
had a growing list of publications, the first awards
and productions of a playwriting career, and a thirst
for alcohol more insatiable than ever. But something
was beginning to change. The dark side of alcohol
consumption was beginning to reveal itself. 

I don't have to tell you what happened next. You
already know. Alcohol is our culture's official, legal
drug, and everyone knows someone who has abused it. 
What happened to me over the next twenty years is more
or less what happens to every alcoholic. The Japanese
have put the progression of the drinking life more
succinctly than anyone: first the man takes the drink;
then the drink takes the drink; then the drink takes
the man.

But why didn't I know about the dark side of liquor
and lit when I bought into the curriculum? What was so
attractive about the hard-drinking literary life in
the first place? Why were so many writers of my
generation (and earlier ones) such big boozers?

I first began to look closely at these questions
during the year I spent as an in-patient in a VA
treatment program. Assigned to work in the medical
library, I had a lot of time on my hands and read as
much as I could about alcoholism. I found two books
about the curious marriage of writing and alcohol
abuse in American culture and I devoured each, looking
for answers. 

In "The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer"
(1989), Tom Dardis begins with fascinating statistics:
"Of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel
Prize in literature, five were alcoholic. The list of
other twentieth-century American writers similarly
affected is very long; only a few of the major
creative talents have been spared." 

Dardis points out that similar statistics do not hold
true for European writers, suggesting the affiliation
between writers and booze is a particularly American
phenomenon (and perhaps one that happened at a certain
time as well).

So what's the explanation? Dardis makes no real
attempt to find out. Instead he gives us detailed
chapters on the sordid drinking lives of Faulkner,
Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O'Neill, telling horror
stories similar to those one can hear in any AA
meeting anywhere in the land. 

Dardis concludes: "All four of the writers discussed
here suffered tremendous physical and spiritual pain
through their heavy drinking. Three of them found
their creativity irreparably demaged by their
alcoholism; only one escaped from the grip of the
disease to discover that its very nature would become
his greatest subject." The latter is O'Neill, of
course, who sobered up and went on to write his two
masterpieces, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The
Iceman Cometh."

Donald W. Goodwin is much more helpful in "Alcohol and
the Writer" (1988). Although he, too, explores the
drinking lives of a number of writers -- Poe,
Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Simenon, Faulkner,
O'Neill, Lowry -- he boldly attempts to explain why
such "an epidemic" happened in America in the
twentieth century. His chapter "Notes on an Epidemic"
even has a subchapter entitled "Causes."

Goodwin lists three reasons why alcohol and the writer
go so well together. I'll relate each to my own

"1. The hours are good." No doubt about it, the
writing life (especially on a freelance basis)
provides considerable time for drinking. Most of my
life I've written to deadlines, paid by the project,
which gave me lots of wiggle room for fitting in a
binge or two. I'd get an assignment or a grant and not
expect to be seen for weeks at a time. No one cared if
I wrote at three in the morning or three in the
afternoon. All that mattered was that I deliver the
product by the deadline. And, to use alcoholic
double-speak, I never missed a deadline I didn't get

"2. It is expected." I've already confessed to buying
into the myth of the hard-drinking American writer.
All my heroes drank heavily, so why shouldn't I? I
think the association between writing and drinking has
changed in our culture -- or maybe just been
transferred. Perhaps in the sixties the hard-drinking
writer became the hard-drugging rock star. Same myth,
different characters. I look around today and find
more coffee shops than bars; maybe that's where young
writers meet. I hope so.

"3. Writers need inspiration." I don't buy this one.
Alcohol never inspired me. I couldn't write drunk and
didn't even try. I wrote with a hangover, of course,
but whatever "inspiration" may have come to me while
drinking I forgot by morning, and I always wrote in
the morning as soon as I could function. I'm one of
those writers who believe in perspiration more than
inspiration. But writers as distant as Fitzgerald and
Stephen King are quoted by Goodwin in support of
alcohol's ability to enhance creativity. Not with this

Goodwin next has a subchapter heading called "The
Loner Theory." He quotes an interpretation by
historian Gilman Ostrander: 

"Alcoholism is basically a disease of individualism.
It afflicts people who from early childhood develop a
strong sense of being psychologically alone and on
their own in the world. This solitary outlook prevents
them from gaining emotional release through
associations with other people, but they find they can
get this emotional release by drinking. So they become
dependent on alcohol in the way other people are
dependent on their social relationships with friends
and relatives."

I almost fell out of my chair when I read this. This
described my life to the letter. A Navy brat raised
primarily by my mother, I became good at math because
I learned arithmetic as early as I learned to talk.
Mother took me everywhere and kept me quiet by giving
me pages of arithmetic problems to do, which I
obediently and quietly solved. In my teens I was
obsessed with using my telescope, a solitary activity
that usually happened at hours when everyone around me
was asleep. Shy by nature, I became gregarious only
when under the influence of alcohol (also part of the
loner theory), and the barroom became the center of my
social universe. 

Goodwin goes on to argue that writing and alcohol
share something important:

"Writing and alcohol both produce trancelike states. A
gift for creative writing may involve an innate
ability to enter trancelike states. Being a loner --
shy, isolated, without strong personal ties -- may
facilitate trancelike states when it is time to write
and encourage drinking to overcome the shyness and
isolation when it is time to relax." This described my
working-drinking rhythm perfectly.

The loner theory, more than anything else I've found,
best explains to me why I was attracted to the
drinking life and why drinking fit so well with the
writing life. Maybe this doesn't describe the
experience of other writers. I'm not making a
universal claim for this theory (as Goodwin does), but
it describes my own experience as a hard-drinking
writer very well.

A former hard-drinking writer, I must add. Today I
hold up the model of Eugene O'Neill, who quit in time
to do his best work later in life. I hope I have the
same luxury. 

I consumed my last alcoholic beverages on June 13,
1993, at Jazz de Opus in Portland. I went there on the
night before I entered treatment at the VA. I went
there with a credit card and a plan.

I sat at a table near the bar and spent the next
several hours saying goodbye to some old campanions. I
began with a glass of Guinness. I next had a light
beer with a shot of Jameson's Irish on the side. I
added a double shot of Stolichnaya on the rocks before
the beer was gone. I switched to a house Gin and
Tonic, a breather. Then I ordered a Bombay Blue
Saphhire martini, which tasted so good I had another.
Maybe the waitress thought I'd finally made up my mind
because I stayed with the Blue gin until I was ready
to go home. 

For a nightcap, I ordered a special drink for old
times, a farewell toast to a way of life, a moment I
expected to remember forever -- and have. I ordered a
B-52. Its layers reminded me of the different
periods of my life -- the high school science nerd,
the confused mathematician, the Berkeley street
person, the linguist-spy-mascot, the ambitious grad
student, the less ambitious playwright -- each period
clearly set apart from the others. When I raised the
small, narrow glass and tipped it, the fragile
spectrum dissolved as each color ran into its neighbor
to become a drab concoction of spirits, suddenly dark
and dreary, just as the periods of my life finally had
succumbed to one all-encompassing description, which
had become more meaningful than any colorful
distinctions between them: I was living the life of a
drunk. I belted down the B-52, paid my
considerable tab, and left.

One B-52 pilot on one final mission. Over and out.
(But somehow I lived to tell the tale.)