What Happens When You Try and Drink Like Hemingway

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“Write drunk; edit sober.”

Ernest Hemingway, Nobel and Pulitzer-prize winning author of such classics as The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, and The Sun Also Rises, liked a drink or two.

I’m no stranger to drinking, either, But that’s where the similarities end. I haven’t seen war first-hand. I have never been to Europe. And I’ve never combined drinking and writing as he often did.

My writing time is spent pouring over a blank computer screen rather than a notebook, drinking coffee instead of wines, liquers, or cognac. Hemingway’s works stand timeless; mine… well, time will tell. But I have yet to find the same genius that he was able to summon.

Was it the drink? Did Hemingway offer this quote as an exercise? Challenge accepted, sir.

The Experiment

Disclaimer: we’re not encouraging the excessive consumption of alcohol. Eric knows his limit, didn’t have to work or lift anything heavy after his experiment, and even had the poison control number on standby. How’s that for responsible drinking!?

I’m about to embark on a journey, following in Hemingway’s footsteps for an evening. I have a case of beer (representing his days during World War I), a bottle of Chianti (which he enjoyed in Venice), some brandy (from his time in Paris), and my computer.

I welcome you to join me on this journey as I discover just what may come from a night of writing drunk. Bottoms up!

What follows is an unedited excerpt from my night of writing drunk:

I pushed the shovel into the dirt. The stench of death came to mind. The fear of what we would find  – what I would unearth – rose within me. It was almost enough to make me retch.

I was as entombed as Jerry. All around my friends were laughing in a cloud of smoke and intoxication. I felt their haze become my grave. the further I dug, Jerry and I began to share his.  Each stop for breath became a pause to gag, or puke; facing my mortality. Now, it was one more shovelful of newly moistened, dinner-filled soil.

“Hey, kid,” the old-man bellowed down the hole with a drinken laugh, “Catch!” I found his seated on a tombstone somewhat ironic.

I was tossed a sweaty, greezy hanky to wipe my brow. I didn’t know which was worse the bile churming in my gut, the prospect of where I was heading, or this disgusting rag. I tried not to glare at his generosity. I mopped my brow in hopes that the soil was steril enough to kill anything I may have just wiped across my face.

Despite digging toward hell I looked up to the heavens and marveled at the beauty of my surroundings. The moonlight made the old marble stones glow like polished mirrors the stars twinkled watching over me – perhaps judging, perhaps not; I hoped the latter cigarette smoke billowed up from glowing embers and the evil laughter of my undertakers disappeared into the crickets and cicadas in cool night air.

Three more feet down and we would find him. We would rescue his legacy and secure our future in my young naivety I secretly relished this opportunity, despite every bone in my body telling me that with each shovelful I was securing my fate.

Author’s note: Ok, so that’s as far as I got before the alcohol had me staring off into space. Not the best stuff I’ve ever written, oddly enough it wasn’t the worst. Certainly not the most inspired, but I’ve tried my hand at something new – walking in the footsteps of genius – and that, at least, is something.

The Aftermath

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My head is still throbbing.

One thing I learned, besides being out of practice drinking (no worries, not a habit I’m looking to pick up), alcohol definitely lowered my inhibitions. While this can be a dangerous occurrence at the bar, facing the blank page wasn’t nearly as scary as usual. While the ideas didn’t flow as smoothly as I may have liked, and clearly I lose the ability to punctuate and spell, there was definitely a stream-of-consciousness kind of feeling as I was writing. As things popped into my head, as characters spoke out of the fog of intoxication, it all spewed out onto the page.

Going back and looking what I have written in my intoxicated state, I think this may have been what Hemingway meant by “write drunk; edit sober.” My first draft is fluid and uninhibited. It’s haggard and sloppy, but it’s free. I had no fears and no restraints. Nothing was held back, and I wasn’t able to second-guess myself.

And now, despite the headache, the editing begins to clean up my story. I want to keep its free spirit but give it shave and a shower to make it more presentable. This process would have to be done sober. I can only imagine, and I’m not about to try, what kind of disaster may come of this if I attempted to edit in my intoxicated state. I need a clear head to polish my writing. While the first draft can be crafted in the trenches of an altered state, the editing process takes a sharp mind.

In Conclusion

While I don’t recommend that you try this exercise yourself, I do see the value in Hemingway’s advice to, “write drunk; edit sober.” Keep a sharp eye on your revisions, but let yourself go into the creative process uninhibited. Write with unabashed honesty, and perhaps, greatness will be your reward.

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Have you ever wrote while drunk? How do you free your inhibitions when you write? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Images courtesy of JFK Library and Steve McNicholas.

Between his job as a video editor and his hobby as a digital creative, Eric Kuentz thrives on the continuous quest for self-improvement.

 

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