Updated: Nov 10, 2019
The relationship between drinking and writing is well-documented, but how does creativity fare in sobriety?
It’s strange to me now, given my current penchant for pyjamas, that as a kid my dream was to be a child star. Not an actress, a child star.
In spite of my aggressive ordinariness, I felt destined for greatness, and spent Saturday mornings sharpening my acting skills at the village hall in preparation for the glittering career that lay ahead.
Then puberty struck. With it came the tendency to blush for no reason whatsoever. This silenced me so effectively that I wished I had turned invisible.
Luckily, I lived in a world where alcohol was readily available, and so I was saved from a life of round-the-clock avoidance strategies and awarded my first speaking role as Fun Girl. At weekends, and sometimes midweek if the gods were kind, I was free to experiment with this new character.
From her debut, Fun Girl (gregarious, hilarious, rambunctious) felt preferable to me (awkward, uncertain, embarrassed.) Fun girl was the ultimate improviser (she was the me I’d been able to access as a kid doing Drama classes) and my life opened up in a way I’d feared wasn’t possible.
Saturday mornings were never the same again. I abandoned my dream of acting and drank whenever I could.
Fast forward to university in Cornwall where I studied English Literature and Media Studies and fell in love with Jane Eyre and Riot Grrrl and the Atlantic sea.
Fun girl came with me, my most loyal friend (though she sure did get me into trouble) and life was wonderful and wholesome, as well as drunken. My mind, at last, was finding things worth caring about.
Still, I was without a dream. I had less than no idea what I would do beyond university and rarely thought about it. I was proficient in writing, obsessed with human psychology and had bucket loads of empathy, but I was terrified of groups. I hated being seen.
Was there a career that demanded sitting in a room by yourself, interacting with nobody and answering to no one?
I had no idea that being an author was an actual job or that someone like me could do it. If questioned on how people became writers, I might have guessed they were born that way, like mermaids or lizards maybe.
And then I read Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley.
Now, here was something I could relate to. An unresolved story about Fun Girls rampaging around Manchester. It changed everything. I began fictionalising what was happening to me and my friends: dead-end jobs, doomed relationships, abortion.
My friend published my first ever short story in the local magazine she worked for. Penny Jerusalem, based on a man who no one else would talk to, set in a pub.
It was a transformative experience.
Seeing my words in print, beautifully illustrated, and then receiving compliments for them… Now this was a way I could interact with the world. This was a way I could bear to be seen. Immediately, I was hooked.
For a while, my obsession with writing curbed my drinking as I began staying home to (drink and) write. My friends were impressed by my commitment, and I was thrilled to have an excuse that people seemed to listen to.
I would take beer and snacks to my laptop, open one of many word documents, write a sentence or two, then scan the internet idly for places I could publish this story I hadn’t written yet.
Probably The New Yorker would be super into this.
Soon my emotions would be too stirred up to write, and I’d seek out music ‘to inspire me’, end up playing songs from my teens, and sink into the ancient regret pit of things unsaid and lost opportunity. I would fall deeper into nostalgia and melancholy until the only thing to do was play I Know It’s Over by The Smiths on repeat. Cue a bit of crying.
It wasn’t the most productive writing practice, but it kept me out of trouble (comparatively) and along with the more sensible non-drinking sessions I managed to finish and submit stories galore. Frequent form rejections only pushed me harder. I would prove them all wrong.
Books and wine
After a while I began to receive personalised rejections with the occasional acceptance. I was getting somewhere! A literary journal accepted a story and invited me to read at their launch, and my horror at public speaking reasserted itself inside me like a long-forgotten injury.
Would my fear of being seen ruin my dream of being a writer too?
I travelled to Exeter where I drank cider at a Wetherspoons before making my way to the university. There I took glass after glass of red wine to manage my nerves.
“Remember to keep breathing,” an older woman suggested when I admitted I was terrified.
If only it were possible, I thought. My nerves were too high for me to monitor anything. I asked to go first, desperate for it to be over. Clutching my wine, I rushed through the story in a single breath. So many eyes. Such bright strip lighting. My face felt like the skin had been sanded off.
Afterwards my adrenalin was so high that I couldn’t remember reading.
My talent grew, but so did my fear of attention. As more editors accepted my wistful vignettes about Quiet-Desperation-On-Sea more literary events blighted my horizon.
If I was going to be a writer I had to overcome my fear of reading in public.
I joined forces with a successful, confident writer friend to set up a literary night of our own. Called Telltales, its aim was purportedly to showcase and bring together writers from the southwest. For me, its true purpose was exposure therapy.
No microphones, no strip lighting, no rows of folding seats, our night would be friendly and unintimidating. The room would be dimly lit and comfortable, with armchairs and beanbags. And, of course, alcohol.
Years later, I was on a prestigious writing scheme, about to read an extract from the novel that would become Infinite Sky when I mentioned that I needed more wine to be able to go onstage. My mentor, a formidable, brilliant and very funny woman, turned seriously to me.
“Be careful,” she warned. “Your tolerance will go up and then it’s a slippery slope...”
Was she talking from experience? Had she had a drinking problem in the past? Poor woman.
“You’ll do a better reading sober,” she said, and I inwardly scoffed at how little she knew.
Maybe she had to read sober because she couldn’t handle her booze, but I’d grown up drinking, I’d developed a tolerance. Anyway, I basically was sober. I’d only had a couple. Four or five, tops. Which meant I felt normal; sociable; willing to be seen. She just didn’t get it.
The next day I felt uncomfortable. Had I been drunker than I’d realised? Had she been telling me off? Was I messing this up?
Perhaps you had to be more discrete about booze at these middle-class literary soirées. But writers drank, everyone knew.
My book got published, and I kept drinking before I read.
“You’re made for this!” a friend said to me, after I got some lols during a reading at another launch. I’d been terrified on the train here, full of total dread, but the cans from the trolley had really soothed my nerves, and the omnipresent literary red wine had numbed the last of them.
Your problem, I thought, is that you don’t drink for these things.
It wasn’t for years that I grasped what my mentor had been trying to tell me: that each time I relied on alcohol for courage I missed the chance to develop my own; that true courage required an investment of energy that created a return.
By the time I understood her wisdom, it was too late; alcohol had become my main source of power.
It was my inability to write that finally allowed me to hear the alarm that had been sounding within for years. I began to educate myself.
Why didn’t anyone tell me alcohol was a depressant? (I wouldn’t/couldn’t have listened/heard.) Was this why all my ideas were depressing? (100%) Why I was unable to lift my second novel from the quagmire of act two? (Probably.)
And it wasn’t only that I couldn’t write, but that I didn’t want to. What was the point? What was the point in anything? Everything (except drinking) made me anxious and miserable. Lately even drinking made me anxious and - eventually - miserable too.
Reclaiming my power
The benefit of defeat, if you are very lucky, is that you become open-minded or at least willing to consider becoming open-minded. For the first time, I asked an appropriate person for help. Her name was Harry, and she’d been sober for four years.
“You need to find a new source of power,” she told me. “Something you can call on to help you become useful, to help you get out of your own way.”
“But what if now I’m sober and I still can’t write?” I whined.
“Maybe writing isn’t for you,” she said, simply, and my stomach turned over. “Maybe you need to let it go. Your higher power can help you work it out,” she said. “But only if you let it. Ask for the willingness to get out of bed. Ask for the willingness to put the action in.”
Finding my voice
That night, feeling woefully self-conscious, I lit a candle and prayed for the ability to get up first thing in the morning and write as I had been promising myself I would for weeks. Looking into the flame, desperately seeking something, I felt a flicker of hope and understanding.
“If your Nerve deny you–
Go above your Nerve–” wrote Emily Dickinson.
I'd never had the language to articulate this before, but alcohol had been my higher power. Could I go above my Nerve without it?
The next morning, my kitten (a gift to myself for quitting booze) woke me as usual, and I stumbled downstairs, squinting, to let him out, as usual, only instead of climbing back into bed after, I went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea, then sat for hours and hours, writing in bed.
I told Harry excitedly what had happened, and she smiled knowingly.
She had seen women do this dozens of times before, but that didn't make it any less radical to me. I was beginning to find the power that had been there all along.
I was discovering the courage to trust my experience and use my voice and speak my own truth.
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