First aired on The Sunday Edition (5/01/14)
Excessive drinking has long been associated with creativity, most notably with creative writing, and the romantic image of the drunken writer is a familiar one. There's even a brand of Irish whiskey called Writers Tears. Olivia Laing is an acclaimed British writer on literary history who wanted to look at the relationship between writers and alcohol in more depth.
She chose to focus on six American writers who were notorious alcoholics: the fiction writers John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, the poet John Berryman and the playwright Tennessee Williams. In the course of researching their lives, she travelled across the United States. Her book about that journey is called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink. In a recent interview on The Sunday Edition, she talked about her book and the conclusions she came to about alcoholism and writing.
Laing told host Michael Enright that the title of the book comes from the name of a brand of bourbon mentioned in Tennessee Williams's play A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The alcoholic Brick keeps saying, "I'm making a little short trip to Echo Spring." He means he's going to the liquor cabinet, but the term is also symbolic of "what people are looking for when they drink, what they're escaping and what they were escaping to."
Laing herself grew up in a household where she experienced "what it's like in reality to be around an alcoholic, how frightening it is, how exhausting it is." She became interested in writing the book because she felt that the popular image of the drunken writer tells is only part of the reality. "It's presented in a glamorous way. We have Hemingway sitting in a bar knocking back the drinks. But we don't see the cost, the interplay between the alcoholic's life and the way that contributes or fights against the urge to make art."
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Out of many writers who were famously alcoholic -- including Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Parker and Malcolm Lowry -- Laing chose to focus on the six American male writers in part because they were writers whose work she genuinely loved. But she also noted that "they were all from the 20th century, there were similar patterns in their lives" and some of them, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, even knew each other.
Laing discovered that they had similar early childhoods, and were brought up by "overbearing mothers and distant, absent fathers." Except for Hemingway, they weren't good at sports, but "they were very good at telling stories." She cited the fact that Fitzgerald fantasized about being a football star, but in fact he wasn't a good player at all. "You see this sort of tendency toward escapism, and that becomes very much linked with alcoholism later," she said, adding that "they often suffered from extreme, intense anxiety and that led them to self-medicate with alcohol."
When asked if their abuse of alcohol actually affected the writing, Laing said that its effects were particularly evident in the later stages of "a drinking career" because "alcohol has such detrimental effects on the brain." She cited the early plays of Tennessee Williams, which "are absolute miracles of structural clarity." But "his late work is all over the place, it's tangled, it's repetitive."
Although we tend to romanticize the alcoholic writer, Laing pointed out that we don't see the women writers who fit that description in the same way. She pointed out that Hemingway fostered the image of drinking as linked to masculinity. "It's part of that sort of 20th-century machismo that a lot of writers really played into. And I suppose we like it in the same way that we like Mad Men, because it looks glamorous and we're not really seeing the costs."