Why Writers Drink

US playwright Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983) reclining with a glass. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

US playwright Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983) reclining with a glass. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

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 "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," wrote the Romantic poet William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell more than 200 years ago.
     Some decades later, the French poet Charles Baudelaire exhorted his readers to "Get drunk and stay that way."

Drink - excessive drinking - has long been associated with creativity, most notably with creative writing.

It's a familiar image ... the besotted writer at a messy desk, beads of sweat on his forehead, his gaze intense, if not entirely focused, on the typewriter he's pounding in a fury ... a half-empty bottle of whisky at his elbow.
     Or the charmingly besotted author unsteady on his feet, flirting with all the women at a cocktail party, discoursing eloquently and all the while draining the liquor cabinet.

The romantic image of the drunken writer is an abiding one in our culture ... right down to a new brand of whiskey called Writers Tears. The connection between alcoholism and writing is indeed strong ... and tragic. As the essayist Lewis Hyde observed, "four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholic. About half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves."

Olivia Laing is an acclaimed British writer on literary history who wanted to get to the bottom of the stormy relationship between writers and alcohol.

She embarked on a lengthy journey across the United States by air, road, rail and foot, tracing out the lives of six famously alcoholic American writers: the fiction writers, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver ... the poet John Berryman ... and the playwright Tennessee Williams. You could call it the stations of the glass ... where they lived, where they worked and where they drank.

Her book about that journey is called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, and she talked to Michael from a studio in London, England.

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