Drinking Like a Real Writer

In the 1940 classic “The Philadelphia Story,” C.K. Dexter Haven tells Macaulay Connor “I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I secretly wanted to be a writer.” He tells Macaulay that Tracy Lord never understood his “deep and gorgeous thirst.” I’ve always thought that writing and substance abuse go together. Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, O. Henry, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway – all famous literary alcoholics. Baudeliare smoked hash, Stephen King did coke, Aldous Huxley did mushrooms – the list goes on and on. I think it might be more difficult to find a successful writer who hadn’t at some time abused something. Sadly, I’m not a drug addict. I don’t have the personality for it. I can’t stand the thought of regularly using something so expensive. I’m just too cheap. On the other hand…there’s always liquor.

I was at dinner with a couple of friends last week, and the drinks menu featured a couple of cocktails whose names I hadn’t heard except in novels in years and years. Singapore Sling, Manhattan, Harvey Wallbanger, Old Fashioned, Cuba Libre…I started feeling like I should be wearing a satin gown and maribou-feather slippers, making sure that I didn’t smudge my lipstick or muss my marcelled hair.

I had a couple of Singapore Slings and suddenly, I was Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Bette Davis all rolled up in one (seriously – they were tiny women and have you seen me?). If I had been at a typewriter (or, more correctly, if I had been a typewriter sitting at my machine), I would have been churning out the kind of prose that made people laugh on the bus, cry in restaurants and call up their friends just to read extensive passages. I’ll tell you a secret, though.

When I was 18 or 19, before they raised the drinking age in Arizona to 21, my boyfriend and I would walk to this Italian restaurant a mile or so from my house and split a plate of pasta and a bottle of bad chianti. I didn’t know it was bad chianti at the time, but I was young and stupid then. We would get drunk and, in that pretentious way that only 18 or 19 year olds can pull off, talked about deep, philosophical truths. We talked about world politics and art and the nature of reality. We talked about popular culture, the human condition and how we were going to change the world with art. These discussions were monumental. They were profound. They were so important, I felt, that I persuaded my boyfriend to bring his new mini tape recorder to dinner one evening so that we could actually remember one of these conversations the next morning.

That night, we drank two bottles of bad chianti and ate spaghetti with butter and mizithra cheese. We probed the very depths of the deepest questions mankind has asked himself since the invention of language. We revealed ourselves as the gods of our own private universe, a place much more orderly, beautiful and just than the one that everyone else seemed to inhabit. We weren’t golden children, we were beings of diamond.

The next morning, after throwing up, we listened to the tape. It was hard because the night before, we had apparently had some difficulty working the tape player. You know, pushing both the “play” and the “record” button at the same time. There was a great deal of giggling, some of that “I love you, no I love you” crap that couples at a certain stage of their relationship think is terribly charming, and a whole lot of incomprehensible mumbling punctuated with belches. When we did speak, we seemed only to be able to complete one sentence in four, and that one generally ended with a loud “HA!” The two of us looked at each other, mortified, and vowed never to do that again.

My loving husband is mixing me a cocktail even as we speak, but I’ll likely sip it slowly and perhaps not finish it, for I’m in the midst of Nanowrimo, and I’d like the words I put together to mean something.

Making a List. Checking It Twice.

It’s the 27th. In four days, I start my next novel. I posted earlier about how I am planning for my story this year, but I didn’t post about all the other stuff that needs to happen this year. I’ve been asked in previous years about how one holds down a job, keeps ones’ household running and writes a novel without resorting to incredibly hard drugs or armies of servants, and I answer that it takes one simple thing. It takes a list.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon practicing in Boston, as well as the author of dozens of scholarly papers and general-interest articles about medicine and, more recently, organization. His recent articles have been about how we, as fallible human beings, continue to improve our performance professionally and personally throughout our lives. His book, The Checklist Manifesto, outlines how to continue to perform well in the face of increased complexity.

I’ve always been a fan of lists, and I’ll need them more than ever, considering that in November I will write a novel, help plan a new website for the volunteer group I work with, read and critique the writing of the rest of my cohort in grad school, look for a new house and host company from the 8th through Thanksgiving.

If you’re thinking of starting listing, here are some things you might want to consider to make your lists really work for you:

  1. Make sure your list items are tasks, not projects. A project is a collection of tasks, so if you have “clean out the garage” on your list, you might want to break it up into things like “take old bicycles to the dump,” “put old work bench on Craigslist,” etc.
  2. Review your list at least weekly. I put the date in the margin every Monday, and continue the same list. Then, I use a new color of hilighter to mark off the things I finish. This method means that I can instantly see what I got done this week, and tell how when I put it on the list. Things that sit on your list for 3-4 weeks should be re-evaluated – they might need to be broken into smaller chunks, or postponed.
  3. Take your list with you everywhere. Mine is just a spiral-bound notebook that lives with all my other stuff. When my husband wants to talk about what we’re doing this week, or when I go to a volunteer meeting, I bring it with me so that I can capture any new tasks and so that I have a reminder not to over-commit myself.

Fear of the unknown is a well-known phenomenon (a Google search on that phrase yielded 40.6 million results). People with complex lives are afraid that they may miss something – that they won’t know that they should be doing X when they’re busy doing Y. Making a list is a great way to take that fear of the unknown, that fear of losing control over the complexity of your life, and make it manageable.