My Dearest Fellow Conspirators,
I’m pretty sure every writer is familiar with Hemingway’s advice to, “Write drunk, and edit sober.”
Apparently, Hemingway never said that.
But that’s not my point.
Instead, I thought I’d look at the phrase as the metaphor it is and explore how it relates to my own life, habits, strategies, and style as a writer.
First of all, I’m not much of a drinker. I enjoy a glass of red wine on a cold day and, occasionally, a cold beer on a hot one. I also discovered, late in life, actually, that I have some pretty alert taste buds when it comes to a good, peaty, single-malt scotch.
(Dear Islay, I love you!)
In my experience, my drinking habits and my writing habits don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other.
I’ve written some pretty good stuff over a glass of wine, and I’ve written plenty of crap, too.
(There’s that other edict all writers know: “Kill your darlings,” a horrifyingly real reminder that just because we wrote it, doesn’t mean it’s any good, and just because we created it, doesn’t mean it’s immune from the Delete key.)
For me, the saying about “writing drunk and editing sober” is about where my mind should be, whether it’s laced with booze or not.
“Write drunk” is a state of mind. There’s a Zen kōan that says, “The mind should be no place in particular.”
These are related phrases, both important when it comes to the creative writing process.
Here’s how I apply the idea in day-to-day practice:
I wake up in the morning, pad to the shower, get dressed, walk the dog, and come home for a coffee.
Then, I plop myself down, open my laptop, and write. I have a small window of a few hours when my brain is awake but not quite ready for the day. Things are quiet and still a little hazy.
In this foggy time, I write with tunnel-visioned determination, ignoring all else around me: The dog. The phone. The TV. The Internet. The fact that the house is on fire.
Doesn’t matter. When I’m in the zone, I’m in the zone!
This is my “drunk” phase of the day, the part where I’m fast, loose, and uninhibited. I kick off my shoes, dance on the table, barf on strangers, and generally make an ass out of myself. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Later in the day, I go sober. That’s when I go back and review what I’ve written. I make changes. I move things around. I tidy up grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Basically, I’m a machine. Cold. Calculating. Relentless and untiring.
So whether I have a drink or not, my day has its drunk moments and its sober ones. It has its recklessness and its focus. There are hours at a time when my brain goes on vacation, leaving my fingers to blast away at the keyboard without supervision. And there are hours when I’m laser-focused, systematically smoothing out my syntax, triple-checking my spelling, and zapping every split infinitive and comma splice into oblivion.
So…What the phrase “write drunk, edit sober” really means is this:
Write with an open mind. Edit with a closed one.
Between the two, you’re likely to drop your inhibitions enough to be creative but not so much that you wind up passing out on the curb in a puddle of your own filth.