Famously a heroic drinker - he did most things heroically - Ernest Hemingway is also famous for having coined the truism “write drunk, revise sober”, a four word mantra which would seem to act as a handbook for the functioning alcoholic as working writer.
The thing is, Hemingway never actually said it. It’s a quote traced back to Peter De Vries’ 1964 novel Reuben, Reuben - and it’s only part of the original line:
“And sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
What does that mean? Well, everything in moderation: exactly the opposite of the way in which the maxim is usually applied. Not only that but, according to his family, Hemingway himself never wrote under the influence, working in the mornings every day and only drinking himself into a hole in the ground after lunch.
However, there are a metric f*ckton of famous writers who have done so: writers who’ve penned some of the most powerful works of literature ever created, writers who wrote, write and will yet write again while utterly spangled on intoxicants of all shapes, sizes and textures.
Avoiding the usual suspects (your Burroughs and Bukowskis, your Fitzgeralds, Thompsons and Kerouacs), here are ten legendary authors who brought forth their finest work, like Athena from the brow of Zeus... while hepped up on goofballs and pixie juice.
10. Patricia Highsmith - The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
One of literature’s most fascinating psychological thriller writers, Patricia Highsmith was a complex and bruised soul, terribly treated by her mother during childhood and left with a pervasive, crippling anxiety that led inexorably to addiction.
It’s astonishing that Highsmith wrote so much, so well, publishing twenty-two novels and eight short stories collections in her lifetime despite a functional alcoholism that shouldn’t have been functional in any conceivable sense.
She began drinking in college in the forties, claiming initially that it was an important stepping stone for an artist, allowing one to "see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more."
By the fifties, when Highsmith was writing The Talented Mr. Ripley, she was decamping to bed with a bottle of gin in the middle of the afternoon and then going on to wine and cocktails. By the sixties she needed a constant ferry of drinks just to get through the day hour by hour, lying to friends and colleagues in an effort to conceal her alcoholism.
That condition expressed itself in her writing. Her greatest creation, the sociopathic con man and murderer Tom Ripley (played by Matt Damon in the subsequent movie), shared her alcoholic’s raging guilt and festering self-loathing in his paranoid, obsessive need to escape or destroy his own identity by subsuming it in another.
Ripley constantly commits crimes to escape from the consequences of the last crime he committed, in a daisy-chain of recrimination and recursive anxiety that will be horribly familiar to anyone who’s ever suffered from addiction.