Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis–Thoughts

Kingsley AmisIt seems like many of us avid readers have a fascination with what, and how much, some of our favorite authors could drink. There have been some wonderful love letters written to alcohol by some of our greatest literary talents.

Kingsley Amis was a prodigious drinker. We might almost call him a professional. His words on drinking have been gathered up in a little book: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis.

This is not a book for reading straight through as much as tippling from at odd times. But if you are at all fond of alcohol, it is a must-read.

There are actually three short books in this volume. The first, and best, section is Amis’s treatise on drink. It is quite funny, and some practical tips are scattered here and there. The second section reprints Amis’s newspaper columns on the subject of drink, and there is some repetition here. The final section contains several alcohol-related quizzes, which might be fun after having a few.

Keep this book by your bar, and remember to nip from it every now and then. It’s probably the only book on the subject you’ll need.

I guess these days we’re too health-conscious to drink like the masters did. Too many calories! The jury is out on whether this is a good thing for literature. But it sure doesn’t seem like being a writer is as much fun.

Is writing torture? Should it be?

I remember when writing used to be something I did solely for fun, when I would write just to play around with words. I created collage poems out of words and pictures cut from magazines. I tried to make up my own acrostics and crosswords. I wrote stories as a form of play — playing with an idea, a structure, something that someone else had written.

I think one reason I don’t write as much as I used to or would like to is because somewhere along the way, I lost that sense of having fun with it. Is it because I’ve grown up? Is it because I think I shouldn’t do anything anymore unless it’s productive or results in a paycheck, because that’s we are taught to think that adults do. Adults don’t play; we work.

Or is it because I’ve been told over and over again that to be a writer, one must be tortured, obsessed, possessed? Writing is something you do because you have to, not because you want to. Above all, it is not fun.

Probably it’s a combination of all of the above. One thing I do know — I miss writing just for fun. I want that back in my life.

After reading this — Elizabeth Gilbert Versus Philip Roth: Is Writing Torture? in The New Yorker — I have to declare that I completely respect Elizabeth Gilbert’s point of view. She has not lost her sense of fun or play. She can’t believe she actually gets to write as a job.

Doesn’t that seem preferable to the old “tortured artist” routine?

Also worth reading: Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on writing.


The writer’s job…

The writer’s job is to entertain, but there is more. Writers can educate, enlighten, even corrupt. This is why books are often seen as dangerous.

Writers are observers. They want to figure out what makes us human. Why do we behave the way we do toward one another? What is our purpose here? Is there any meaning to all this? Are we in control of our destiny or at the mercy of fate, the environment, heredity or dumb luck?

Writers are always looking. They are constantly:

  • looking back — to understand who we are by understanding where we came from
  • looking around — at contemporary society, culture, institutions, values and beliefs
  • looking inward — revealing interior thoughts and psychology, trying to figure out what makes us tick
  • looking beyond — turning our fears into monsters; realizing our fantasies by making the impossible possible; traveling to the furthest reaches of space, other dimensions and parallel worlds
  • looking forward — extrapolating on the problems of today and following them through to their ultimate ends

A few words from writers about drinking…

“When I have one martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second, I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no holding me.” — William Faulkner


“Faulkner was a big drinker, went on wild binges, but he never wrote much while drunk. He and others drank to broaden their vision, their exaltation or despair, or to flee from the agony of the pure pain of creation.” — William Styron


“I’ve gone on the wagon, but my body doesn’t believe it. It’s waiting for the whiskey to get in there … to get me going. I never drink while I’m working, but after a few glasses, I get ideas that would never have occurred to me dead sober.” — Irwin Shaw


“Before I start to write, I always treat myself to a nice dry martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started. After that, I am on my own.” — E.B. White


“After a few ounces, the old tunes wake up, the grandeur of jingling anguish, the lick and shimmer of language, the heartbreak at the core of things. … At a certain glow-level, my brilliancies assured me I was an angel writing in Paradise.” — Donald Newlove


“I can’t write without wine.” — Tennessee Williams

Write that novel or not, but treat readers right

So, this article over on Salon.com, prompted some thoughts: Better yet, DONT write that novel. The rant is a response to the annual write-a-thon, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWrMo, as it’s known around the Interwebs, encourages writers and would-be writers to bang out a first draft in a month in an effort to just get it written.

I do take issue with Laura Miller’s tone in the Salon article. Let me paraphrase: “Hey, amateur writer, anything you produce during NaNoWrMo is going to be dreck, so why even bother?” Here’s why. Every person should feel free and encouraged to express themselves creatively in whatever medium works best for them, whether that’s writing, art, music, crocheting, cooking, ice sculpture, I don’t care what. It’s good for the soul, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re awful or not. Creative expression is something we all need to do more of, and I think it’s patronizing that Laura Miller feels like she has to tell NaNoWrMo participants not to bother their little heads with trying to write a novel.

But she doesn’t want to see that dreck foisted on the world, and I have to agree with that. Still, that’s why we have literary agents and publishers, isn’t it? They’re supposed to be our editorial gatekeepers. That’s why it’s so damn hard to get published. There’s a lot of competition, most of it is awful, and only the best of the best probably eke their way through. The flip side of that is that if you’re a choosy reader, you have a good chance of finding a more-than-decent novel to read on each trip to the bookstore.

Miller also makes an impassioned case for nurturing readers. As a reader myself, I’m on board. But I think the fault lies not with the legions of amateur writers out there, but with the publishers, who I think have gotten sloppy in recent years. It’s not that they’re publishing bad books; on the contrary, I’ve been reading a lot of great new books. But even hardbound literary fiction seems to be riddled with typos and other careless mistakes, which really distract a careful reader from the pleasure of reading. I don’t consider this the writer’s fault, although a writer who can’t grasp the basics of grammar and spelling probably shouldn’t make it far as a professional. Instead, I suspect that publishers are skimping on that lowly, often freelance, most definitely underpaid necessity: the copyeditor. And any publisher who can’t be bothered to pay someone a few bucks an hour to copyedit their books shouldn’t be in the business, in my opinion.

I’m not even going to get into the whole issue of e-books and gouging readers while not even letting them truly own the digital books they publish. I’ll only purchase an e-reader when there are no paper books left to read. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any book I shell out my hard-earned money for be free of errors. These are professional editors, after all.

But amateur writers, please keep writing your hearts out. I wrote a novel once that’s completely unpublishable, but at least I wrote a novel. I get it. It’s about the feeling of accomplishing a goal, of creating something. It’s not about making Laura Miller read another bad book.

Better yet, don’t write that novel (Salon)
National Novel Writing Month

Writing for love or money? They aren’t mutually exclusive

Here are some follow-up thoughts on my post about why writers should not write for free.

Some readers may be wondering if I am saying that you should never write anything without getting paid for it. That actually is not what I’m saying at all, but let me clarify. What if you just really love to write? You don’t care about making money — you just want to do it for the love of it. Isn’t that allowed?

Sure. People do things they love without getting paid, or even investing a lot of their own money, all the time. These activities are called hobbies, and if writing is your hobby, great. For my part, I really enjoy blogging, cooking, gardening and reading. These are all hobbies of mine that I don’t get paid for, nor do I expect to be paid. I also don’t intend to turn any of these things into my profession, although I don’t find any fault with people who manage that feat. It’s always great to get paid for doing something you already love to do.

But there is a fundamental difference between writing for free because you love it and letting yourself be exploited. If you are just writing for a hobby, then by all means start a blog or contribute to a little literary magazine that someone else is publishing as a hobby or self-publish your book and give it away to your friends and family. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t.

What I object to are writers who want to write for a living, who have that as their expressly stated goal, and then agree to poor terms with an entity that is making money off their work. That is exploitation. If you want to be a professional writer — if you want to make money at writing — then act like it and charge for your work.

Cooking is my hobby. What if someone ate a dish I had cooked and said to me, “That is so great that I want you to cook in my restaurant. I can’t afford to pay you, but you will get great exposure.”

Would I then say, “Cooking is my art, and I wouldn’t think of charging for it. Of course I will cook in your restaurant for free, even though you are making gobs of money off my work.” Of course not! I think the response of any reasonable person would be, “Great! What’s the salary?” There are two words in the phrase dream job, and one of those words implies payment in exchange for work performed.

So I do think people should write just for the love of it. I do that every day. But if you are that good at it that someone else can make money off your work, then you deserve a fair cut. That’s all I’m saying.

For more about writing, go read this excellent post over at John Scalzi’s blog.

They won’t buy the cow: Why writers should not give away their work

I saw a couple of posts on this subject on the World in the Satin Bag, and the subject of whether writers should give away their work for free is a perennial debate. So in case anyone cares, here are my two cents’ on the subject.

I was a working writer for 9 years. By “working writer” I mean that is how I earned my living, full-time. I never once gave away my work without getting paid a fair wage. I wrote nonfiction, and I was usually paid by the job. I actually set an hourly wage for myself that I felt was fair and reasonable for the quality of work I produced. When I got a new contract, I divided the total amount by my hourly rate, and that is how long I spent on the job. Just like a plumber or an electrician, I made sure that I was getting paid what I was worth for each hour I worked.

When a writer gives away his work or accepts a very low payment, that writer is essentially saying, “This is how little I value my own time and skills. My work is worth less than the work of the guy flipping my hamburger at McDonald’s.” Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the writer to value his own work. Publishers will always, always try to get away with paying as little as possible. It is up to writers and aspiring writers to stand up for themselves and to not accept substandard pay.

Anyone who wants to be a professional, working writer would never just give their work away. Even if they never sold a thing, they believe their work — and the time they spent on it — has a tangible value, and they act accordingly. You do not break into the business by giving away free writing — that’s a myth perpetrated by publishers who don’t want to pay up. You do what other writers do: Work hard, hone your craft, get good and then find an agent who is willing to sell your stuff for a reasonable sum of money.

Somewhere along the line, someone is attempting to make money off your writing. If they do, then the writer deserves a fair share of that. If the publisher is selling the work in a book or magazine, the writer deserves a cut. If the publisher is using the work to attract visitors to a website or blog, where they hope to sell a good or service, then the writer should receive payment. What if a big-name company approached you and said, “Write all our advertising copy. We can’t afford to pay you but you’ll get great exposure.”  What would you say? Most people would say, “No way. I need to get paid.” It’s no different when a magazine or publisher or website says the same thing. And if they can’t afford to pay, then maybe they can’t afford to be in business.

After all, if you went to your day job tomorrow and your boss said, “We can’t afford to pay you any more, but we still expect you to come in for 8 hours a day and give us quality work,” what would you do? Most people wouldn’t agree to work for nothing. So why is it somehow different for writers?

If you really want to work for free, in order to develop your writing skills or get exposure, there are plenty of legitimate avenues to do so. Join a workshop or a writers’ group, or take a class. Start a blog and publish excerpts there. At the extreme, self-publish, but at least charge a little something for your e-book or whatever.

People do not value what they get for free. When a writer gives away his work, he is essentially saying that his writing has no value. And that’s usually true — free writing is generally, in my experience, bad writing. But good writers, professional writers, know their worth, and they charge accordingly.