Whiskey or cocaine? The secret to history's most successful writers.
Whether you love him or hate him, Hunter S. Thompson is a character who was larger than life. He is, arguably, best known for creating the immersive style of journalism known as "gonzo journalism" and his hit book-turned-film "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" which stared his long time friend, Johnny Depp.
He traveled around with the Hell's Angels in 1965 (taking a severe beating on the way out), covered Richard Nixon's 1972 election for the Rolling Stone (among other works for the major publication), and refused to be anything other than true to himself. As he said, "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me" (to be more accurate, those things worked for him right up until the point where they didn't). And in the early and mid-stages of his career, it did appear that drugs, alcohol, violence and insanity did lead the author into a promising writing career. In fact, in 1993 journalist E. Jean Carroll published Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson which included an alleged daily schedule of her book's subject. By Carroll's account, Thompson's daily routine included at least three of the four vices mentioned above. Here's how it went:
3:00 p.m. rise
3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills (cigarettes)
3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill
4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill
4:16 orange juice, Dunhill
5:11 coffee, Dunhills
5:30 more ice in the Chivas
5:45 cocaine, etc., etc.
6:00 grass to take the edge off the day
7:05 Woody Creek Tavern for lunch-Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jiggers of Chivas)
9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously
10:00 drops acid
11:00 Chartreuse, cocaine, grass
11:30 cocaine, etc, etc.
12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write
12:05-6:00 a.m. Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies.
6:00 the hot tub-champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine Alfredo
Both writers and doctors have to admit: that's impressive. Maybe not admirable, certainly not moral, but impressive. The fact that one human being could consume that many chemicals and stay conscious—let alone produce some semblance of writing—is a testament to human strength, at least at a biological level. But after talking about Thompson's daily routine with other would-be writers like myself, the discussion always circles back to the same questions: What was the secret to his writing success? Was it the whiskey or the cocaine? Surely it must have been one of the two, right? See, most writers at some point in their lives romanticize the life of the brooding, troubled, drug/alcohol-riddled author. Thompson certainly wasn't the first and isn't even the most famous (that prize would likely go to Hemingway). Robert Louis Stevenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even Charles Dickens were all incredible writers who also happened to be known substance abusers. The trouble begins when you buy into the idea that one requires the other; the idea that correlation means causation. Holding on to the belief that drugs/alcohol makes you a better writer by default is one of the stupidest, most stalling beliefs a young writer can fall prey to, though it's incredibly easy to do. After all, if Mark Twain was able to produce The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin while drinking from morning to night, there's got to be something to it, right? Maybe, but here are a couple things to keep in mind: 1) You're not Mark Twain. 2) His love of bourbon wasn't the secret to his writing...but he did have a secret and it was the same as Hunter S. Thompson's:
He wrote. A lot.
You'll notice that when you re-read Hunter S. Thompson's daily routine, something—albeit, something important—slips through the cracks between the whiskey, cocaine, and Dunhills: 12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write. The following six hours are filled with enough narcotics to put down a small horse (perhaps even a large one) but it's still six hours of writing. Not surfing the web; not "researching" online; not opening e-mails; but writing. When viewed from this perspective, the rest of Thompson's routine becomes irrelevant to his success as a writer. The question changes from "How could he have produced anything with such a schedule" to "How could he have not produced something with such a schedule." And just like with the drugs and alcohol, Thompson isn't unique in this regard either. Mark Twain spent many summers writing at Quarry Farm from morning to evening with no interruptions; Stephen King writes thousands of words a day, recommending a minimum of 1,000 to new writers; even Hemingway—the man, the myth, the legend—would begin writing at dawn and often not finish until noon (literally the opposite of Thompson's routine).
The more you research these deeply troubled, anti-heroic writers of history, the more you find that their secret to writing is no secret at all. They wrote, every single day.
So if you're interested in writing drink or don't drink, smoke or don't smoke, snort or don't snort; but whatever you do, if you want to be a successful writer, write. There's no vice so low nor virtue so high that lets anyone shortcut this rule. Not even among the greats.