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Why Are Writers Known as Drinkers? - The Motive Center
December 4th, 2004
10:33 pm

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Why Are Writers Known as Drinkers?
A casual comment on a listserv led me to ponder a connection: Why are writers known as drinkers? It used to be so casually assumed that I found the following quotation from Nelson Aldrich:

"Boozing does not necessarily have to go hand in hand with being a writer, as seems to be the concept in America. I therefore solemnly declare to all young men trying to become writers that they do not actually have to become drunkards first."


Having said that, there is something in common between a category of alcoholic and most published writers--their motive pattern. I think the link, while not inevitable, is real--or at least worth thinking about.


Published writers, as previously noted, seem to be largely driven by the desire to influence others--known as the Power motive. David McClelland led a research team in the 1960s looking at the nature of drinking behavior. His book on the subject is known as The Drinking Man. In brief, they found that alcoholics--at least some alcoholics--were quite high in the Influence motive, but also felt powerless.

Note that having the desire to influence doesn't mean you possess the ability or the real-world responsibility to do so. You can want to be President and not be electable! So these were people who really wanted to influence others, but thought they were helpless to do so. (I'm exaggerating somewhat, of course.)

Here's the kicker: Alcohol raises the power motive, at least temporarily, and makes you feel strong. Interestingly, this effect doesn't kick in until the second drink--so that "two drink limit" has some real basis! Starting with the third drink, power motive goes up until you get to seven drinks, at which point all your motives drop, for obvious reasons. ("I don't have a drinking problem. I drink, I fall down. No problem.")

Now published writers, as I note elsewhere, are people who are both very high in this motive and high in the ability to manage, control, or otherwise channel the motive. However, this could mean you are overly inhibited. I suspect some writers who choke on their writing ("the watcher," some call it--that internal editor who maligns your work as you write it) might be using their Activity Inhibition against themselves. This can make you feel powerless: "I want to write, but everything I write sucks!"

Is the link clearer? Let me add one other piece--everyone knows that alcohol lowers inhibitions, right? So it reduces your self-awareness and your self-control. For some people it becomes easier to write. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily improve the quality of your writing, and one can become dependent on the booze to even start. This happened to award-winning SF writer Barry Longyear, a twelve-stepper for many years now, who also wrote an incredible book about rehab called Saint Mary Blue, available from iUniverse.

So here's the picture: people with power motive may be more likely to drink, because it resonates with their own motives--it makes them feel strong cheaply. Furthermore, it allows them to squelch their internal editor. However, this is not a good thing in the long run. Nor is it necessary!

The truly amazing thing McClelland's team discovered is that you could take active alcoholics and turn them into social drinkers! It's true: they taught people to understand their own motives--which are nonconscious, remember--and how to manage it. If you feel powerless, and you know that's a problem, you can find a way to satisfy your influence motivation in a way other than drinking, because you know what else works. A significant number of heavy drinkers managed to get down to the two-drink-maximum level and stay there. Alcoholics Anonymous says this is impossible. Well, for some people it undoubtedly is--but it worked here.

By the same token, if writing drives you to drink, then you need to find a way to make your writing more satisfying or at least find something else to do to feel strong! Again, this is why things like "Zeroth drafts" with low expectations, or NaNoWrMo, where quantity is the key, can be so helpful, and build up your positive sense of empowerment.

In practice, lots of great writers don't drink; some wrote their best work after sobering up. Just so you know...

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