“Write drunk, edit sober.” Most people would attribute this to Ernest Hemingway. They’d also be wrong. There’s no evidence the celebrated author ever said this. In fact, it may actually be the creation of author Peter De Vries, who wrote in his 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben”:
“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk.”
Regardless of the source, it’s a controversial piece of advice. For one thing, it sounds like it’s advocating for alcoholism. I write every day, usually in the morning. If I followed this advice I’d be drunk by 6:00 am. While it sounds interesting, it’s not maintainable. Or healthy.
Also, “write drunk” insinuates that writers can’t be creative unless they’re sloshed. While I’ve written while having a few glasses of beer, a couple glasses of wine, or maybe a few shots of tequila, it’s only Friday and Saturday nights. I do have a day job, you know.
But despite this, I still think the advice has some merit. What I mean is, if you don’t take it literally you could interpret it to mean don’t be conservative when you’re writing. Don’t be complacent. Don’t be boring.
I take it to mean, go crazy, push the envelope, do things that are uncomfortable, new and different. Writing drunk, to me, means to let my creativity take the lead and don’t overthink things. I means to have fun, be silly.
In the second part of that bolded text above, it references revising drunk. I get that, too. Like I mentioned a few lines up, don’t be overly conservative when you edit. Yes, you want to correct misspellings and grammatical errors (unless they’re part of the story, like writing a regional dialect), but don’t over correct. Writing is art, painting pictures with words: A blue sky, a green field, the rolling turquoise ocean.
Poetry is a perfect example of this. Poems don’t have to rhyme, or use punctuation, or complete sentences. Poetry is very similar to painting. It’s like dabbing your pen in a puddle of letters and brushing words onto a blank sheet of paper.
So what I’m saying here is don’t overthink when you create. And no, you don’t have to push the envelope every time you write. The main idea here is to be aware of your writing style and know that you have a comfort zone when it comes to fiction. Once you know your boundaries, then every so often you can go exploring into the unknown.
I think that too many writers focus on what they do well and never look beyond that. It’s like a carpenter who only builds bookshelves. Sure, he may build some amazing bookshelves using nothing but oak and his product is in high demand. But at some point he’s going to get bored with that routine and his customers are going to start asking for modifications from his usual blueprint.
But what if he starts building other things, just to see if he can do it? Maybe some kitchen cabinets, or a coffee table, maybe even a hope chest. Maybe he starts using walnut, maple, cherry. He can still build all the bookshelves he wants, but now he knows he can create other objects out of different kinds of wood and his customers are loving it. And maybe he’s loving it, too.
The same thing applies to writing. I can write sci-fi or horror all day, every day. I enjoy it and I get a good response to my stories. But I don’t just write in these genres. I’ve tried my hand at erotica, romance, even mainstream fiction. I don’t know if those stories are as enjoyable as my sci-fi and horror, but I still try. I also write non-fiction. I’ve done grant writing, copywriting, script writing. It’s fun to challenge myself to try something new, something different.
When it comes down to it, we all need to write drunk (or edit drunk) every now and then. It’s keeps our minds fresh and flexible. Besides, you never know…you may find a hidden talent you weren’t aware of, and wouldn’t that be interesting?