The list of writers who have used (and often abused) alcohol reads like a Who’s Who in Great Literature: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Pete Hamill, and Christopher Hitchens to name just a handful.
Ernest Hemingway famously advised, "Write drunk; editor sober." Then again he also said, "The first draft of anything is shit."
Yet while there’s a romantic notion that drinking fosters creativity, alcohol can’t create talent where there is none.
"There’s a certain kind of writer who is capable of making great work when drunk, but it takes a genius like a Faulkner or a Hemingway to do that," says Rosie Schaap, author of the recently published Drinking with Men: A Memoir. "I’m kind of cagey about attaching any romance to drinking and writing as activities that go together."
In other words, Schaap writes while sober. "I remember some great stories and interesting things that happened while I was drinking, but I’m not able to write about them when I’m drinking," says Schaap, who writes the Drink column for The New York Times Magazine. "For me, writing and drinking don’t go together at all."
Although Schaap’s book takes place almost entirely at bars, its main focus is not alcohol, but rather, the bar as community—a welcoming place where, like Cheers, everybody knows your name.
"As much as I love drinking," says Schaap, "it’s really the bar that I love most of all." By her own estimates, Schaap has clocked 13,000 hours at bars over the years, both as a bar regular and a bartender.
Unlike other drinking memoirs by women such as Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and Mary Karr’s Lit, Drinking with Men isn’t a story of addiction and recovery. Instead, it’s a tribute to the memorable bars where Schaap came of age, found a sense of belonging, and honed the craft of storytelling.
From the bar car of a commuter railroad and a dive outside L.A. to a small-town New England tavern, a Dublin pub full of poets, and an East Village bar in the days immediately following 9/11, Schaap chronicles her quest for community.
As a regular at a bar in Vermont, where she went to college, Schaap writes about how she got a "sense of how powerful the fellowship among bar regulars could be, how the people one drank with could, in a way, fill in for family…it was more like an extension of my home than a separate place."
It’s not just the alcohol alone that makes people more open and prone to yarn spinning at bars.
"The condition of being fully relaxed and knowing you’re in a safe, sanctified space that has always been connected to storytelling is liberating," says Schaap. "It’s what we do at bars. We tell each other stories. A bar is a natural stage for that."
Schaap, who tends bar once a week near her home in Brooklyn, has found that technology—especially the proliferation of smartphones—has changed bar culture in various ways.
"People constantly texting or playing Words With Friends doesn’t help them engage with actual people at a bar," says Schaap, who isn’t entirely antitechnology (she’s quite active on Twitter).
"I love Twitter and I love the challenge of saying something pithy and interesting in 140 characters," says Schaap. "Maybe it has trained some of us to be more direct and more economical with our words."
If Schaap had to encapsulate the 269-pages of Drinking With Men into a tweet, it would be: "I came of age as a woman in bars and I found community there."
[Bar Image: Flickr user Phil Hilfiker]