THE GREATEST WRITING MAXIM THAT HEMINGWAY NEVER SAID
“Write drunk, edit sober,” it’s an often-quoted bit of advice generally attributed to Ernest Hemingway. This pithy quote is all over the internet. You can buy Write Drunk Edit Sober posters, Write Drunk Edit Sober coffee mugs, and Write Drunk Edit Sober t-shirts, often accompanied by a photo of Papa Hemingway himself.
Write drunk edit sober. Never mind that Hemingway never actually said it. It’s actually a paraphrase of something 1960’s novelist Peter De Vries had his main character say in his 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben.” in that book the character, a famous drunkard poet Gowan McGland, says, “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober…”
You remember De Vries… he’s the guy who said, “I love being a writer… what I can’t stand is the paperwork,” another quote which has often been attributed to everyone from Hemingway to Capote to Groucho Marx. Poor De Vries is the Rodney Dangerfield of American novelists… the Quotation Gods never give him any respect.
Here’s the full McGland utterance:
“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
Write drunk edit sober. To quote Yosemite Bear when he saw the double-rainbow, “What can this MEAN?”
Let’s dissect the chief elements of McGland’s fictional utterance, because there is just so much there:
Okay, most of us have done this, literally, at one time or other. For me, it’s a load of fun but it rarely produces readable copy. The whole Blakean ideal of a derangement of the senses in order to produce Art… it seems to work on some levels for some of us. In my personal experience, getting even a little out of ones head works well for short pieces like poetry, song lyrics, jokes, or story ideas. It doesn’t work at all for me when it comes to writing long stretches of story.
Then again, what intrigues most of us about this whole idea to “Write Drunk Edit Sober” is the realization that Hemingway, De Vries, or whomever we choose to believe said this maxim, was not necessarily trying to say to write drunk in the literal sense, but, rather in a broader metaphorical sense. As Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Get drunk, with wine, with poetry, or with virtue as you please.” Our “drink” may not be drink at all… it could as easily be good food, good company, Love, Romance, Sex, God, or even good old-fashioned sleep-deprivation. In other words, STOP OVERTHINKING THINGS… WRITE without editing yourself. The editor part of you will do his or her job later. Never write and edit at the same time. Even if you have your story all planned out with maps and flow charts and outlines when it’s time to write, then just blow, man. Jam it out. Let yourself get into the white-hot zone of creation. Just jam it out until the words refuse to come out any more. Then put that writing aside ’til at least tomorrow. For now, write like Dionysus/Bacchus on a wine bender, let the rhythm, the music, the colors, the smells, just wash over you like a warm forgiving Sea.
Next, we’ll look at the Apollonian half of the dichotomy. The Soberness. The Editor. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun too. As the saying goes: Writing is Art, Rewriting is Craft.
EDIT SOBER, WAY MORE FUN THAN IT SOUNDS
Alright now, people. This here’s where the rubber meets the road.
You’ve already hammered away at your latest masterpiece, AKA, the WIP, and you wrote it three-sheets to the wind, drunk, plastered, bombed, or at least an approximation thereof (I’ve heard T.M. works great, as does good old-fashioned Speaking in Tongues.) Remember it’s Write Drunk, Edit Sober, so you Wrote Drunk, or at least out-of-your-skull with or without chemical assistance.
So now you’re left with a brilliant-in-spots steaming pile of words.
What to do what to do what to do?
Another Jager Bomb? Later, dude.
Write Drunk, Edit Sober.
It’s coffee time, or Red Bull, or Monster, or Rock Star. But NEVER Diet Rock Star, that offends my sensibilities. I mean, NOBODY ever said, as a child, “When I grow up, I wanna be a DIET Rock Star. Buy me a low cal guitar, Daddy.”
Anyway, it’s time to Edit Sober.
So how do I do that?
Here’s Big Daddy Becker’s Five-Step Program (You were worried I was gonna say Twelve-Step Program, right, ladies? Relax there, Drunky McGee.)
1. READ YOUR COPY ALOUD:
Nothing helps iron out awkward prose like the good old ham-actor’s “Line reading.” You should write they way you speak, anyway, so this is a major step in that direction.
2. CHECK FOR MOVING BLOCKS:
These are paragraphs that make sense, but not necessarily WHERE they are now. Would this paragraph make more sense down the page a click or two, preferably with the other paragraphs that are on the same subject matter. The problem with Writing Drunk, is we have a tendency to “Shoot all over the tree.” So get those disparate threads of thought and put them where they belong. Sing that old Sesame Street song to yourself,”One of these things is not like the others/one of these things does not belong…”
3. CHECK FOR HOMOPHONES:
Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things. Watch for these:
Too, Two, To
The problem with sound-alike words? Spell-check is not gonna catch them because they are actual words which are spelled correctly, but are being used incorrectly.
Which brings me to my next point…
4. RUN A GRAMMAR CHECK:
This is always a good idea. However, there are times when perfect grammar makes for stiff writing. So read your corrected copy aloud again.
5. SLEEP ON IT:
Put your copy aside overnight. Edit it again in a day or two when you’re no longer in the white heat of creation. Have you ever re-read one of your stories weeks, months, or even years later only to be pleasantly surprised at how good it is? I have. I’ve even gone so far as to say, “Wow. I actually WROTE THIS? This is pretty good.”
Letting a piece cool-down overnight also helps you put on your editor hat. I love being an editor. I have often fantasized about being a great editor like Maxwell Perkins, Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, or John Campbell. Using the element of Time to separate your own writing from your churning creative brain allows you to edit your copy as if you were not the writer. Be the sober Max Perkins, let that drunken Thomas Wolfe stay home in North Carolina nursing his hangover while you’re in your Manhattan offices sharpening your blue pencil.
Get to it, baby.