Writing drunk rarely works. Writing hungover, on the other hand, can be surprisingly effective. A bastard behind the eyes can still the frivolous part of the brain – the part that wanders off and watches cats on YouTube, or scrolls through Vice’s Dos and Don’ts – and allow the serious part to take control. Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s compendium of working methods of the ‘great minds’, is full of writers who spent their nighttimes getting wasted, then got up and almost immediately started producing.
Joyce would rise late, after an inebriated evening spent belting out songs at the local boozer, and get his writing done in the early afternoon ‘when the mind is at its best’. Cheever did much the same, but got out of bed earlier. Hemingway would stay up boozing but be at his typewriter by six the following morning. He famously wrote standing up: because his leg had been injured in the war, he said, but also to stop himself drifting off. Francis Bacon used to paint hungover, though not because his mind was sufficiently numb to be able to concentrate, but because it was revved up: ‘I often like working with a hangover,’ he said, ‘because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.’
Most of the characters in Daily Rituals are either ‘numbers’ – numb-ers, that is – or ‘revvers’. Patricia Highsmith was an extreme number. She would hit the vodka before starting work, ‘not to perk her up’, her biographer Andrew Wilson noted, ‘but to reduce her energy levels, which veered toward the manic’. She also surrounded herself with pet snails, in the hope that some of the slowness would rub off. Herman Melville was a number too, but did it with cows: before starting work he would feed his cow a pumpkin – he lived on a 160-acre farm in Massachusetts – ‘for it’s a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws – she does it so mildly & with great sanctity.’
At the tamest end of the revver spectrum are the dozens of maestri who couldn’t get going without a cup of coffee. There are so many variations of ‘x got up, had a cup of coffee and sat down at his desk to work’ in Daily Rituals that it can feel, at times, a bit like Queneau’s Exercices de style as reimagined by a breakfast fetishist. At the more extreme end are people like Stravinsky, who used to pull handstands to get the blood to his head; Benjamin Franklin, who used to sit naked in his room for half an hour or so each morning, taking his bracing ‘air bath’; and Sartre, who would, every day, consume twenty Corydane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin fashionable in 1950s Paris, now banned. The recommended daily dose was two tablets.
Whether you work better sped up or slowed down, the important thing, Nicholson Baker advises, is to change the ritual now and then. If the daily routine becomes too routine it stops working: ‘You could say to yourself, “From now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.” And if that feels novel and fresh it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work.’ Baker is one of the minority in Daily Rituals whose rituals have had to contend with the daily grind of a 9 to 5. His first novel, The Mezzanine, about an office worker’s lunch break, was written in his lunch breaks.