Why Writers Drink — and This One Doesn’t

Alcohol offers a devil’s bargain: inspiration through disinhibition, at the cost of a few I.Q. points, maybe even an early grave. Why are writers, more than other artists, so willing to take that risk?

Mark Dery
Human Parts
Published in
9 min readMay 16, 2022
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, an alcoholic novelist falling off the wagon in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980).

In the small hours of October 25, 2021, I was roused by an agonizing pain just below my sternum. This was no indigestion; I felt as if the leering goblin from The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli was squatting on my torso, walloping it with a meat mallet. Was it a heart attack? The Mother of All Heartburn? The “chestburster” from Alien about to erupt from my thorax, covered in goo and glory?

A blood draw, a sonogram, and a CAT scan later, I was sitting on a gurney in the E.R., waiting for the doctor to render her verdict. Here it came: acute pancreatitis, brought on, most likely, by an overexuberant use of the cocktail shaker. This was sobering news — in the most dispiritingly literal sense, since the only reliable way to minimize the chances of a recurrence was the “immediate cessation of all alcohol intake,” she said, with grim finality. Just like that, the last drink I’d had was the last drink I’d ever have. Now I knew how Marie Antoinette felt when she heard that short, sharp clang at the instant of her abbreviation.

A recurrence was to be avoided at all costs, since acute pancreatitis, left untreated, can lead to chronic pancreatitis, whose calling card is wracking abdominal pain. It gets worse: pancreatitis of the chronic variety greatly increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, which is a death warrant: only 7.2% of patients diagnosed with the disease make it to the five-year mark.

Teetotal! The prospect plunged me into a sepulchral gloom. Still, the Beckettian absurdist in me had to admit the situation had a certain farcical quality: an upstart organ no one but gastroenterologists has ever heard of, an unlovely hunk of plumbing (“spongy, about six to 10 inches long, … shaped like a flat pear or a fish extended horizontally across the abdomen”) that does the menial labor of assisting with digestion, had the power to deprive me of one of life’s few unalloyed pleasures. “Chronic, heavy alcohol