If you read Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast, you’ll see the strong role that hunger played in his early writing style, how that feeling of wanting made his senses more acute. Perhaps he’s exaggerating the “starving artist” image a bit, but he’s said many times how his writing style emulated that of the painter Matisse; he strove to paint with words a la Matisse, and wondered if Matisse also had an empty stomach while he created his works. I think the same is true for thirst; Hemingway enjoyed drinking, of course, but it was generally a deferred gratification for him.
Hemingway is quoted, mostly on the Web, as saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I don’t buy it. Neither do most Hemingway scholars I’ve talked to. Yes, Hemingway did like to drink, and drank quite a bit. But he generally didn’t mix business with pleasure; drinks came after the work was done. This sort of discipline was important to him. He was an amateur boxer, and just as a prizefighter will go into a training regimen when preparing for a fight, Hemingway would adopt a similar approach. His World War II comrade, Col. Buck Lanham explained:
“Before he wrote a book he’d go into training. That is, he wouldn’t take a drink until noon…. He’d swim forty laps in the morning and forty laps in the afternoon in a huge pool. And he’d look at his watch every two laps, waiting for that clock to move around. When it was eleven on the dot, you could see his major domo come out of the Finca up on the hill and start down with this big tray and a huge shaker of martinis, what he called ‘Montgomerys.’ And old Hemingstein would look at his watch and say, ‘Well, Buck, it’s eleven o’clock. What the hell, it’s twelve in Miami, let’s have a drink.’ And he would. But it was real discipline for him to go that long in the morning without a drink. He was disciplined about his work.” (Interview with C.T. “Buck” Lanham, from The True Gen – An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway By Those Who Knew Him, Denis Brian (New York: Dell Publishing,1988), 187)
You see this throughout his prose. In Islands in the Stream, Roger Davis and Thomas Hudson engage in a somewhat half-hearted back and forth; they want “a quick one,” but refrain because “it isn’t quite twelve.” They eventually cave, since Hudson’s work is done for the day, and Roger, after all, is on vacation. The houseboy appears out of nowhere with a shaker, ready to make martinis. Davis acknowledges that this strict code can be a bitch to adhere to: “It’s an awful nuisance some mornings when a drink would make you feel all right.” Ahhh, the price of professional responsibility.
Hemingway poked fun at his rivals who did partake on the job. During an interview, when asked if it were true that he mixed a pitcher of Martinis before work each morning, Hemingway exclaimed, “Jeezus Christ! … Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?” (Matthew J. Bruccoli, Conversations with Ernest Hemingway (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 168, from an interview with Hemingway by Milt Machlin, originally appearing in Argosy, September, 1958.)
So, if you want to learn more about how to drink like Hemingway, stick to the code, and get your work done first. Unless, of course, you can figure out a way to bend the rules a bit.