Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel
Where do you start your story?

Being drunk, being sober: which should you be when you're writing?

At an event recently, the poet Rowan Williams was reading some of his favourite poems by other poets, and he was asked what he looks for - hopes for - when he comes to a poem for the first time. For someone who's so clever and so erudite (not the same thing) his answer was wonderfully simple: "I hope to go into a poem sober, and come out a little bit drunk."

And I know exactly what he means. I'm not a poet, and I don't read poetry in an organised, professional way. But there are always one or two slim volumes hanging around on my desk, because that dip into the cauldron seems to open my physical ears and eyes, and the eyes and ears of my imagination and my intellect too. A good poem, the right poem for the moment, can work on me in three minutes, when even Wolf Hall takes a morning to do the same and then frustrates me because I have to put it down.

Williams' words, of course, mirror the famous dictum that one should "Write drunk, edit sober". And I do mean mirror: it's the other way round. Inevitably, that one's often credited to Hemingway but a quick Google showed that it's so not as simple as that. If this website is to be believed, those words were put into the mouth of a character based on Dylan Thomas by the novelist Peter de Vries, in Reuben, Reuben. And what he actually says is:

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.

If we descend to the Facebook level of analysis, the same point gets made with more humour, in more graphic form. Mind you, for every would-be creative person who believes that all they have to do is dream and dance, there's a would-be creative person who believes that all they have to do is analyse the market and develop a USP; refusing to recongise the essentially Dionysian nature of creative work is in some ways even more deluded than thinking you need nothing but Dionysus. Which is what Auden was on about, as I blogged here, when he wrote to the young John Cornford:

Real poetry originates in the guts and only flowers in the head. But one is always trying to reverse the process and work one's guts from one's head.

The obvious conclusion is that you should write drunk, to get at the mad, crazy, drunken, Dionysian dream, and edit sober to find the sane, structured, sober, Apollonian orderliness that your crazy first draft needs to become something which actually works. But this isn't as simple as that either. As anyone who's written a sonnet knows, it can be the cool, mathematical demands of form which jump your standard-issue, default ways of thinking and writing into a place you'd never have found by consciously free-thinking. And when you're revising, if you're going to make it better, not worse, you need to stay in touch with that magical, original sense of this story as a living thing: you can only register every tiny creak or clunk, every split in the dream, and decide what to do about it, if you're still at least partly in the dream world.

So it doesn't quite work to assume that you must only be either drunk, or sober: and luckily in metaphorical terms it's possible to be both at once. The difficulty - the challenge - is to handle Apollo and Dionysus as a team because they're not a natural pair to drive in double harness. Maybe the image we need isn't of a chariot-and-pair, but of riding one horse, and leading the other: one your main method of transport, but the other will affect how you work, and needs taking account of. And next week, it'll be the other way round.