Under the influence, a novelist is born

Posted: June 01, 2012

You need not be a neurologist to know that habit and memory are connected. If you can’t remember something today that you did yesterday, it won’t be habit-forming tomorrow. I wonder about that connection because of a curious recurring experience I had over the past year.

I should first note that at my incredibly fortunate age of 87, many of my habits are as strong today as they were when they began in my youth. As an example of a habit’s long-distance vigor, I still keep my shoes shined as I did for an Army sergeant’s inspections when I was 18 and in basic infantry training during World War II.

Settling into adulthood, I developed habits just as durable. One of them is having a drink before dinner: a scotch on the rocks with a splash of soda. Over a half-century of lawyering, I welcomed that drink because of its rapidly relaxing effect after a stressful day in court. On stress-free days, the drink was still appealing, since its taste was as inviting as its sedation.

Throughout those decades, I never had a sipping experience like the one that began about a year ago. As I was easing into a scotch, I imagined my voice asking what quickly became a nagging question throughout the rest of the drink. It was: "If I had another scotch, could I write the Great American Novel?"

As the months passed, that question came during a drink but at no other time. This grew worrisome, but not because I couldn’t answer the question. On the contrary, the scotch gave me an infusion of confidence strong enough to respond: "Of course I could write it."

Rather, I began worrying that, because the question came only during a drink, I might have become a drunken geezer. But I quickly dismissed that because of convincing evidence that I was sober. For example, during and after a drink, I could walk a straight line to the dinner table without going off course more than a foot or so. Most of the time, I could also remember my home address and phone number. Furthermore, I usually knew that the year of my birth was 1925, not 1952.

Once convinced I had no drinking problem, what still troubled me was my memory’s inability to retrieve what it has retained so well for most of my life. It made no sense that I was asking myself such a question when I would never write a novel, because nonfiction has always been my preference. It was as if my stumbling memory had kicked aside a literary habit as deep-seated as my shoe shining. My mid-drink voice should have been asking whether a second drink might spur me to write nonfiction of the stature of, say, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

That led me to wonder if alcohol can either create that kind of literary genius or apply it if it’s waiting to be put to work. I toyed with the idea of learning what modern scholars think about this.

Before I could find a reliable answer, this question pressed ahead of them all: Can alcohol create the delusion that I could write a classic work of nonfiction?

Without a bit of research, I knew the answer: Alcohol can certainly produce such a delusion.

From that revealing moment until this day, I have never again heard a voice asking about possibly having another scotch so I could write the Great American Novel or anything else. Indeed, I haven’t heard that voice even when I’m about to finish a second pre-dinner martini.

Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author.

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