What Women Write About When They Write About Drinking

Drinking Diaries is an essay collection based on the blog of the same name started by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg in 2009. The common thread for the stories within is booze.

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Drinking Diaries is an essay collection based on the blog of the same name started by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg in 2009. The book, published in August, includes writing from an array of notable ladies of the writing world: Pam Houston, Elissa Schappell, Daphne Merkin, Joyce Maynard, and the editors of the book and blog, among others. Essays fall into a few general buckets: Girlhood, Relationships, Culture, Family, and Revelations—the common thread, of course, is booze. On the blog, there's an equally wide spectrum of thematic talk: from abstaining from drinking to sex and drinking to addiction, as well as talk of drinking as celebration, and some items tagged, simply, wine. In the intro of the book its editors explain, "As any woman you know to scratch the surface, and she will find a drinking story. Whether we are drinking it or not, alcohol remains a potent part of our lives, like food and the Internet. The world is saturated with it, steeped in it. We confront alcohol everywhere we go—from home to the office party, date night to ladies' night, happy hour to sports sidelines. Even where alcohol is not present on the surface, it often lies beneath, a palpable absence."

Betsy Morais has written a piece for the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog about a recent reading of the book (that reading was at New York's The Strand; there was alcohol). She considers Drinking Diaries to be a new kind of collection, but perhaps not a better one: "In one essay after the next, women come undone by liquor. This collection stands in opposition to the picture of a plucky gal at cocktail hour, like the ladies from Sex and the City, who proudly subverted old gender stereotypes of propriety around drinking. What the Diaries have to offer is less night on the town, more brutal hangover."

With the hangover there is often shame (we've all been there, which is much of the point), and that's a word that Morais brings up, even as Epstein and Gerszberg explain that they wanted the essays to range from happy to sad; some tragic, others simply letting people know "it's O.K. to love to drink." One could ask, if the tale ends in disaster or regret, even if that feeling has been converted into an amusing personal anecdote, is it O.K.? I think the answer is not a clear yes or no, but rather, dependent on how the story is told, the authenticity of it, and usually whether the writer has learned something or changed. Those are also mitigating factors for what might otherwise be too heartbreaking a tale. At the same time, we occasionally need to read heartbreaking stories.

That drinking shame women tend to feel, as Morais points out, is something of a cultural reality: The woman drinking alone in the kitchen after the kids have gone to bed so as not to be that lonely heart at the bar by herself, pathetic to Don Draper's dashing. Or, I'd add, the woman waking up wondering what she did wrong, even in the awareness that she's experiencing those awful vestigial feelings of hangover regret that are sadly more powerful and sometimes more lasting than the buzz itself.

Morais also bemoans the paucity of stories related to female friendship in the collection, and mentions how a little wine can make things so very effusive and wonderful among the girls: "when the cork is popped, endless adulation and confidences will pour forth," so what's wrong with celebrating that? Instead of that pleasure, she takes away a sense of how she should feel shame for drinking—and then, double whammy, made to feel guilty that she didn't feel enough shame. "In supposedly disclosing the real stories behind women and booze, the book drives home the very stereotypes and gloom that its contributors are trying to write themselves out of, while missing out on alcohol’s essential delights," she writes. "After all, the real pleasures of drinking inhabit the space between one’s lips and the glass—the moments before your next sip, when unexpected encounters and revelations can take place"

This may be true, and it would be great if we could all embrace the pure joy of drinking. But our relationships with drinking are often complicated, and maybe more complicated to express as writers. That the subject matter and plots would veer toward dark instead of light—the hangover and aftermath of regret rather than the moment of intoxication and joy—is particularly of the moment, combining the genuine confessional (like reality TV, early on) with the idea of a kind of female empowerment to "do wrong" that is at the heart of a lot of blogging and memoir-writing these days. We are not perfect, and we don't have to act like it, which is good.  But there are down sides, too; this is something we've talked about before with regard to the most public woman writing about her addiction right now: Cat Marnell. Writing under the influence, and writing about being under the influence, particularly in the seeming new freedom we have as women to do this, are inherently complicated affairs. Old shames are hard to kill—and some of that shame is having opened yourself to the criticism of having said too much, gone too far, been too vocal about your ugly truths.

Most female writers of a certain age have written at least one confessional-type essay about themselves, in some form or fashion, or maybe just a self-deprecating or embarrassing tweet about drinking too much, living too wildly, doing not just the mildly but the egregiously wrong thing, with consequences. Those of us who have have probably also devoured writing from other women on the same subject, even as we feel, maybe, shame for having done so. There's something addictive about putting yourself in that place, about acknowledging behaviors that might have been kept secret before, and that honesty is empowering. It's almost like a support group, not for a group of alcoholics or addicts, but simply for women who are trying to openly live the way they want to, with, maybe, a few glasses of wine now and again—maybe more. Writing about our mistakes can be a kind of accountability to ourselves, as well as a lesson to others. It can also be, at the very base (and best) of it, good, entertaining writing. It can also be healing, sometimes. The key is not to feel shame for behaviors presumed to be bad (like drinking alone—which is, on the occasion, nice and freeing, even in public!) but to be as self-aware in our regrets as we should be in our descriptions of what we've done. Talking about how we drink and when and why is of value, but so is talking about how we write about it and why we need to, if we do.

As the editors explain in the intro, "Our ultimate goal, from the Drinking Diaries blog to this book, has been to take women's stories out of the closet." There's a compulsion for openness, perhaps, less based in what the stories are than about the act of sharing them. The editors and the writers didn't create the shame they feel about drinking; these are things we've grown up to exist with. But if we can be brave enough to tackle them—disasters and joys alike, with a clear eye and with nuance, in our writing—we've likely uncorked no small amount of very good stuff.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.