February 14

Mind-Altering Creativity

One of the stereotypes attributed to writers is that we tend to be alcoholics or drug abusers. Hemingway was a drinker. So was Faulkner, Capote, and Dorothy Parker. On the drug side we have Stephen King (who has famously stated he doesn’t remember writing some of his books), Huxley, Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Arguably, these writers were all good at their jobs. We’re still talking about them, even the ones who died decades ago. So does that mean that alcohol and drugs are conducive to creativity? Do they fuel the creative fires? Help to stimulate the imagination? Inspire and motivate?

Those questions are hard to answer. Take King for an example. The guy is obviously a writing machine, but there are many readers who argue he was a better writer when he was coked up and drunk. Personally, I think he’s still a good writer and can tell a good story, but there is a difference between his older output and his current one. But he’s also older, more mature, and has a different take on life after his accident. I don’t think I can agree that it was getting sober that changed his writing. We all grow and evolve as writers.

For myself, I don’t think it helps. I do enjoy having a glass of wine or two (or maybe a shot of tequila) when I sit down to write, but I’m not getting drunk. I’m a sipper. And I find that when I’m writing at night a glass of wine helps to relax me. However, I don’t think it necessarily stimulates my imagination or improves my writing skills.

If anything, I’ve found that too much wine and I can’t concentrate on what I’m writing. It becomes a struggle to get the words to come out right, to get a coherent thought on the page. It’s an exercise in futility. I’ve tried it a few times over the years, but I’ve learned my lesson. I write sober. Or sober-ish.

But having experienced this, I can’t help but wonder how so many writers can write great stories while under the influence. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his amazing (but unfinished) poem “Kubla Khan” while under the influence of opium. Robert Louis Stevenson apparently wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while on a six-day cocaine bender. In a 1970s interview with High Times magazine, Susan Sontag admits that she used speed when she wrote.

Does this mean that being inebriated works for these writers? Would they have been as productive and as creative if they were sober? And how should a modern writer interpret this?

As I noted above, I can’t do it. It handicaps me. But maybe there are writers out there, maybe even you, who find this helps them. Maybe it can break down inhibitions or help to make the writer less self-conscious. Maybe it can stimulate creativity for some people.

I can understand being self-conscious when writing. I used to be that way myself. And I know that alcohol and drugs can make people feel braver than they really are, make them more likely to take risks. So yeah, I can see how it might help.

But in the end, doesn’t that just make it a crutch? Is false bravado just as good an genuine bravado? Doesn’t the writer end up needing that crutch all the time, and if so, doesn’t that actually handicap them instead of helping?

I know, a lot of questions, but I’m curious about this topic and what other writers think about it. I may have to research this and see what I can find. And feel free to share your opinion either here in the comments section or catch me on social media.


Copyright 2021 Richard Bist. All rights reserved.

Posted 2020-02-14 by RB in category "Creativity", "Writing

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