Do You Need Alcohol to Be a Writer?

Lisa Martens

Short answer: No.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

There are many stereotypes about writers—a lot of it is influenced by Bukowski, Faulkner, Thompson, you know...gonzo-style. The idea of the cool writer, the rockstar writer, the unstable genius writer, the writer who does his best work while drunk.

It is true that if you dive head first into your passions, you'll live a different life from the norm. I can believe that people who go all-in on their art tend to live by the beat of their own drum. But does this different life have to include intoxication?

Combining alcohol with writing seems to feed into some stereotypes about writers, and maybe even artists as a whole. But is it true? Does alcohol give credibility to writing, to art?

I definitely subscribed to this for some time. When I wrote my thesis, I used a combination of rum and Red Bull to keep myself going. I worked all night at frantically complete a project that I had a year to complete.

And it was funny! Isn't that what genius writers did—Wait until the last minute, then go on a chemical-fueled rampage of sudden productivity? Wasn't the old adage "Write drunk, edit sober"? (By the way, Hemingway never actually said this...he may have actually believed the exact opposite.)

In graduate school, I was encouraged and applauded for drinking while writing. Years later, a friend of mine warned me against drinking to fuel my writing—He had diabetes and drank heavily for most of his life, and his drinking was negatively impacting his health, his writing, and his relationships. It was no longer "cool" and he found himself recycling the same ideas over and over, unable to expand.

There are some stereotypes about writers...and maybe even about artists in general...that contribute to this notion:

1. Great writers must be in a constant state of pain and suffering, otherwise their work is not "interesting." This is the idea that great artists must have wounded pasts. While it can be true that pain drives people to express themselves creatively, this idea can also prevent people from healing if they tie their identity to their trauma, as people with trauma issues like PTSD often do.

Channelling your pain into art is a great skill, and can help people recover from trauma. We often hear about people who experienced a terrible event and then came out of it stronger and more creative. But is it necessary to constantly be in a state of pain to achieve this?

The problem becomes when people think they cannot heal, because then they will no longer be interesting. If they have their act together—if they're sober, healthy, and well-adjusted—then that means they're no longer artists.

However, everyone experiences struggle. We do not have to go searching for it. Whatever issues you're dealing with at the moment can be channeled through art...and it doesn't have to be a tragedy to make your work interesting.

Similarly, one's best work does not come out when someone is in a state of constant pain. By keeping ourselves in this state to give our work validity, and clinging to catastrophic events or using them to shape our childhood, we ultimately limit our potential and creativity.

A person in a constant state of pain cannot plan well for the future, cannot edit well, cannot set up a social calendar, or do their best work.

2. Great writers must be misunderstood, and not be "mainstream." I know many great writers who don't want to publish their work online, because that is not what their idols did. But how do we know that Emily Dickinson wouldn't have used social media? I feel like her style would have worked well on Twitter and Tumblr, and maybe even as inspirational Instagram posts. This stagnant energy is similar to the idea that one must be in a state of constant suffering, and must never change.

3. Alcohol and drugs can expand the mind to new horizons and improve art in ways sobriety never could. Writers love to believe that the mind can be expanded with drugs, and many intellectuals used drugs to enhance their work. Huxley comes most readily to mind, even though in his work Brave New World, it's actually the seductive escapism of drugs that traps humanity in a hedonistic cycle. Microdosing, which has become more and more popular, may have benefits, but can aggravate or worsen mental health conditions like anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

So do we need to keep ourself in a state of mental suffering to be writers?

Being moderately intoxicated does seem to enhance productivity, but heavy alcohol use negatively impacts productivity and health. If you've ever sat down to write a book, you know that you need full focus to edit. Creativity alone is not enough to be a writer. With any art form, discipline and focus is eventually required. Creativity without focus is just a vision, a hallucination, a fragment of the mind, a nothing. It takes real work to bring visions in your mind to life.

The truth is: Creativity is just a small part of the writing process, and even if a small amount of drinking helps to contribute to that, it doesn't mean that drinking in itself is essential to being a writer. Some people are inspired creatively by going for a walk, listening to music, or reading other writers. Deep breathing and meditation can also be quite inspirational. Dreams are another source of inspiration for many.

Having an idea is but one small part of being a writer. Writers also need to edit, to organize, and to make decisions on how their work will be published, where, and when. With social media, writers have more power to reach large audiences...if they're strategic about it. And the kind of higher-order thinking that planning, editing, and self-promotion require is hampered by alcohol, not helped.

Alcohol is just one instrument that can help a person be creative, and drinking heavily does not necessarily make one a better writer or artist. Maybe, we can begin to dispel the notion that artists must be constantly suffering.

Perhaps, then, the adage should be "Channel your pain into art while healing, and brainstorm drunk...or while meditating, or during a walk...and write and edit sober." It's not as catchy, for sure. It's not a rockstar life.

However, it will be a more productive one.

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