Does substance abuse make you a better writer?

Anyone seriously interested in becoming a writer should make a habit out of studying the lives of successful authors. If you do that you’ll inevitably notice that a lot of famous authors have been alcohol and drug abusers.  This raises the question, does substance abuse make you a better writer? For a lot of reasons, the short answer is, it can, but there’s no substitute for solid technique, and the added creative boost that substance abuse can give you comes at a great cost.

Consider that for every successful drug abusing author there are dozens (if not hundreds) of authors who succeeded without the help of mind altering chemicals. More importantly, for every successful drug abusing author there are countless drug abusing would-be writers who merely ended up depraved, unsung drug addicts. So statistically speaking, if you shoot for that star you’re most likely to end up free falling into oblivion. Furthermore, for all we know, those successful addict/writers may have become successful writers without drugs. So we can’t empirically prove it was the drugs that made them successful.

Another point to consider is the damage drugs do. Sure, Phillip K. Dick was able to write over 50 novels with the help of amphetamines, and Jack Kerouac achieved legendary success from tales of his bohemian lifestyle, but both of those authors died relatively young. Hunter S. Thompson earned a cult following from his (admittedly exaggerated) tales of debauchery, but his personal life was a train wreck of heart ache that estranged his loved ones and led him to commit suicide.  Professional success is a means to an end: a better life. If the cost of professional success is personal failure then the cost/benefit analysis doesn’t add up.

Just to drive the point home, Robert Frost once said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” Well, anyone who is an addict is an addict first and whatever else second. You can’t be a writer/addict; you can only be an addict/writer. So even if you shoot for that star and make it, your achievement will be bitter sweet. Kurt Vonnegut probably said it best when he said, “Alcohol is the biggest problem in the life of any alcoholic.”

Having said all that, the fact that there are enough professionally successful drug abusing authors to establish a pattern means that pattern is worth analyzing  especially if that pattern (mis)leads young authors into believing drugs will help them. So it needs to be asked, why are so many professionally successful authors addicts? I’ll attempt to answer that question, but understand that while I’ll try to base my answers on evidence and/or logic, my answers aren’t based on a comprehensive longitudinal, peer-reviewed stack of psychological case studies, but if you take this for what it is you’ll be able to gleam some useful insight from it.

In order to unravel this mystery the first question you have to ask yourself is why anyone becomes and addict in the first place. This is a subject that countless case studies have been done on, and there’s no single answer. However, there are some common factors such as genetics, mental illness, peer pressure, depression, stress, abuse, chronic pain, unfulfilment, and the fact that drugs are inherently addictive and euphoric.

Even being a “highly sensitive person,” which isn’t an inherently negative condition, still slightly increases the odds of becoming an addict. However, the combination of character traits and life style needs of highly sensitive people are arguably the same traits and needs that predispose one to becoming a good writer. Many (though not all) of the legitimately negative life factors that lead anyone to use drugs could just as easily predispose them to being a good writer (more on that later). So it could be that many successful addict/writers were already on the path to becoming good writers before they stepped off onto the path to addiction, which is all the more tragic, because all the negative life factors that people try to manage with euphoric substance abuse can be managed with therapy, exercise, yoga, social interaction, work, etc. freeing the individual from the shackles of addiction to focus on writing with a clear mind.

If you can identify the positive patterns in the lives of successful writers you can emulate those patterns without focusing on the single factor of addiction, and the positive factors that lend one to becoming a good writer aren’t particularly profound. On the simplest level all you need is proper technical training and motivation. Many, many, many wealthy authors of sitcoms and romance novels were motivated simply by the desire for money and fame. So while quotes like, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” have given writers a reputation for being transcendental monks who access a higher plane of consciousness and channel their profound insights onto paper for the edification of the unenlightened masses, the truth is that writing can be a job just like any other job, and you don’t need drugs to show up to work every day. You just need to understand your customers and produce a product that they want to buy. To that end you’d be better off reading 10 “how to write fiction” books than blowing your family’s savings on drugs.

Having said that, sitcoms, romance novels and pulp fiction have a reputation for being “low art.” They may be a useful tool for future historians to judge the cultures that produced them, but they rarely advance human understanding. In fact, they can arguably hold society back.  On the other hand, many insightful, award winning books have been written by authors who were high as a kite at the time, and there’s some empirical evidence to suggest that drug use can increase creativity. This raises the question, what gives?

The answer to that question lies in how ideas are created.  That’s a philosophical question that would be difficult to empirically prove, but my own personal writing is based on the theory that ideas are bound by the same laws as the natural universe: You can’t get something from nothing, and the only way to get new “things” is by combining existing ones in different ways.

This theory explains why drug use (and genetics, mental illness, peer pressure, depression, stress, abuse, chronic pain, unfulfilment, and euphoria) have the potential to facilitate creativity. Before I get into that though, I need to establish a control group to compare it to. It’s a fairly well-established fact that humans are cognitive misers who are born on mental autopilot. This is why sheeple exist, and why in fact, we are all sheeple. We just mimic what the people around us are doing and sleep walk through life without putting too much critical thought into analyzing the universe around us, and we tend to abuse and ostracize anyone who has stepped outside of our comfort zone and explored novel ideas.

Isaac Newton pointed out that an object in motion will remain in motion until it interacts with another object or force. People are the same. Wind us up and let us go, and we’ll keep waving our country’s flag, working at miserable jobs and consuming pop culture until we die without ever stopping to acknowledge the grandeur and mystery of existence… as long as we never have a traumatic experience to wake us up from our walking slumber.

Charles Bukowski, an unapologetic drunkard and brilliant writer, once said that his abusive father beat the pretense out of him. World travelers frequently acknowledge how being immersed in a foreign culture will strip away your assumptions about life. Psychologists have noted that our personalities tend to be set in stone by our early twenties unless we have a near death experience or otherwise confront/reassess our mortality during a mid-life crisis. Many successful writers come from military backgrounds where they were forced to look the devil in the eyes (an experience unlikely to occur in suburbia). Even if you’re trapped in suburbia you’ll still be able to see outside your bubble if you commit yourself (willingly or unwillingly) to a lifetime of academic study. Extensive education combined with abject poverty and/or meditation can be a powerful combination to inspire outside-the-box thinking. Or you could just study how to think.

All of these factors can force you to perceive new insight into the nature of human existence and combine ideas that you would have otherwise had no motivation or opportunity to combine living in suburbia working in a cubicle. Even if you do live in suburbia and work in a cubicle, if you wrote about your boring, uninspired life and then sold your book in a country that’s completely different than yours then your work would appear insightful and inspiring because it’s so far outside the experience of your readers. So your average Italian reader might find Louis L’Amour’s work more awe inspiring than your average Texan.

In order to take advantage of all of these enlightening opportunities you really have to go out of your way, and since humans are born on autopilot you’re designed to resist going out of your way. Even if you do go out of your way your brain will still resist combining new ideas in novel ways. However, you may have relatively easy access to mind altering drugs that will override the inertia of your humdrum life and force your brain to combine the ideas that are already in your mind in new ways. If you do enough drugs your life will spiral out of control further pushing you outside your comfort zone leaving you in a new place with a new vantage point on your old life…which you could have just as easily experienced simply by going on an extended vacation, getting a new job or joining a social club.

Different drugs affect the brain in different ways, and if you understand how drugs affect the brain you can predict the effect they’ll have on the thoughts you pour out into your writing. You can even look at someone else’s art and potentially identify the drugs they used to “achieve” their results.

I’ll go through a short list of common drugs and discuss the positive and negative effects they can have on combining ideas in novel ways. The conclusion to be drawn from the information below is that, yes, drugs can cause you to think thoughts that you wouldn’t have thought otherwise. To that end, you can say that drugs have the potential to inspire creativity, but you could achieve those same ends with non-poisonous tactics.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant. It makes your brain work faster for a short period of time. Caffeine is a popular drug for artists in all mediums because it overrides the need for willpower to keep you working. However, you’ll only be able to work for short stints before your brain burns out. Granted, you can overcome this problem with more caffeine, but you can only push your body so hard before it crashes.

Cigarettes

Nicotine will give your mind a small boost, and when combined with caffeine can keep your working at unnaturally high speeds. Smoking also forces you to take regular breaks from writing where you can collect your thoughts and rest your eyes. On the downside you’re going to die a slow, horrible death from cancer.

Marijuana

Marijuana speeds up your brain, and forces you to combine random ideas. The idea for “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was conceived on marijuana, and since marijuana also gives you the munchies, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles favorite food was pizza. Marijuana is very common among artists, and since it’s neither addictive nor deadly there’s not much bad to say about it. However, any mind altering substance is bad for children whose brains are still developing, and even though marijuana has some medicinal benefits, you can only kill so many brain cells before you get dumber.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant. It shuts down your higher level thinking skills so that your brain temporarily operates on its primitive core. In other words, it quite literally causes temporary retardedness. The “upside” of this is that for a short time your brain operates on a raw, emotional level. Sometimes humans are too smart for our own good. Alcohol strips those thoughts away and leaves you in a state where you think about life in raw, passionate, simplified terms. Great writing strips away the pretences of society and reflects the bare truths of life. So it’s unsurprising that so many writers would turn to alcohol as liquid inspiration, but it comes with great cost. In the short term you’re more likely to write garbled, meaningless, angst-ridden bullshit. In the long run you’ll inevitably get addicted, become depressed, go broke and die young.

Cocaine

If caffeine is like putting premium gasoline in your car engine, cocaine is like injecting Nitrous Oxide into your fuel line. You’ll be able to produce more work than is naturally possible in the short term. You’ll also have a lot of fun, but it’ll cause permanent brain damage. You wouldn’t supercharge your computer for a year if it meant having a broken computer for the rest of your life. Talk to some old school coke heads before using cocaine. Most of the coke heads that I’ve met strongly, passionately discourage young people from using cocaine for the first time even though they admit they fully intend to do coke themselves the next chance they get, which should scare you.

L.S.D., psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine

The effects of psychedelics are notoriously hard to describe. One effect that they have is to project your internal psychological state into your external perception of reality. If you’re in a bad psychological state you’ll see and feel bad things, hence “a bad trip.” If you’re in a positive psychological state you’ll see and feel positive things. That, in and of itself, is enough to force you to perceive reality in novel ways. Psychedelics also strip away inhibitors that prevent you from being overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation that bombards your body every moment of your life. The effect is that you’re strapped to a rocket blasting forward through the universe at the speed of thought. This can be an exhilarating and/or terrifying experience that will undoubtedly give you a new frame of reference to measure future experiences by. Psychedelics also activate a part of your brain that causes you to see the universe through a more mathematical lens. I can’t explain the experience much beyond that, but to suffice it to say that it will force you to make mental connections that would have otherwise been unlikely or impossible. If this sounds productive and tempting, be away that it comes at the cost of your sanity. Psychedelics hit your brain with the force of a sledge hammer; it’ll break you out of the mental mold you were born into, but what’s been broken can never be unbroken.

M.D.M.A., ecstasy, heroin, opium

Your brain naturally produces endorphins that make you feel happy. Drugs that supercharge the production of endorphins or eliminate your body’s ability to filter those endorphins make you feel happier than is naturally possible. The result is that you’ll feel happier than you’ve ever felt in your entire life; you’ll become euphoria. Once you reach that state there’s no motivation to go anywhere else. So you’ll just lay on the floor celebrating how wonderful your carpet is, even if it’s covered in piss and ash, and you’ll have little to no motivation left to write in that state. Once you come back from Shangri La you’ll know that no car, no house, no lover, no job, no vacation could ever possibly match the level of happiness you can achieve simply by giving a drug dealer $30. Writing takes concentration and dedication. Using powerful euphoric drugs is extremely unlikely to lead to great works of literature. It is a life path that is extremely likely to lead to destitution and death.

Crack and meth

Don’t do crack or meth. Ever. Not even once.

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2 responses to “Does substance abuse make you a better writer?

  • Anonymous

    Great read… I don’t believe either that weed kills brain cells but everything else is absolutely spot on… from a recovering addict

    Like

  • Creat

    Wow… what a surprisingly well done article. And it is mostly even-handed instead of reactionary.

    One quibble though: “you can only kill so many brain cells before you get dumber.” Should be in the alcohol section.

    Cheers!

    Like

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