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Do drugs, drink aid literary creativity or destory it?

February 5, 2010

Ayn Rand, tweaking her brains out?

Life magazine has posted a striking slide show, titled Famous Literary Drunks and Addicts, that raises anew questions about the relation of drugs, drink and creativity.

Writers, poets and artists, a fragile lot to begin with, have always been prey to the  notion that inspiration can be found in a bottle, or a needle, or an opium bowel. But can it?

Possibly the greatest thing ever said about drugs and alcohol is Lily Tomlin’s remark, “Reality is a crutch for people who can’t deal with drugs.”

And the most glamorous might be Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous lines, “My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends / It gives a lovely light!” It’s hard to image a more lovely justification for destructive drinking.

As a youth I bought into the prevailing counterculture “truth” that drugs open  a “door to perception.” William Blake was widely quoted as justification: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Maybe so, I realized in sober middle age, but the ditches are littered with the corpses of those who didn’t make it.

Life‘s terrific collection of pictures is worth visiting if only for the outstanding images. Familiar figures — Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, John Berryman, Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin, Kingsley Amis, Jack London–are shown in little-known pictures. Others — Baudelaire, Fitzgerald, Poe — are presented in their iconic images. It’s an effective mix.

A few surprises: Ayn Rand was addicted to speed? Louisa May Alcott was an opium addict? Another surprise: Of the 36 writers represented, the overwhelming majority sought inspiration or escape in that least exotic of substances, alcohol.

Some died well before their time (Jack Kerouac, James Agee, Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald), while others saw their talents rot under the constant application of drugs and drink (Hemingway, Truman Capote, Kingsley Amis, Hunter S. Thompson).

A surprising number quit drinking or using drugs, either on their own or with help, thereby regaining their artistic powers. Among them: John Cheever, Dashiell Hammett, J.P. Donleavy, Jean Cocteau, Eugene O’Neill.

Inspired by Life’s gallery, I found a couple of websites discussing the pros and cons of alcohol and drug use among writers. Sean French, in a 2000 essay at The New Statesman, examines the issuse with wit and insight. At Talent Development Resources, you can find a wealth of provocative quotes on the subject.

For example: “What I need is clarity. Even not having enough sleep is a problem for me, never mind doing any kind of drugs.” -Film director David Cronenberg.

“Smoking grass eased the strain for me.” — Poet Maya Angelou.

“For Art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indespensable: intoxication.” — Friederich Nietzsche

So what do you think? Do drugs and alcohol aid literary creativity or destroy it?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2010 1:40 pm

    Well I am writing now let me see. See. SEEEE. As WC Fields once said. I only smoke when I drink. And I drink all the time.

    I think you could be having a drink, some types of drugs and some thing comes to light. I do not think you could drink or drug to write. I do not think your writing hours could be using drugs. To interfering. Both would interfere to much Long term would be a disaster. For some it was.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 5, 2010 3:46 pm

      Some pretty heavy users have produced some pretty good books. Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, Kerouac, Millay and many others.

  2. Tommy permalink
    February 5, 2010 1:54 pm

    “I would still her forebodings by telling her that men of genius conceived their best projects when drunk; that the most majestic constructions of philosophic thought were so derived” – from a book that makes perfect sense

    “High Priest” had a quote about eating magic mushrooms that I remember vaguely (imagine that). The quote related how anyone who had never tried Psilocybin mushrooms attitude and understanding was biased and thought useless by ignorance and that the understanding and attitude of anyone who had partaken was colored, biased and thought useless by the act itself.

    I really like the Nietzsche quote, yet intoxication of what kind? I have learned to become intoxicated with reality. Still intoxication, no?

    Recently, I have read a couple of interesting articles on the effect psychological conditions (manic-depression in particular) have had on authors of import.

    I detected an ever increasing anxiety and frustration in Hunter S. Thompson’s writings as the years progressed. Sad, really.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 5, 2010 3:51 pm

      I’m thinking, no, not still intoxication. States of exaltation got the honest way — hard work, dedication, exercise, romantic love, meditation, the experience of art — are authentic, while drug- or alcohol-induced euphoria is a synthetic illusion. Here’s more from Milich:

      “You know, St. Ignatius said, ‘Whom the devil would tempt, he tells not a lie, but a lesser truth.’ Drugs are a lesser truth, and I believe that they’re– Jung said that spirits– there’s spirit, and there are spirits. And that spirits are offered to us by the devil as a shortcut to a reaching out to God, but that the in-dwelling with the spirit is achieved by humility.”

  3. rachel permalink
    February 5, 2010 1:56 pm

    Louisa May Alcott was a big surprise to me too.

    Like you, Mr Mabe, I used to think that drinking, drugs, and depression were all part of what made a an artist, well…an artist. Now I know this to be wrong. I think that getting sober can ruin a persons creativity only if they don’t work through it. But the fact of the matter is that the person was creative before they went off the deep end and I think that if they are willing to work through it, work past their fears they will come into their creativity and talent in a way that they cannot even possibly imagine. I can only see that being sober would help foster productivity not hinder it. To say that getting sober kills the creative genius is to let fear speak.

    What about Raymond Carver? He got sober and wrote some of his best work afterwards. I was shocked that he in the slide show. Now this isn’t a great poem (but I don’t think that Carver would have said it was great either) but it says what he needed to say and it says it rather perfectly:


    No other word will do. For that’s what it was.Gravy.
    Gravy, these past ten years.
    Alive, sober, working, loving, and
    being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
    ago he was told he had six months to live
    at the rate he was going. And he was going
    nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
    somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
    After that it was all gravy, every minute
    of it, up to and including when he was told about,
    well, some things that were breaking down and
    building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
    he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
    I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
    expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 5, 2010 5:46 pm

      I agree that drugs and alcohol are not conducive to creativity. I similarly reject the notion that in order to be creative you need to be a little crazy — or a lot. I believe creativity consists primarily of hard, consistent, dedicated work. Discipline. Putting your butt in the chair every day. Drugs and alcohol don’t really mix with discipline. But that’s my opinion.

      But if I’m right, then the idea that people are most creative when they are young may be a myth, too. Perhaps it’s not that the fires of creativity subside with age, but that, for many, many artists, they are eroded by drugs and drink.

    • Tommy permalink
      February 22, 2010 2:33 pm

      I like this poem from Carver.

      In Cheever’s story “Falconer” Farragut proclaims the consciousness of the opium eater is broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction. So maybe, just maybe it’s not the act of taking a substance that leads to heightened creativity it is the addiction to the substance that is the driving force behind wonderful touching timeless works of art. Maybe?

      I am really enjoying this author (Cheever). The word great or fantastic could be used. I also dislike the work as much as I enjoy, which to me is what makes it great.

  4. February 5, 2010 1:58 pm

    The Nietzsche quote is misleading, as he tends to be, since he hardly allowed himself a break.

    By intoxication he was referring to more to a state of self-intensifiation, near-mystic ecstasy.
    Something along the lines of what Baudelaire meant with: Be drunken, always. That’s all that matters…With what? Wine, women, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But be drunken

    Baudelaire, of course, did not share Nietzsche’s ascetic tastes and indulged in wine, women, poetry, and then some. I think the larger question of how to intoxicate and how good is it for the Art(ist) depends on the times and also the particular temperaments in question. There is Rimbaud’s famous pronouncement:

    “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious and systematic derangement of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence.”

    Yet, this radical conception of the artist as testing site could not be more contrary to the temperaments of say a Rilke or Kafka, however the consequences are more or less the same.

    I think many writers use booze or drug to help themselves write – court the muse/quiet the demons – but while it might work for a while, the work eventually suffers. In her insightful essay on writer’s block Joan Acocella observes that ‘American writers today drink much less than their predecessors [Fitzgerald, Faulkner, O’Neill, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Crane, Tennessee Williams, etc..] Acocella asks a psychoanalyst what writers do instead to take the edge off, and the answer is a reflection of the times:

    “Exercise,” he says.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 6, 2010 12:38 am

      As always, Yahia, your grace and erudition are a boon to our discussion, and this time you are funny besides. A bonus.

      Everything you say is correct, and everything Nietzsche says is right, and Baudelaire, and Rilke, and Joan Acocella’s therapist. The truth is that no one path of artistic expression exists. Did Emily Dickinson partake of Baudelaire’s version of drunkenness? But all — at least most — artists do share one characteristic: They mistake their own experiences, their own process, for universal principles.

      Baudelaire is singing his song, mistaking it for everyone’s.

      One problem with seeking the muse in drugs or especially alcohol is that they essentially numb the spirit rather than enliven it. A second is that even when a drug delivers a peak imaginative experience, it’s a short cut, which cheapens the artist and any art he or she might produce from it. And finally, drugs and alcohol have been desacralized. If we drank with great ritual and faith, as the Greeks did, then perhaps the occasional binge could be uplifting. If we took hallucinogens as the Native Americans did, in religious rituals, one experience might provide inspiration for a lifetime.

      And finally, I object to the entire idea that people need to “take the edge off.” Off what? Of the creation or consumption of art? No, what we need the edge take off of is our denatured, quotidian daily life, if not our shrunken and reduced sense of self.

      I submit that making and partaking of art is just the transcendent, ennobling experience the human spirit most needs, short, of course of a literally transcendent one involving, you know, God. And for that, no end of traditional religion, nontraditional spiritual practice, and nonreligious spiritual experience is available. I hear that in England even atheists are acknowledging the basic human requirement for some kind of spirituality, and now practice something called “mystical atheism.” Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

      In this context, I never tire of recommending John Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, which sounds like a self-help book, but in fact is anything but. A research psychologist at the University of Virginia, Haidt is that rare atheist who, recognizing spirituality as a basic attribute of the human creature, respects religion, and writes about it clearly and thoughtfully.

  5. February 6, 2010 11:08 am

    I think some artists can work and then at night or later in the day could drink. I know of only one who could do both . I picture him in a dark room. Quill pen in hand. Smoke rising from his home made cigarette. Drinking two sips for every word. Even the black cat was getting nervous as he snorted and wailed about life. Storming outside, but the black cat with the golden eyes could take no more and would flee until morning. His name was Poe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 6, 2010 12:58 pm

      Poe died at 40, after being found stumbling and delirious on the streets of Baltimore, so I don’t know how well he was able to do both. Plus, according to Peter Ackroyd’s recent brief biography, Poe: A Life Cut Short, Poe wrote during sober periods between binges. But you create a pretty image of the romantic poet at work.

  6. February 6, 2010 1:14 pm

    This is very good sport, Chauncey – thinking outloud like that at your virtual literary salon! You state your case quite powerfully and beautifully, too; and I must say, your greater truths resonate with me. (You sound so many depths here, you’ve left me thrumming…)

    Millich and Ignatius’ ‘lesser truths’ are a revelation, too, and will remain emblazoned on my mind. Yes, yes, yes to hard-won exalation versus the easy-come, easy-go illusory variety.

    We cheat ourselves through shortcuts, and diminsh our chances for sustained illuminations.
    Discipline, hard work, humility and the prayer of attention (read meditation) are the tried and true ways to inspiration and transcendence, whether in art or in life.’ Desacralized’ use of mighty potions might produce visions, but they tend to be followed by mighty headaches.

    I think that beneath the skin of things, what you movingly refer to as ‘denatured, quotidian, shrunken existence-epiphany is always there and even longing for us (if we can just be still enough to receive it). Kafka says this better:

    ‘Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked—it can’t do otherwise—in raptures it will writhe before you.’

  7. February 6, 2010 2:21 pm

    That is what I imagined when I was reading his work when I was young. Yahia that is something for sure.

  8. Yahia permalink
    February 6, 2010 6:17 pm

    Problem is, Michael, that writers tend to be a morbidly sensitive lot (Kafka obviouslya case in point) which is why they wish so desperately to escape from their condition in the first place…

  9. February 7, 2010 7:52 am

    That is true. I think I finally know what is wrong with me. Even though I laugh a real lot. Best.

  10. February 7, 2010 6:39 pm

    good lord! doesn’t anyone believe in the “less is more” strategy of expression? It’s so simple — the creation of art– is its own high. Why indulge in redundancy?

  11. February 8, 2010 12:22 am

    This all reminds me of a good essay by Lionel Trilling “Neurosis and Art” in which he says neurosis does not contribute to art and the idea of the crazy artist/poet/writer/actor is a myth. True, many talented people also have their demons but to be consistently productive takes strong, sober energy. I do think some great works of art may have been initiated by altered consciousness but not sustainable production. We’ve lost many, too many when you think of the music business alone.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 11:56 am

      Deborah, thank you for touching on the parallel myth that being crazy is an aid to artistic expression. That’s an odious falsehood, too.

  12. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 8, 2010 10:49 am

    Please add William Burroughs to your list. How can you talk about intoxicated writing without mentioning Burroughs?

    You also left out Stephen King. But he is sober now, right?

    Art and drugs? That’s like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? A lot of artists are drawn to drugs and alcohol because of their sensitive nature. But intoxication has nothing to do with creativity and everybody knows, or should, that you get a lot more done if you can stay sober all, or at least most of the time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 12:02 pm

      Consider Burroughs added, at the very head of the list. I cannot believe I left him out. In fact, I was so certain I’d already mentioned him that I reread the post, thinking to correct you. But once again, I find myself humbled. Burroughs is among the most dangerous of the avatar’s of intoxication, because he lived to be over 80, productive until the end, leading many less sturdy metabolisms to imagine they could do likewise. He is the Keith Richards of American literature.

  13. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 9, 2010 12:48 pm

    But he went through long periods of sobriety, didn’t he?

  14. Paul Conneely permalink
    November 5, 2014 6:52 pm

    Since you mentioned him I had to say it Keef himself said “Drink has never been a problem. I’ve written some of my best things pissed out of my mind.”

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