There’s a pernicious myth that the best artists are unapologetic drug addicts, alcoholics and drunken writers. They take pride in being tortured souls who tap into a higher creative power, and they can only support their immense talents with the crutch of alcohol and drugs.
Yes, alcohol and drugs will help you view the world differently and even come up with original ideas…at least, at first.
The neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris consumed psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms in his early twenties as part of his search for new ideas about the universe and himself. However, Harris likens his approach to strapping yourself to a rocket ship.
“If LSD is like being strapped to a rocket, learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail. Yes, it is possible, even with guidance, to wind up someplace terrifying, and some people probably shouldn’t spend long periods in intensive practice. But the general effect of meditation training is of settling ever more fully into one’s own skin and suffering less there.”
Artists like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Scott F. Fitzgerald, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Yoko Ono, John Berryman and Neil Young were compelled to strap themselves to their personal rocket ships, but look closer and you’ll see that these artists also recognised the value of sobriety.
Hemingway’s Famous Advice: Write Drunk Edit Sober
“The manager of the Gritti Palace in Venice tells me…that three bottles of Valpolicella first thing in the day were nothing to him, then there were the daiquiris, Scotch, tequila, bourbon, vermouthless martinis. The physical punishment he took from alcohol was … actively courted.”
Although he struggled with alcoholism, Hemingway went to great lengths to sober up before the end his life, and he never wrote while drunk, despite reports that he said: “Write drunk, edit sober.”
In Interview Magazine, Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel said about Ernest:
“That’s not how he wrote. He never wrote drunk, he never wrote beyond early, early morning….So many writers glorify my grandfather’s way of living as much as they glorify his work. And so they try and mirror that. I think it’s the misperception of addiction and living life on the edge, as if it’s cool.”
Hemingway struggled until the very end.
On Saturday 2nd of July 1961, Hemingway rose early, unlocked the storage room of his house in Ketchum, Idaho, and he took a shotgun he used for shooting pigeons. Hemingway walked to the foyer of his house, put the twin barrels against this forehead, pressed the trigger.
In late 1977, he went to a dinner party with friends drank a glass of wine and blacked out. The next thing he remembered was standing outside a store the following morning waiting for it to open so he could buy a bottle of vodka.
Then, he attended a meeting with an editor who wanted to buy his book; Carver was both drunk and hungover.
It was enough of a low for Carver to finally find a better way to live with his pain. After he had stopped drinking, Carver enjoyed ten good and creative years before dying of cancer aged 50. In the poem Gravy – which is inscribed on his grave – he wrote:
“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.”
Ten years doesn’t seem like much, but Carver used these years to give his creative work the respect and attention it demanded, and unlike some of his peers, he found a measure of happiness.
The stories of these creative masters demonstrate that creativity demands clear level-headedness and sober writing; pure gravy will only come if you’re healthy and strong.
This is an edited extract from The Power of Creativity: Learning How to Build Lasting Habits, Face Your Fears and Change Your Life (Book 1 in a 3-part series)