Write Drunk, Edit Sober: The Myth of the Drunken Artist

write drunk edit soberWrite drunk, edit sober is a popular trope amongst creatives, particularly new ones.

Many like to argue that alcohol or drugs unlock fresh thinking that sobriety can’t.

They don’t care about their present or future happiness because their work comes first. 

They take pride in being tortured souls who tap into a higher creative power, and they can only support the writing process with the crutch of alcohol and drugs.

But, claiming that the best artists are unapologetic drug addicts or alcoholics is a falsehood.

My Experiences Writing Under The Influence

When I started writing, I bought into this ridiculous piece of bad advice. I went out to the local pub and drank several pints of beer. When I stumbled home, I fired up my word-processor and tried writing. I was delighted with more work until I read it the next day. It was pure gibberish.

I’m certainly no Stephen King or Raymond Carver, but the work was of far less quality than anything I can produce while sober. It was riddled with typos, badly formed sentences, and poorly constructed arguments. It was the ramblings of a drunk man.

I also tried writing with a hangover, and that experience was equally dispiriting. With a dry mouth and pounding headache, I found it hard to look at the screen for more than a few minutes.

I took two aspirin and drank a pint of water, but I still found it hard to concentrate on the work at hand. I was only able to finish the chapter of my book after a rest and something good to edit, i.e., when I was sober and recovered.

What’s more, drinking plays havoc with my sleep patterns, complicating waking up early to write.

But hey, that’s just me. What about top creatives like Hemingway? Surely, they can work through these everyday problems?

Alcohol, Drugs and Creative Work

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 to search for new ideas about the universe and himself.

Examples of artists and famous boozers compelled to strap themselves to their personal rocket-ships include:

  • Charles Bukowski
  • William Faulkner
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • John Cheever
  • John Berryman
  • Raymond Carver
  • Scott F. Fitzgerald
  • Amy Winehouse
  • Vincent Van Gogh Yoko Ono
  • John Berryman
  • Neil Young

However, Harris cautions:

“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.”

Look closer, and you’ll see most modern artists also respect the value of sobriety for creative work.

Hemingway’s Famous Advice: Write Drunk Edit Sober

ernest-hemingwayErnest Hemingway, a prolific and inspired writer, was also notorious for his drinking. His biographer Anthony Burgess wrote:

“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.”

What’s more, Hemingway probably didn’t even tell others to write drunk and edit sober.

According to Quote Investigator, researchers found no evidence of this quote in his writings. Investigators attributed to humorist Peter De Vries in his novel Reuben, Reuben. In this book, a character by the name of Gowan McGland, modeled on Dylan Thomas, says:

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober”

But that doesn’t change the fact that Hemingway was a famous boozer and author who enjoyed beer, wine, and spirits almost every day.

Well, Hemingway was an alcoholic. He went to great lengths to sober up before the end of 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 took a shotgun he used to shoot pigeons. Hemingway walked to the foyer of his house, put the twin barrels against this forehead and pressed the trigger.

Clean Up Say Many Modern Creatives

Raymond_CarverThe short-story writer and poet Raymond Carver struggled with alcohol for years too.

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 find a better way to live with his pain finally. After he had stopped drinking, Carver enjoyed ten good and creative years free of alcohol and hangovers before dying of cancer aged 50. In his poem Gravy – which is inscribed on Carver’s 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.”

If you want a manifesto for writing and editing sober, this is 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. 

For another more contemporary example, look to Stephen King. For years, he was addicted to painkillers, alcohol, and cocaine. Although he wrote several best-sellers during that period, he regrets that he can’t remember writing them. In his popular book On Writing, he says:

The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.

King, Stephen. On Writing (p. 109). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

King went on to write many more Amazon best-sellers after finishing rehab.

Write Drunk, Edit Sober: The Final Word

Telling someone to write under the influence is bad advice; don’t fall prey to it. These great writers’ lives demonstrate that the writing process demands clear, level-headedness, and sober writing.

Expect pure gravy only if you’re healthy and strong. On the other hand, writing drunk or hungover is like trying to push a boulder uphill. 

This is an edited extract from The Power of CreativityLearning How to Build Lasting Habits, Face Your Fears and Change Your Life (Book 1 in a 3-part series)

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7 thoughts on “Write Drunk, Edit Sober: The Myth of the Drunken Artist”

  1. I agree. It is of no help. Even a single beer or two just make you tired and you stop sooner. These people became famous DESPITE the addiction, not because of it.

    1. Exactly. I find I’m the most creative when I’m in an extremely emotional state – usually sad or experiencing some kind of mental/emotional turmoil. It’s odd but I’m rarely, if ever, inspired to write if I’m happy or content.

  2. I was just writing about this topic myself, making the point that we ignore all the millions of substance addicts who never produce a thing.

    Never an alcoholic myself, I recently celebrated one full year of alcohol free living. I’ve never written more consistently and with a higher quality in my life. Booze is poison and it’s never so clear just how much so until you spend a lot of time without it.

    In the material I’m preparing now, I also talk about the effect a wide variety of foods can have on writing, so it’s worth experimenting with dropping other things from one’s diet too. But starting with the myth of the drunk is a great start – thanks for this post! 🙂

    1. Glad you liked the post. Well booze is just one example, I can see how food and so on would apply too. Hope your trip went well!

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