An assumption that creative people need to do a lot of drugs.
But (enter celebrity name) did drugs and was fine, you say.
OK. There are some people that defy logic. Like Keith Richards or Mick Jagger, who probably have heroin for blood and are somehow pickled and preserved by voodoo magic spells. They don’t count. For some reason, these few defy the norm. Maybe you can too and if you can, my hat is off to you.
Most of us mere mortals are not built like that.
I believe that drug use being able to continuously (notice I said continuously) enhance creativity with repeated use is a fallacy perpetuated by mass media and hearsay. Mass media glamorizes the lives of famous individuals who used alcohol and drugs to cope with their innate sensitivity and raw perception of the world.
If you follow some of the most popular writers of their day throughout their later years, the intelligence starts to wane off after the toll of long-term drinking or drug use is taken.
From The Economist: “In America William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald were the Paris and Britney of their day, caught in the funhouse mirror of fame, their careers a vivid tabloid mash-up of hospitalisations and electroshock therapies…In fact none of these authors would write much that was any good beyond the age of 40, Faulkner’s prose seizing up with sclerosis, Hemingway sinking into unbudgeable mawkishness.” The entire article is worth a read.
Psychiatrist Dr. Iain Smith, as quoted in The Independent, professed, “While many artists and writers were famous for substance abuse, most produced their greatest works while not intoxicated.” He claimed that in fact, alcohol and drugs stifled creativity.
Sometimes writers use their experiences getting sober to create an interesting story for other people to draw from. There are a ton of memoirs written by sobered up writers after they escaped the illusions of chemicals. Or in the case of William Burroughs, while they continued to use and write with or without the aid of a transcriber. And some write detailed smack memoirs delineating just how much of a problem drugs weren’t. Or create the best account of psychedelic degradation ever before offing themselves years later.
Folklore through books and movies of the last couple of decades show famous musicians such as John Lennon and Jim Morrison “tuning in”. They are painted as Greek gods with a genius that ordinary human beings cannot comprehend.
Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, three of the most famous druggie musicians of their time, all overdosed on drugs in their late 20′s after a steady fall from grace. Jimi Hendrix died face down in his own vomit. Jim Morrison in a bathtub with cocaine and heroin in his bloodstream. Janis Joplin in an apartment in Hollywood of an alleged heroin overdose. Kurt Cobain, a heroin addict by his late 20′s, shot himself. Three of these sensitive charismatic celebrities died at the age of 27. “Hendrix, Joplin, The Doors, Nirvana, The Stones – these are all bands and individuals whose music was truly great. And they never got to finish. Who knows what they would have gone on to produce if they were alive today?” said Jeremy Simmonds, author.
It happens. The good times catch up with you.
It’s not generally sustainable (or hot) to continue doing drugs as a coping mechanism to deal with your innate creativity. Go to any rehab and you’ll hear the same story. The well dried up. Nothing was getting done. Everything fell apart.
Many people who create for their livelihood and passion do not need to use drugs or drink alcohol excessively. If you are sensitive to the world around you, there are a million layers to be revealed when you pay attention. Being drugged dulls your senses and therefore your art. You’re not tapping into some secret layer of psychedelic wisdom in my opinion. Get high and you stop seeing other people and the world around you clearly.
We seem to think in America and elsewhere, that if you have great talent you have a right to make a mockery of yourself. People have a lot of excuses for using. Life’s hard. People suck. Creativity is painful. Is ending up with this instead of a body of enhanced work and a good reputation what we are aiming for?
My compelling argument is this: numbing your mind just ends up numbing your mind and causing more pain in the end. Unless you’re Mick Jagger.
How do we dispel the myth that drugs and alcohol fuel better creativity? We defy the norm one at a time.
Sure, drinking a glass or so of wine calms the mind and unleashes the tongue for more jovial convivialities. Yes. It is a copacetic substance often generating good-will amongst complete strangers who would otherwise be totally awkward. And it feels like a balm in the middle of a world that seems to give you shit at every turn when you’re trying to change it through words, music or art. Been there, done that.
Sober musician Trent Reznor stated in a quote posted on Metal Underground, “by the end of my run with drugs I’d also realized that my brain wasn’t functioning right and I’d lost the power to really concentrate – it really made my art suffer, which made me feel worse, which made me want to get high and you know, that cycle starts up.”
When you go past moderate drinking into full out binging or abuse, you dull up the senses and keep your mind from expressing all those deep divets and twists. When I popped pills or imbibed alcohol, my words dried up. My feet got stuck in a puddle of mud and brown slime coating I couldn’t scrape off. I couldn’t even READ my writing, let along captivate an audience with my fantastic guitar solos and belting vocals. I’d be lucky if I ended up in a Kumbaya singalong.
Wales poet Gwyneth Lewis writes: “I used to keep notes of my altered states of mind under the influence of drink in the hope that they would offer startling new images for poems. They didn’t. It was impossible to decipher my handwriting, and I kept throwing up. Another poetic myth bites the dust.” (quoted in an article in The New York Times).
I was in a tar pit wading forward a centimeter at a time until I washed off the gunk and let my mind expand to all the subtle nuances seemingly-boring-everyday rawness can bring. Complete sobriety is necessary for me to keep writing music and poetry, to find my way in this world, to cope with rejection day in and day out.
It may not be a problem for you, and that’s fine. To each their own.
Just be careful you don’t fall into that hole that many short-on-this-earth stars fell into before you. I don’t think it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Better to live a long life where your work unfolds gradually until it’s ready. Better to be present for all the world brings, good or bad. Better to be conscious of where you want to put your creations, how they fit into the grand scheme of your life and the lives of those around you.
Says one sober writer going by the name of Sugah in a public recovery forum online discussing sober writers and musicians, “For me? I thought I was a creative genius when I was drinking/using, though for every page of brilliant prose I produced, there were a hundred more that belonged in the trash. I didn’t start writing seriously until I got sober.”
My mind, without alcohol or meds, amazes me. I always dulled myself down for other people, to fit in. It wasn’t cool to be smart or witty when I was growing up. It was cool to be stoned out and screwed up, to wear skinny pegged jeans and shirts tied in a knot at the waist. So of course I took the requisite paths of self-destruction and fallacy, only to find, every time, that all I had was me and my words to get me through in the end. That the cool friends had dried up. The alcohol didn’t work. The pills were making me tweaky, even though they were prescribed by a doctor to take the “edge” off my nerves and “help with the pain”.*
Eventually I quit trying to fit in. Quit numbing myself down to take away the sensitive edge and inability to handle society on society’s terms.
Gradually, with time (each time this happened), my words and music re-emerged. All of that anger and regret, all the joy and wisdom became my new body of work. A temper tantrum quelled by the bottle just sunk me deeper.
Poetry and music are my drugs. I use them to channel the anger and pain of living in a world that doesn’t want you to be who you are. I use them to express joy and epiphany.
You don’t have to fall into a world of excess and dumbing down.
Back in Rome, it was bread and gladiator games to soothe the masses. Today, it’s football, television and pharmaceuticals. There is a pill for everything. Even foot-twitching. It’s hard not to give in to thinking there’s something wrong with you if you don’t conform to the norm. A glass of wine. A Xanax to take the edge off. Some Wellbutrin to get you up in the morning. Ambien to put you down at night.
I don’t buy it. I won’t dull myself down. There are people out there who don’t need to blitz out to tune in to the muse. They are out there. We will find them. This is for all of you out there who want out and think you have no company.
“They know I’m more dangerous to them sober than I am drunk” – Malcolm X
*Some of us struggle with depression and anxiety that is aided by conventional therapies. I am not criticizing people who find help in psychiatric medications for these things. I also hope things will improve for those who struggle with madness and creativity. Conventional therapies didn’t work for Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton in the long run. Both committed suicide after years with shrinks and medication.
**Updated to add that as of July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse, who suffered from addiction as well, has been found dead at age 27. Add to the list Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger and the breath kind of leaves your body. Thinking of all the unknowns who die of addiction’s grip every day, I am baffled and heartbroken.