(Alcohol As A Creative Aid)
“Long before I became ‘rich and famous’
I just sat round drinking wine and staring at the walls.”
Many authors believe that alcohol is the mind’s natural lubricant — a creative tool that unlocks worlds. They sip from a flask of Jack Dee whilst penning their novels, thinking the juice is giving them inspiration. If anything, it’s dulling their senses and taking the edge off their creative faculties. Alcohol’s only useful function is to strip fear from the writing process.
By killing the critic in a writer’s mind — drowning out the sound of you’re terrible at this stuff, just give up and stick to your day job — the whiskey enables the writer to open up a pipe and flood the page with words, free of anxiety.
To this extent, it can be helpful. But all the writer is doing is hiding his problems, refusing to confront where this fear emanates from. Crippling self-doubt can stop many aspiring authors in their tracks. Before they’ve even put pen to paper — or electronic words to a computer screen — they’re incapacitated by the seemingly gargantuan task ahead: writing a cohesive four-hundred-page-or-more novel that holds itself together.
Common limiting beliefs may rear their ugly head: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not interesting enough, I’m a terrible writer.
Alcohol can keep these voices to a whisper, but that’s like wrapping a bandage around a broken leg — it may help to support you in the present, but it’s not a longterm solution; eventually you need a cast on it. Otherwise the bone will fuse at the wrong angle and you’ll be in for a life of pain. Same goes with your writing: don’t drown dissent with alcohol. Learn why the voices exist in the first place.
Then isolate the doubt and eradicate it.
“One danger is that cocaine gives you the illusion of being creative; you get into this vicious circle of feeling so inspired by this chemical in your system that you do write. Then you come down and the next day you look at what you wrote and get depressed. What you see before you is yesterday’s rush transformed into burbly bullshit, at which point you start to panic because now you’re really behind your deadline or whatever and you better get cracking, but you’re too depleted, physically and mentally, and therefore what you realize is, in order to jump-start yourself, maybe just a wee hair of the dog would be in order, so you go out and score again. And (then) comes another day’s worth of deluded flop-sweat trying to pass for art. I mean, you might be able to squeeze out a dazzling paragraph or two, but it’s the law of diminishing returns. In the end, the coke will overwhelm the work. I got to the point where I had to do a line to write a line. You might do coke in order to write, but by the end you’re writing in order to do coke.” — Richard Price.
Back in my mid-twenties I spent many nights in a drunken stupor.
Looking back, most of those nights are a blur. My first brush with alcohol was on my wedding day at the age of twenty-one. I downed a glass of champagne — which tasted like fizzy nails — and went on to finish another bottle within the hour, my subconscious clearly aware the marriage was a mistake and wanting to erase all memory of it. Thankfully I never acquired a taste for alcohol like plenty of tortured artists before me.
I saw it as something to do on a night out — a part of the process, a relaxant that stripped me of responsibility. I could act a fool, be as reckless as I want, say dumb shit to everyone, and on some level I didn’t have to feel accountable for my actions. And for partying purposes, that worked fine: I had a great time. For years I created friendships over cocktails and built up a network of acquaintances. The drink heightened my experiences and lowered my inhibitions. Inevitably I felt like crap the morning after and vowed to never drink again, but I always did. Alcohol seemed to be the key to success.
When it comes to writing, however, the thing that made alcohol so alluring to the club scene, is also what makes it toxic to the creative process: a lack of responsibility.
If you aren’t accountable for your words, who is?
You can’t pass the manuscript to your agent and say: “If it’s bad, don’t blame me. I was drunk the whole time I wrote it.” She won’t excuse your bad writing as a vodka side-effect. She’ll still view it as your work. And if it’s bad, you’re the person to blame.
“I’ve never written anything good on coke. I mean, I’ve written good paragraphs and good pages, but if I were to write a story for one hundred days on coke, I might write one hundred good pages, but they wouldn’t be pages that belonged together—a hundred pages for a hundred different books. Unfortunately, with a novel they’re all supposed to be for the same story. Nobody can write well using cocaine. It’s the worst drug of all for an artist.” — Richard Price
When I wrote Crimson Sky (a crime-detective Young Adult novel set in a high school), I was at the height of my drinking-and-clubbing career. I spent endless nights drowning my liver in vodka and chasing women with my friends. A lot of the time I ended up writing when drunk. My friends would be pouring out vodka and I’d slam the shots back and type away at the computer, trying to hit a specific self-imposed word count before we left for the club, knowing I’d be too messed up to write anything later on. I wrote the final few chapters of the novel while under the influence.
This wasn’t me writing when drunk due to fear; it was writing when drunk due to idiocy and unprofessionalism. But the end result was the same: a disjointed and badly written book. The prose didn’t suffer too much — and even drunk my spelling was impeccable; I’d spot only a few typos the next day — but the plot and story itself lost out massively. Without accountability, my mind played tricks on me. One night I killed three of my main characters in gruesome ways in a drunken fit. I remember laughing about it with my friends, like I’m about to kill this motherfucker right now for no reason.
I was drunk and didn’t care.
I was serving my ego, not my story.
And this is where drinking to write can be dangerous.
“Take marijuana: when you’re stoned you know you’re stoned and you stop smoking. When you’re shooting heroin, you don’t keep shooting. You don’t think, Maybe I should shoot some more. You’re nodding. You stop. You put down the needle. When you’re drinking, you can’t drink endlessly. You’re going to vomit or you’re going to pass out. You stop. Cocaine is the only drug that you can take and take, and nothing stops you except running out of the stuff. And when you’re blasted you don’t realize that you’ve got garbage for brains.” — Richard Price
There may be plenty of high-functioning alcoholics who can write when stoned or drunk out of their mind. Numerous musicians claim to be aided in their process by smoking marijuana. Many authors have also written some great works whilst drunk or drugged up. But the key is how they wrote when they weren’t on drugs: most times it was no different. Stephen King didn’t lose his edge when he stopped taking coke. He was just as capable of producing moments of genius without using liquid or powder stimulants.
If you find it hard to get started without alcohol, force yourself to sit at the screen and type something. If you’re blocked, ask yourself why. Your first answer might be: I’m blocked because I didn’t drink anything. Challenge that. Question yourself extensively until you reach the root cause of your block. You’ll most likely find that it’s fear; fear you’re not worthy of publication, or you’re not good enough, or that nobody will care about your writing anyway. Ask yourself if the alcohol makes any difference to those beliefs. Do you feel like you’re a better writer with it? Do you feel smarter? Or do you use it as an excuse for inferior work?
Once you get down to the source of your anxiety, it should be easier to alleviate it without needing drink or drugs. If you’re addicted to them, that’s a whole different issue. Contact your doctor and book an appointment for help with that.
If, however, you’re merely dabbling for creative reasons, it’s a slippery slope that could one day lead to addiction, and worse: death. So be careful what you’re getting into.
If you can write it drunk, you can do it sober. You don’t need the bottle. You don’t need the validation. As long as you like your work, you have a fan. Your biggest and most loyal.
So for your own sake: put down the bottle, push aside the crack pipe, and write.
You’ve got this. The world believes in you.
“One of Elmore Leonard’s characters came across with the awful realization that addiction not only destroys your body and brain, but also dominates your consciousness. Twenty-four hours a day an addict is thinking about where they are in relation to their drug. They are thinking about how high they are. They’re thinking about the fact that they’re not high. They’re thinking about scoring. They’re thinking about cleaning up. They’re thinking about cutting back, about getting better stuff. Endlessly thinking. Twenty-four, seven, three hundred and sixty-five. It simply dominates your thoughts around the clock.” — Richard Price
In short: be accountable for everything you put on the page. It will help you to gauge what’s good, what’s average, and what needs to be worked on. Keep writing and learning and growing. In the long run, you’ll improve naturally, without the need for alcohol.
And when you sell your début novel for half a million pounds — then you can drink.
Crack out the bubbly and drown yourself in fizzy needles.
After all of that hard work, you’ll need a damn drink.
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