Write Drunk: The Science of Altered States and Creativity
From Dionysian celebrations in Ancient Greece to vision quests and well beyond, the idea that altered states lead to creativity is an established cultural "wisdom." Many writers treat the Ernest Hemingway saying of "write drunk, edit sober" as a commandment from the Muses. But do altered states really expand our creativity? What are the limits? And, perhaps most importantly, what are the reasons?
I'll explore all that in this article, but I'll also be doing something more: Drinking.
When I pitched this article as an homage for Saint Patty's, my editor asked if I'd be willing to get drunk while writing the article. And, you know, I just feel so loyal to this team that it seemed like getting drunk was the right thing to do. What's more, a friend of mine had a birthday celebration with plenty of alcohol, and he gave me permission to work on the article while at the party—so the timing was right.
I'll be letting you know how hard I'm hitting the bottle as I proceed, and I'll make visible notes anywhere I do post-drinking edits. (I originally planned to leave it all unedited, but later decided not to subject you to that particular mess.)
So … let's get this experiment started. Sláinte!
The Obvious Disclaimer
Okay, kids. Uncle Robbie is drinking now, but it's important that you realize that he's doing it for science.
Hopefully it's obvious I'm not advocating binge drinking, and I also hope to make clear that "writing drunk" is both virtue and vice according to the laws of the muses. It opens up opportunities, and it closes others—and many great writers have sabotaged themselves through their excessive love of drink.
Marlowe got himself stabbed in a bar fight because he was an angry drunk. Bukowski spent decades devoutly not writing as he numbed himself with alcohol. I honestly wish it was harder to find examples of writers who fell to alcoholism. So, even if there are some benefits to altered states, proceed with extreme caution.
In short, this article is not a "get out of accountability free" card. Be a goddam adult about what you consume.
The Science of Altered States
Altered states come in a great many forms. Getting drunk may be the traditional method of getting away from the norm, but pharmaceuticals, less legal types of drugs, or even just being incredibly tired can get you to a similar space. Of course, the cognitive space we reside in during these periods of alteration can be wildly different from one another—but they also have something profoundly simple in common: They are abnormal.
That abnormality can disrupt our habits by short-circuiting our usual habit triggers. Without the habit triggers that normally lead us to disrupt our own work with time on Facebook, obsessively thinking about our daily stressors, and otherwise getting in the way of our own acts of creation, we're able to run down the track without having to leap some of our most substantial hurdles.
(My recommended reading on habit formation comes from Charles Duhigg. See the link, below.)
But that's just the first factor in why altered states play into the creative process. Altered states also short-circuit the way we lock ourselves out of our own creative processes through anxiety. The neuroscience of creative writing is complex yet fragile, and anything that triggers the parasympathetic nervous system—basically anything that gets us into even a low level "fight or flight" response—will prevent us from thinking creatively.
No, Seriously. I Have Evidence.
That's my general explanation of the theory, but hopefully you've remained skeptical enough to question it. Luckily, I've got actually studies to back these views.
A study from Simon Fraser University discovered that, on average, individuals with a blood alcohol level of 0.09 or higher wrote far more in a 10-minute creative writing session. Not only that, but their sentences included far more figurative language and uncommon word combinations.
A Buffalo State University case study examined altered states that weren't drug-induced as a potential path for emotional healing through the creative process. James Hughes even goes as far as arguing that the "creative process requires, at least in some of its operations, a state of consciousness that is dramatically, sometimes dangerously altered" in his book Altered States: Creativity Under the Influence (see the link, below).
A study on "inspired thinking" found that drunk participants performed better. Another study found that 43% of sober participants could solve a creative thinking problem that 82% of tired or drunk participants could solve.
Perhaps the most interesting study, however, came from the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, which looked at the connection between altered states, the creative process, and the analytical process. That study And that analysis played into something else: The "creative process" is difficult to define, and many aspects of linguistic thought seem to be hindered by altered states. Other studies have found that altered states actually hinder some creative linguistic tasks, such as word association.
The Divide Between Language and Creativity
[Note that it's best to skim this segment. I give it another go after, and try to focus in on the core ideas. This segment is more effective as representation of an altered state than as actual communication.]
Much though I want to talk to you about the specifics of this particular lesson in the writing craft, I also find that … I'm unable to sustain the strength in my neck muscles. My head keeps falling against the back of the sofa. I downed the last of another beer. And some other drink. I don't know exactly which kind.
I find I'm able to edit, but not as effectively as I'd like. I misspell words but find that I wouldn't notice without that red squiggly line.
The idea I was trying to go for here was, I know, about the idea of how analytic thought related to creative thought. There's no doubt but that they are interrelated. They … mother of God, I've lost what I was trying to say.
I'm cognizant enough to ask for water. One of my party-mates is vomiting on the table. Another is being drawn on with sharpies and highlighters. Clearly, this party has moved from the stage of "tipsy" to "absolutely drunk."
The point I was going for originally was this: The possibility of linguistic thought is distinct from the possibility of the creative thought. You, as a writer, are likely to have experienced the process of linguistic thought. You have encountered the imagistic concepts that lie beneathe images language, and sensed tThat we encounter images well prior to encountering unearthing the language to describe them. Images and concepts and connections in this strange liminal, cognitive space precede the ability to communicate to others what it is we're experiencing within our mental landscapes.
More particularly, the analytical thought is a "higher" function than that of the creative capacity we each hold. We attain the images that allow us to think of creative connections well before we think of the language to describe those images. It seems that our conceptual understanding stems from images that occur within the linguistic system that generates enough verbiage to express those images to other people.
[At this point I go on a three-paragraph detour that starts in Dublin and gets wildly metaphysical. I seem to be arguing that God and Chance are the same thing. I'll spare you the details.]
Obviously, drunkenness detours us. I am not able to write in the cohesive and directed way I normally do. But somehow, these random connections between metaphysical objects of significance seem to come far more easily and intuitively than they would in my sober state. But those same connections seem exponentially more difficult to actually express.
I think it's likely you've witnessed the limitations of my own limitations ability to write drunk. Two hours and eight nine drinks in, I seem to have lost cohesion and yet maintained my most important connections between broad concepts. I am drunk enough that my head collapses spontaneously against the couch.
But I fail to see the whole. I am able to track the concepts of my experience from moment to moment far better than I otherwise could, but I cannot see the big picture. I am losing forest for the trees. I am simultaneously far more able to see the vital details and far less able to see the stories that grant those details significance.
[At this point I spend two lengthy paragraphs talking about how drunk I am.]
The Divide Between Language and Creativity: Take Two
Ah, screw it. I'll finish this article tomorrow.
The Divide Between Language and Creativity: Take Three
Linguistic thought is distinct from creative thought. As a writer, you've encountered the imagistic concepts that lie beneath language, and sensed that we encounter images well prior to unearthing the language to describe those images. "Imagistic concepts" (meaning both the sensory-based process of imagination and other forms of complex, symbolic thought) connect with one another in our cognitive spaces, and language serves as a form of cartography for those mental landscapes.
What we call "creativity" generally refers to these connections between concepts. However, those connections do not occur within language. Rather, language is used as a way to compress, organize, and communicate those ideas.
We require the analytical processes connected with language if we want to effectively provide that cartography. In thinking of the limitations, I find myself thinking of Jean Baudrillard's "simulacrum": Our language is the map for a mental landscape, but it is not that landscape. By focusing on language, we are substituting the flattened representation for the three-dimensional experience.
Indeed, our focus on language often interferes with forming creative connections. Through trying to force writing, becoming perfectionistic about the verbiage, or simply following established patterns of thought, our linguistic efforts sabotage the non-linguistic core of creativity.
Language may be our tool for expression, but it is not what created the expressed. Muses, "inspiration," or simply the notion that creativity is a mystic art are all used as ways to avoid saying the obvious: We have no damn idea how we got our ideas.
Obviously, altered states help in some ways and hurt in others. Getting rid of stress, perfectionism, and habitual thought can open up a space for creative connection, but we also lose out on cohesion and the simple ability to express our ideas clearly. Over time, new drawbacks are added on: Altered states lose their benefit if we make them regular parts of our process. New thought patterns will emerge and the sober state we return to will be plagued with new stressors (hangovers and lost hours among them).
Perhaps the most significant downfall, however, is even simpler: Using altered states prevents us from working the mental muscles that would allow us to tackle perfectionism, stress, habitual thinking, etc., etc., without the use of substances or sleep deprivation. These are barriers that can be torn down in other ways, and sneaking around those barriers simultaneously reinforces them. Hopefully this article has given you some insights into non-substance-based ways you can approach your own creative process more effectively.
What do you think? What have your experiences been with altered states and creative writing? Anywhere you think I missed the mark? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your ideas and experiences in the comments, below.
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