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

"I'm a drinker with a writing problem." ~Brendan Behan

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.

1.5 Beers


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.

3 Beers +
1 Rum & Coke


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.

4 Beers +
1 Rum & Coke + 1 Shot Whiskey


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.]

5 Beers +
1 Rum & Coke +
2 Shots Whiskey +
"Some Other Drink"


The Divide Between Language and Creativity: Take Two

Ah, screw it. I'll finish this article tomorrow.

12 Hours of Sleep +
6 Glasses of Water +
2 Advil


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.

2 Days of Recovery +
2 Energy Drinks


Concluding Thoughts

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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Scott Williams's picture
Scott Williams from Brooklyn, NY is reading 11/23/63 March 11, 2014 - 8:29am

Maybe somewhere between incoherence and sobriety, there lies a "sweet spot." Don't forget, most of the authors we know and love were professional drunks - no amateurs here. These guys spent long hours, countless words, and many bottles practicing their craft.

Crowley often spoke of finding the minimum dose to alter consciousness and then extending it out for as long as possible. He was speaking of hash, of course, but the methodology seems applicable. Perhaps a session beer, a little over one an hour (depending on weight), to keep things lubricated. More than that, one risks getting sloppy, which would be counter to our purposes. As we see above.

SomeoneSomethingJr's picture
SomeoneSomethingJr from the oh so heavenly town of Oslo is reading The Right Madness by James Crumley March 11, 2014 - 9:41am

Wiriting drunk is effective in terms of quantity. I tend to write more while drunk, but doing so also effects the quality of what I'm writing, often for the worst.

I'd rather write on something else than alcohol, or alcohol combined with something.
Alcohol gets too emotional and messy passed a certain amount of beers and it doesn't help me think outside the box.
It doesn't boost my creativity in the direction I'd like it too. It's too restrained, too familiar. 

And I agree with you Scott - a buzz is far better than stumbling drunk/stoned/twisted.

I prefer low doses of LSD. Maybe a brownie. And by low doses I mean LOW doses.
Doses that won't leaves you staring at walls and fondling flowers.
Alcohol in combination with any of these at low doses is pretty good though. 
You get the mindspace from the psychedelics and that eager drive from booze. 
Something that shakes my head for a couple of hours and doesn't fuck me up completely the next day.

I gave it a go with coke, but the rambling on the page became as obnoxious as my clenching jaws. Same for MDMA. 


Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson March 11, 2014 - 12:25pm

Some of my best writing has happened in-flight, tipsy on gin and tonic.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore March 11, 2014 - 6:03pm

As I mentioned on this same topic in the forums, alcohol in small doses makes me too sleepy to be productive. Four or five drinks, though, I'm energized but wanna do anything except write (though I do like making music with a buzz on). I might get some decent ideas while intoxicated and uninhibited, but that's not the time to execute them. Just make a few notes so I don't forget, and then do the actual writing when sober and likely caffeinated. 

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Jericho, VT is reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow March 11, 2014 - 9:19pm

This comic from XKCD illustrated the idea of a "sweet spot" for program coding, but I thought it would be applicable here. Speaking as someone with an BS in Comp. Sci. I can attest to both the peak and the precipitous drop-off.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art March 11, 2014 - 9:41pm

This whole strange post reminded me of this:


Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick March 13, 2014 - 8:22pm

No matter how tempting the sweet spot sounds, price of conditioning your body (and creative process) to an external stimulant is a bad idea. I mean I might get hypocritical sometimes, but I don't think I'll lean on it regularly.

With that being said, cigarettes are also seem to do a great trick. I don't smoke at all, aside from being trapped in a room with chain-smokers in pubs, etc. (smoking regulation in Mongolia is a joke), but I remember finishing for 12-page comics a story after puffing a single stick on an impulse.

Stephen King also said something about (I think in On Writing) how his synapses weren't coated because he's quit smoking.

Hiosta Van Dillis's picture
Hiosta Van Dillis April 4, 2014 - 11:10am

Vinny Mannering, you were right the comic does the trick. Many writers know that some days when you're sober you are also bored and staring at a screen. Now that you have the typing program open, your mind is blank. Less than five minutes ago the ideas were spinning, but now that your ready to put them down you don't know where to start or what words to use. Many times we spend too much time correcting grammar to pull the story forward. I agree with the altered states and how this can help with creativity. We need to get in the right creative zone verses a completely deluded one where we start drawing smiley faces on the screen instead of painting words into books. From the article, we can see after a while the columnist repeats himself. Many of the things I write come off as too desturbing for most people to read, even this response may be too desturbing for some.  During the production of my first novelI, I had never experimented with drugs. I did experiment in other ways. One time I went a month without eating food, no vitamins just a little swig of H2O from time to time. After three days I was no longer hungry. Two weeks passed. My stomach swole as the little fat my body had broke down into methane. The gas pumped through my blood stream. The lights around me emmitted rainbows. Whispers and other sounds were experienced, which made me believe this was why all those people in the Bible thought they were talking to God. After 30 days, solid food was a must. Any longer may have resulted in a labeled rock above my head instead of responding to this article. The after affect resulted in sour gas excreting from every possible pore in my body. Imagine farting out your eye sockets. People turned with sickening expressions from the invisble odar that no amount of water could wash away contaminated the path I walked. My stomach churned as though gasoline and fertilizer were mixing with Jet fuel inside. One second with a match or lighter would have resulted in my body flaring up like the human torch. This was an experience that opened my eyes and asisted with creating expeiences for one of the characters in my first book. This book was not finished during my moment of fasting. Talking With Strangers was finaished thanks to three months of insominia that followed, which as we know could be considered another altered state. Much editing was needed when I was in a sober mindset, but the altered state assisted in covering much of the ground. Altering our mind's state might not get everything accomplished as we desire, but this offers an experience we can use to create a story worth reading.

hairer's picture
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