The Elusive Muse: Drinking, Drugs and Creativity

By Scot Macdonald and Neil Macdonald

The list of writers who drank heavily and produced some of the finest works of literature ever written is longer than Moby Dick. To name just a few, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker, Eugene O’Neill, William Styron, Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski were all famous—or infamous—for their epic drinking. Five of the nine American writers who have won the Nobel Prize for literature suffered from severe alcohol abuse or dependence.

Did alcohol help such immortal writers find their muse? And, more importantly for you, should you grab a bottle of merlot before you start your magnum opus?

Probably not.

One study found that although moderate doses of alcohol had no significant effect on performance on a creativity test, there were significant differences between individuals. If you’re hoping that alcohol increased the creativity of those artistically inclined, read on. The study by G. Lowe concluded, “Those above average in creativity who drank alcohol suffered a decrease in creativity, while those below average in creativity showed significant increases in imagination under the influence of some alcohol.” If you want to be a writer, let’s hope you’re above average in creativity, which means that alcohol will only harm your writing abilities.

Besides harming creativity, excessive drinking also harms writing in the long run. Most of the writers who drank heavily produced their finest works when they were young; as drinking took its effect, the quality and quantity of their work plummeted. As Beat writer Jack Kerouac concluded, “Drinking heavily, you abandon people, and they abandon you—and you abandon yourself—it’s a form of partial self-murder.” It also apparently murders the quality of a writer’s work.

If you decide to follow the facts and lay off the booze while you’re writing, you may still want to have a tall cocktail after you’re done your allotted pages for the day. Gustafson and Norlander, who have studied the interaction between alcohol and creativity extensively, found that people drink more alcohol after hard creative work than after non-creative work. Drinking may be an attempt to alleviate tension caused by the creative process, which often unearths unconscious material that can cause internal conflicts.

Supporting this conclusion is the case of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was a thinly veiled retelling of the saga of his own family’s bouts with drinking, success and failure. O’Neill’s wife reported that he would often emerge from his study after a hard day of writing Long Day’s Journey in tears, emotionally spent and exhausted. A drink might be a salve to such emotionally draining writing. This finding may explain the image of the hard-drinking artist—but only after the writing is done. Supporting this finding, more in-depth analysis of writers’ lives has found that although many great writers did go on binges, they were resolutely sober when they wrote.

Writers may drink after they’re done writing for other reasons, as well. Norlander found that modest alcohol consumption helps in some stages of creativity, such as thinking of ideas, overcoming writer’s block, lowering inhibitions, and delving into emotional subjects. A little alcohol between projects might help writers think of and develop new ideas for a novel, which may have been what Hemingway, James Joyce and their fellow artists were doing when they sat around Paris cafes drinking when they were between projects.

If alcohol can’t do the trick, maybe something stronger than alcohol is required to summon the elusive muse. Many authors have at least alluded to the use of stronger drugs than alcohol to arouse their muse. Arthur Rimbaud, a 19th Century French poet, may have been thinking of something stronger than wine when he wrote, “The Poet makes himself a seer by a…derangement of all the senses.” English author Thomas De Quincey wrote an 1821 essay, ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, while Keats wrote in Ode on Melancholy, ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.’” Was Keats referring to opium?

Many have heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his use of laudanum to write his great poem “Kubla Khan.” Laudanum is a form of opium. Coleridge claimed that he composed “two or three hundred lines” of the immortal poem in his head as he slumbered in a laudanum-induced sleep. Putting aside questions about the level of writing talent necessary to write a poem in your sleep that is still being read more than 200 years later, according to Coleridge, when he awoke, he wrote the first 50 lines of the poem down and was about to write the rest when he was “unfortunately called out by a person on business.” By the time his business was done with the visitor, Coleridge reported that he’d forgotten the rest of the poem.

Before you rush out to procure some laudanum, Coleridge’s story may not have been completely true. Critics claim that “Kubla Khan,” far from being the fragmentary beginning of a poem, clearly has a beginning, middle and an end, which goes against Coleridge’s claim that it was just the beginning of a poem he’d dreamed. Coleridge was also famous for talking about poems or parts of poems he was about to write or had almost written. The drug-induced dream story might have been nothing more than an early attempt at creating ‘buzz’ for his poem long before book-signing tours, Oprah and the Internet.

More recently, the Beat writers of the 1960s were heavily into drug experimentation with everything from LSD to morphine and peyote to Benzedrine. There is, however, little evidence that drugs help the creative process much, if at all.

The major difficulty research has found with using drugs or alcohol is that although individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol may perceive things differently and be more creative, they are usually far from interested in sitting down and writing a poem, let alone penning a 300-page novel. Norlander found that modest alcohol consumption decreases both the motivation to write and the cognitive ability to write well. As anyone with a stack of unfinished novels in a bottom desk drawer can attest, finishing a project is the key. Poet James Russell Lowell wrote, “Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found.” Drugs might help you find a creative insight but, once found, you are unlikely to be able to do anything valuable with it.

Norlander also found that even modest alcohol consumption make individuals believe they’ve performed better than they have after a project is completed. This finding is similar to the common belief of anyone who has ever failed a field sobriety test; they always think they passed. At least if you drink heavily you might think you’re a great writer, even if you aren’t.

If you want to be a great writer in reality instead of just in your mind after drinking heavily, a little alcohol may help you brainstorm ideas and delve into emotionally powerful issues to jot down for later—sober—development.  In order to actually write, however, stay clean and sober, at least until your writing workday is done. Then and only then a glass of Riesling or a fine pilsner might be called for to calm the emotional turmoil stirred up by your dramatic and emotionally intense storytelling.