Friday, October 9, 2009

Altered States

Every now and then in the arts (some arts more than others), you see artists who swear that they are more creative under the influence of drugs then while 'straight'. Favorites range from the psychedelics enjoyed by visual artists to the headbanger's cocktail of speed and alcohol (Motorhead). Reading Stephen King's On Writing, he mentions that he could not even remember writing some of his books he was that high - I think Misery comes to mind (he speculates the writer in the story was actually himself, held prisoner by his addiction). Its not just illegal drugs either. David Gemmell once related how he had tried to give up smoking, but looked at what he was writing, realized it was crap then started smoking again. In the end he died of heart failure at 57, and I guess the smoking would have had no small part in his untimely death.

I have always been suspicious of these claims, and I guess I have come out pretty much strongly on the other side of the argument -- that you will be more creative the more healthy and drug FREE you are. I think what often happens is that artists will be such long term users that they become functional addicts, and when they try to quit they actually do find their performance dropping. But this is just a short-term effect. If they persevere they will find themselves more creative than ever.

One of the odd things I do is read musician's autobiographies. A recent one was Eric Clapton. In it he rattles off a series of famous recordings and concert events where he was completely off his head either on dope (heroin) or alcohol or both. Even as an Eric Clapton fan some of his playing on these latter records sounded like shite to me. Not saying I did not enjoy them, just that I got so frustrated he could not lift his game. When I hear something like that, I can't help but feel cheated. How much damn better could that guy have been if he wasn't hiding in a bottle?

So what do you think? Is there some truth to the assertion that drugs enhance creativity? Or is that just the seductive reasoning of an addict?


Dave Freer said...

Rationalisation. Rock-climbing on the other hand...

I'm a little wary here. There mood enhancers which do not alter the mind's ability to function, and may improve the individual's ability to use his mind: music for example. These are still chemical balances in your body. Or for non-internally produced drugs: Nicotine (yes it is a mental stimulant. They're not talking shite) Might kill you but it won't hurt your writing. Or coffee. Or chocolate. Where do you draw the line? (for me at coffee and chocolate. I'm a control freak with my head.) I do feel this is a 'your decision' thing. But I doubt if being utterly stoned lifts your game, it might just help you to kid yourself it does, which can be important.

Kate said...

Mental illness throws the spanner into the works here. There's a ridiculously high correlation between mental illness, high intelligence, and high creativity - enough that there's several theories to the effect that creativity is the 'controllable' end of the mental illness spectrum.

Now the fun part... Depending on the condition, mind-altering drugs can alleviate it. Nicotine has been demonstrated to help schizophrenics focus and control their minds. There's very little research on what the illegal spectrum do, but there is some evidence those drugs are also helpful to some mental illnesses.

My experience - the right (legal, prescription) drugs allow me to function and focus the creative impulses. Of course, I start behind the rest of the world anyway, courtesy narcolepsy and clinical depression (not sure whether the depression is caused by the narcolepsy or independent, but depression is a family curse). The wrong (again, legal prescription) drugs shut me down completely and things get really bad.

So as Dave says, it's an individual thing. I suspect the right drugs in the right quantity help. Too much, or the wrong drugs, and the result is ugly.

Francis Turner said...

So Dave & Kate pretty much answer the question before I get to read the blog post.

Personally I think the psychoactive drug problem boils down to a short term and long term conflict. In the short term I can well believe that a burst of mind altering whatever aids creativity, expression thereof and so on. If the artistic partaker can harness the effects he or she very likely will produce something exceptional.

Unfortunately most mood altering drugs end up addicting the user and addicts, no matter what they are addicted to, end up deluding themselves and lying to the world. And yes going cold turkey is likely to be short term much much worse than remaining on the drug.

The trick is to use the drug but not et addicted to it - and that is very rare

Anonymous said...

To add to what Kate said, since many mental illnesses are often caused by imbalances in brain chemistry, having the right mix of drugs -- and a good doctor -- can help keep you focused and functional as well as letting the creative juices flow. It's truly amazing how good a job some of today's meds can do to put a person on the right track.

Now, in the "Wrong" column: if one makes a regular habit of sparking a bowl then killing the afternoon eating Cheetos and watching "Charles in Charge" reruns on Hulu instead of writing, one should not be surprised if one's word-count gets knocked completely into the crapper.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Dave. I couldn't live in a world without chocolate! Or caffeine for that matter.

I know there are studies that show nicotine increases concentration, but are these done with non-smoking controls?

It's a thought-provoking topic. A parrallel post could easily be SF stories that have some sort of mood-enhancer as a key component of the society.

So difficult to disconnect all the elements when you are talking creativity. Who understands it anyway?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I guess I was thinking more the totally excessive use of recreational type drugs rather than those carefully used to alleviate other symptoms.

What I am trying to tease out is this. If a person has X amount of creative juice, does the use of drugs give you X+Y or X-Y, or does it just give you X but all at once, or in a different way?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Frances. There could certainly be something to be said for releasing the whole 'dam' at once. A different experience, and perhaps more inspiring. I just wonder if we are just drawing on the same creative 'bank balance'.

Then in the long term the well runs dry and the health effects begin to kick in.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. Ahem. . . yes the timewasting factor is definately a killer there.

I guess what is so seductive is the promise of something new. A new way to experience ideas.

Not that I use the method! And its been a long time since Uni:)

Anonymous said...

I think writing is an altered state.;)

Now, how much of what interferes with that creative fugue, verses a stage performance is hard to say, and is almost certainly different in different people.

I have to periodically de-carbo my diet to keep the brain functioning. What I write is just as good or bad as anything else, but I find myself skipping the research. The scenes are full of /// Which Moon was that?/// notes.

On the other hand, however nice the caffeine in the morning, I can OD on the combination of that and sugar to the point where I can't add a column of numbers. I can write, but I jump from story to story as I keep having ideas about eight things at once. Forward progress is nil, and requires some untangling the next day.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. You are reminding me how incredibly complex the whole interaction between the brain, creativity and our body, and its chemistry is.

Me thinks I have opened up a can of worms here. . .

Anonymous said...

And here's one that ties in with Chris' post on drugs and Sarah's post on names:

Cary Grant, whose career probably wouldn't have gone nearly as far as it did had he stuck with his birth-name "Archibald Leach," dropped acid over sixty times during the 1950s.

Now how's that for a double whammy?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'd prefer to say that no, you don't need drugs. OTOH I wrote my first publishable short story on morphine. (Prescribed for serious post-partum issues.) My feel -- at the time I needed it to get past the barriers I was putting in front of myself.

I've found that being dead tired has close to the same effect, though. And heck, there are books I don't remember writing. But being tired is normal when you are mom, wife, writer, cook, bottlewasher and commander...

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate

As a sufferer of clinical depression linked to maniac-depressive cycles (when I'm up I'm really up but when I'm down..), I now have to have SSRI help to funtion.

Recreational drugs are a different subject. I found early on at University that alcohol had a dire effect on scientific judgement but the relatonship between alcohol and fictional writing is more complicated.

I cannot write unless sober but modest (I do mean modest) alcohol intoxication can sometimes give a strange twist on my thinking about a story.

The SSRI I have to take causes vivid dreams. Drink a little alcohol on top and I sometimes get mood ideas for stories, not plots but scenes and feel.

And Kate is right. Intelligence, creativity and mental illness are bound together in a witches brew.


Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, RJ. Here is another bit of weird trivia. Cary Grant used to be a lift operator in the Flatiron building in New York before he broke into the big time. Found this out in my NY bus tour in March!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. Now I'm feeling left out. I want to writing something on drugs:)

Just kidding - I'm sure I don't want the symptoms that necessitated the meds.

Writing tired is an occupational hazard. So many of us are tyring to fit things in around everything else.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. I seem to be similar. I can't write unless I am reasonably sober, but the odd couple of wines can lead to a very nice (and enjoyable) flow. I would need to go back over than with a clearer head though.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

actually, Chris, the REALLY odd thing is that allergy med turns the writing COMPLETELY off. So does Valium. (No, you don't want to know how I know about Valium. Legal, but weird.) Not volational, I HATE the stuff.


Brendan said...

A word from Frederik Pohl on his drug taking experiences

John Lambshead said...

Dear Sarah
Vallium is the pits. I was offered it years ago before SSRIs were developed but refused. I preferred the depression to being tranqued.

Seroxat (an early SSRI)made me indifferent to music. It became noise.