Writing drunk

The London Olympics are going to be starting in a couple of weeks, and we are guaranteed to be inundated with news reports of athletes failing drug tests. This caused me to think: are there any performance-enhancing drugs for writers?

Besides nicotine and caffeine, that is. Both are stimulants, and they are probably some of the most widely-used drugs among creative types. In some cases they are mandatory. My new contract requires me to be continually buzzed on caffeine and nicotine. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway.)

There is a long tradition of alcoholic writers, and there is even an old saying to ‘write drunk, edit sober.’ Personally, alcohol makes my thinking fuzzy, so I can’t understand how someone could write under those conditions. It is possible that alcoholics need a drink or three simply to feel normal enough to work. I suspect back in the old days Stephen King may have been like this.

There has been a time or two where I’ve had serious blocks that I tried to batter down with a slight buzz. One time I was angry and stuck at a difficult section and took four straight shots of scotch. It helped a bit, or at least I thought it helped. But perhaps a few small drinks may simply loosen me up. I’ve tried to write drunk and only produced a headache and misspelled Led Zeppelin lyrics. So, no, alcohol really doesn’t work for me.

Hunter S. Thompson filling up on nicotine.

Some writers have gained a reputation for writing about the altered states caused by drugs. Hunter S. Thompson is one of the most famous. We know he wrote about drugs, but did he write under their influence? Maybe to some extent, but his prose doesn’t look drug-addled to me. There is a very careful undercurrent to it, one that makes me think it was built methodically.

It is possible that some writers have been visited by the Muses while high and then cleaned it up while sober. The ‘write drunk, edit sober’ phrase might come from this concept. There is a popular story about Keith Richards waking up on the floor of a hotel room after a blackout and discovering the (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction riff on a tape recorder. I could imagine that some altered thinking could prove inspirational, but, as the saying goes, writing is ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration. The ‘perspiration’ part is best done sober.

Keith Richards, also getting some nicotine.

Actually, I think most drugs inhibit the act of writing. There is a rumour that one of America’s most popular authors has undergone some serious bouts with depression, but he refuses to be medicated because it ruins his cognitive process. This is believable, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was true.

But there are some things I have noticed about ingesting and writing, and this involves food. Heavy meals, something with a lot of fat or carbohydrates, turn my brain into a lethargic sludge. My favourite breakfast is simply a handful of different fruits thrown into a blender, which takes two minutes to gulp down while I watch BBC News. It gives me a bit of energy, and I write better. A heavier meal, like the traditional Finnish open-faced sandwich of bread, butter, and cheese, is my kryptonite. I write better with an empty stomach than one filled with voileipä.

One hears quite a bit about ‘super foods’ that can help the thinking process, but I wonder how many of these claims have survived academic peer reviews. Maybe some, but I’m leery of unsupported claims.

I also assume that there are various labs around the world trying to come up with a drug to aid thinking. Perhaps someday such performance-enhancing drugs will be commonplace. But I hope not. The sport of baseball died for me when I realised all my heroes were injecting steroids. I would hate for writing to go the same way.

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