The Lie We Perpetuate about Writing, Drugs, and Mental Illness

Yesterday, a reader here, in his comment about the need to write hot and not revise the life out of a piece, gave a sidelong approval to using alcohol and drugs to write more freely.  He also suggested that perhaps there was good in so many writers battling mental illness. 5078677953

I cannot disagree more. 

I have watched a person I love destroy his life and everything in it with alcohol. I have watched someone very dear to me battle severe and sometimes suicidal depression for my entire adult life.  I have seen students spiral out of health into days of dark desperation because of heroin.  I would not wish those days on anyone.  Not for anything.

When we say that people need alcohol, drugs, or mental illness to produce great art, we are saying that the art is more important than the person.  I find that abominable.

Let me be clear. I don’t really have any issue with people drinking or even smoking up. I know most of us (maybe all of us) have hard days where our angst pushes us to words.  I’m not advocating teetotaling or overmedication of gloom.

But when a substance or a mental illness makes it impossible for a person to function, when they are overwhelmed by shame or pain, when what they want most in the world is to die, their lives have moved into a darkness that is, truly, something I cannot fathom but that I would NEVER advocate simply because it might – before it kills them – produce a good story or essay.

It’s a common argument – that artists need substances or mental imbalance to produce good art. We glorify Hunter S. Thompson’s books or point to Hemingway’s genius. We celebrate Sylvia Plath’s words not because of their beauty but because she put her head in an oven.  We are wrong.

Imagine what Plath might have written if she had been able to tap her creativity and also manage to find strength for her life. What might Hemingway have written if he hadn’t put a shot gun in his house or produced his great works while absolutely knackered?  When we act as if the substances made these works, we not only devalue the people, we act as if it’s the substance that did the writing. Bullshit. Talented, committed people did the work.  And we lost their lives and their talent too soon.

I have good, dear friends who write and battle bipolar disorder and depression. I cannot even imagine what it might be like to live in their perceptions every day, and while I would miss their words if they medicated and found their creativity harder to access, I would miss them – my friends – more.

I wish we would teach people to tap their fire without having to shut down their minds. I wish we would stop teaching children to tamp down their creativity. I wish we would not eschew difference and instead embrace uniqueness more in our society.  These are the ways to help people reach into their firey, beautiful wells of idea and emotion, not substances or advocating that they stay suicidal or imbalanced.  Shame on us for taking the easy way and giving anyone who struggles the impression that their illness or addiction is more important than their personhood.

When my students tell me they need to drink or get high to write, I challenge them. “Today, I want you to sit down with your pen, open your notebook, and go deep. Go into that part of yourself that you hide away unless you are drunk.  Travel down behind your ribs and into that tiny pocket between your liver and your diaphragm. Write from there. Tomorrow, tell me if what comes from there isn’t more amazing than anything you can write drunk.”  When they try, they never fail to take my breath and leave themselves speechless because it’s not the substance or the illness that makes a person a great artist — it’s the person. 

What do you think of this argument that substances or mental illness make people better artists?


*Note – I do not mention substance use/abuse and mental illness here because I think they are the same struggle or are even linked necessarily. I simply address them both because my reader did and because often both struggles come up in conversation at the same time.  Also, please know that I have great sympathy, respect, and compassion for people who battle addiction and who struggle with mental health.  These individuals have nothing but love from me.  In fact, some of the people I love most dearly have these struggles.

  • Tracie

    “When we say that people need alcohol, drugs, or mental illness to produce great art, we are saying that the art is more important than the person.” This is so very true.

    It is sad that the lie about addiction and mental illness being needed to create art continues to be widely accepted.

  • Eileen

    “it’s not the substance or the illness that makes a person a great artist — it’s the person. ” Yep…you nailed it. :)

  • Marissa

    Yes! Even apart from artistic endeavors, and just speaking of life in general, I think it’s the saddest thing in the world to see people suffering addictions to drugs and alcohol. Addiction pulls people down, wastes their resources, and deludes them into dependence. Someone very dear to me is reluctant to give up alcohol abuse because he feels it helps him think deeper and “access” a different part of him. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. When he’s had too much to drink, it’s not “deeper thinking” that happens, but a tide of melodramatic, unanalyzed emotion that gets the upper hand, and he talks the biggest BS….and seems to believe it…..And meanwhile, spending his money on this stuff is ruining his life.

    Anyway, sorry to rant. :) I mainly wanted to say you nailed it! And I think I can see how people fall into and perpetuate the trap of substance abuse (I’m not speaking about mental illness, of course; I have no experience there,) but I think it’s invariably delusion. They may *feel* like they need it or benefit from it, but nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Barry

    —– Great post Andi! —–

    Having lived through, and with addiction, I can speak to this firsthand. Came the time I was given the choice, “Die in four months or quit,” I quit and started life over again. I was scared to death that I was never going to be able to draw and paint worth a damn ever again.

    Here it is 24 years later and I am looking on the other side of that. My drawing and painting improved so much almost immediately after I lost the booze, etc. Those first months of clean & sober, I did some of my best work.

    Now I do photography, art, and I write. It’s all good and I am not dead (yet). No more crutches for my failures, artistic and/or otherwise. I own them, and just work harder. The booze/drugs thing is a myth. Music though: Ah; music definitely works to open the mind and the spirit. Some Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Beethoven, or Sinatra will have your artistic juices flowing full steam.

    I am the exception to the rule though. Rule of thumb: For every 10 folks who enter the rooms of AA, 1 of those will stay sober five years. The other 9 will go to jail, go insane, and/or die. I have been damn fortunate and I know it, so I try to make the most of every day and squeeze every drop out of it.

  • Aaron

    Let me preface this comment by saying I am bi-polar. It’s not a creative romper room that people want to romanticize it to be. I have to work hard for my words, just like ever other writer.

    To suggest that my illness makes me more creative is the equavilant of suggesting that Anorexia makes you a better swimmer.

    People want to make the creative process into some mystic or some higher mental state. While an “altered state” may produce a unique point of view, it is not in it’s self creative.

    Creativity is work. To say that my prose is dependent or enhanced makes me feel cheap as a writer. It makes me feel as if my illness is more important to people than my heart and my mind.

    There is no otherworldly muse for math, why must there be for art? Would you ever say that someone with autism excels at mathematical theory because they are autistic? Why are you going to say I’m better at creativity and art and writing because I’m sick with a mood disorder?

    Yes, chemicals effect our brain, but they do not produce creativity or enhance latent abilities weather the drug is natural, manufactured, or some deficiency in my head.

    By the way, there is a fantastic book (“Touched by Fire”) that explores the relationship between the artistic tempermant and mood disorders. Great read on this complex topic.

  • Mindy Koenig

    Whoa!!! Blown clean over after I read this.

    Have we as a society become so unmoved by those struggling with addiction/mental illness that we carelessly chalk it up to their “eccentric personality” as long as they are producing something creative. AND then I’m reminded that media perpetuates the idea that to be creative we must “let go” of ourselves and be “free” (whatever that means sex, drugs, alcohol).

    What if there is “artistic freedom” in the journey to self-acceptace. Could we start by encouraging artist’s to stop sifting idea’s because their focus is on gaining audience approval? When will the person seen as simply enough?

  • Denise Dilley

    My husband is both bi-polar and a creative genius, but my heart tells me that even though he struggles daily with his mental illness, his creativity does not begin & end there.

  • Steve Thomas

    I’m glad to see so much discussion over my reply at the same time that I am sad that they were somewhat misunderstood.

    I wasn’t advocating that someone become a drunkard in order to write. A majority of therapists, however, believe most alcoholics use alcohol as self-medication for depression or other mental anguish, and a smaller majority think that is true of drug abuse.

    Nor was I advocating mental illness (although I don’t know how one would deliberately become mentally ill.) The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual III (I don’t know that the same statistics appear in more recent versions of DSM) says that 70% of all depressives who have been hospitalized once for depression will be hospitalized a second time, and 80% of those hospitalized twice will be hospitalized again, and that overall, something like 40% if all depressives will die by violence (which might not necessarily be suicide nor risk-taking, but then again, who was it that said “there are no accidents”?

    Things happen because there is a sufficient delta applied. You can push all you want against a great boulder, and nothing will happen, but a Caterpillar pushing against it might just nudge it a bit. A pearl oyster typically doesn’t grow a pearl, but if a little sand gets in its shell, irritating it, it deposits the nacre on the sand, producing a pearl. If you don’t close the tube of Brylcreem, it’s no big deal, but if it falls on the floor, and you step on it, it’ll come flying out in a big squirt that will paint the floor and possibly the wall opposite.

    You can paint the front bedroom without much passion, but the great works of art – and literature – require a strong delta. Can you think of any great art created by a eunuch? As the Androgel ads remind us, most men become impotent by their 50s or so, but many notable artists are famed for having children well into their 80s or 90s. They must have had really high testosterone levels in the first place, and the sex drive that leads men to take risks.

    There are opportunities for painters without passion. There are the folks who paint “Mail Pouch” ads on barns, and “Established 1945” on the windows of businesses. There are artists who design wallpaper and come up with coloring books for tykes. And there are the writers who write seed catalogs, instruction manuals that come with your vacuum cleaner and feed the giant maw of television series.

    But the average annual earnings of a freelance writer isn’t half that of minimum wage clerks. If they were satisfied with producing predigested pap, they wouldn’t have a problem finding a job writing catalog copy.

    Ted Sturgeon arrested the audience of the World Science Convention in 1953 by announcing that 90% of science fiction is crap. Then he went on to explain that 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. Our standards are established by the great stuff, and obviously average stuff is only average.

    It’s not the alcohol or the drugs that produce great writing, just as it’s not the hen’s cackle that produces the egg – but if you think about a creature as small as a chicken expelling an object the size of an egg, buy that must hurt. If they had the option of drinking a pleasantly-flavored pain-killer, don’t you suppose there would be a lot of alcoholic hens? Papa Hemingway and Margot Hemingway both were drunks who took their own lives. Papa Hemingway is remembered for turning his pain into a series of novels that still sell fairly well. Margot’s pain, on the other hand, was as big a waste as Brylcreem all over the bathroom floor,

    So when I argue against over-editing your work, let me ask you: how difficult is it to make a great apple pie once you’ve turned your apple crop into applesauce? Take some risks if you want your writing to be remembered.

  • Larry The Deuce

    My mom has mental illness and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, no matter what genius was produced out of it. In fact, if I had my pick, between the person being cured and no more works produced or remaining that way and producing great art, I’ll take the first choice every time.

  • Rachel Meeks

    Glad to finally hear someone share my viewpoint. I was once told by my writing mentor that I would have trouble writing without some kind of pain in my life. After being diagnosed with chronic pain, I do not think my writing had changed or become deeper because of it.

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