*Check out my review of Night Film on Burlesque Press!*
I just started taking guitar lessons a month ago, and my guitar teacher says that while I’m learning to transition from one chord to the next, it doesn’t matter what it sounds like – my right hand should continue to strum whether or not my left hand is making the chord correctly. I’m a perfectionist at heart, so it’s a little hard for me to strum these imperfect chords, and I’m a human with ears, so it’s a little hard for me to make all these god-awful sounds. Which is why I’ve gotten into what could, perhaps, be a bad habit.
Every evening I get myself a beer or fix myself a bourbon and Sprite, and then I sit down with my guitar. I play a few chords, and as a reward, I take a sip of my drink. I play a little more, I drink a little more. My theory is that the alcohol loosens me up so I’m not quite as worried about my imperfect guitar-playing. Plus it’s sort of like the positive reinforcement psychology used on autistic kids and dogs, except I’m using beer instead of candy or Milkbones.
But the other day I decided to curb this habit a little. Otherwise I might start thinking I need alcohol in order to play the guitar, which obviously isn’t true. It reminded me of a very creative and wonderful person I know who once told me he “needed” to smoke pot because it made him a better artist.
“That’s baloney,” I told him. “You’ve always been creative. You don’t need pot to make art.”
It’s sad how many creative people – artists, musicians, writers – become dependent on drugs and alcohol. The writing profession is littered with alcoholics. Of course there’s the obvious: Hunter S. Thompson (just reading The Rum Diaries gives me a hangover), Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac, the entire Lost Generation. (There’s a scene in Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, in which he and Fitzgerald ride around the European countryside consuming more wine than I would think is humanly possible.)
I just finished reading On Writing by Stephen King and was a little shocked to read that he, too, struggled with addiction. He wrote Misery and The Tommyknockers while high on coke, and the character of Jack in The Shining, a recovering alcoholic writer, is based on King himself.
There are all sorts of reasons why writers end up drinking, either on the job, or after. One is much like the reason I started drinking while playing the guitar: to turn off the inner critic. Sometimes writing can feel, in the words of Stephen King, “like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” It can be disheartening, to say the least, and writers might reach for the bottle in order to drown that nagging voice that says “this sucks, give up.”
Along the same vein, when the inner critic is shoved out of the way, the ideas might flow more quickly and easily. Once there’s nothing holding you back, nothing saying “ no, that’s stupid,” the page floods with words and ideas. This is why writers sometimes say they drink to become more creative. What they probably mean is that they drink to unblock the ideas that were already there.
Of course, there are also writers who drink for other reasons. Maybe they grow depressed from their work – their lack of success or their perception that their writing isn’t good enough – and they turn to drinking. There are also writers who drink to avoid writing. Or writers who drink because they think it will enhance their work with a spontaneity. Once, when I was having trouble writing a party scene in which the main character was drunk, I decided to drink while writing the scene. It turned out okay, but I probably would have been better off just staying sober and using my memory.
Because that’s the thing. When it comes down to it, your best work is probably not done while drunk. If you’re a writer, then writing is your job, and you wouldn’t show up to work sipping a bourbon and Sprite, would you? As Stephen King says, “the idea that creative endeavour and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time… Any claims that drugs and alcohol are necessary…are just the usual self-serving bullshit.”
“Aw, come on…” you say. “Don’t be a prude. One drink. I can have one drink while I’m writing.”
And to that I say, yeah, you’re right. One beer isn’t going to hurt your writing, and it may even help to shut up that damn inner critic. But the problem is that one beer can turn into two or three or more. (Just ask Stephen King.) The problem is that you’re reinforcing an idea in your brain that says “I can’t write without a beer.” Which is obviously untrue. You are all you need to write. Don’t ever think you need more than that.
What’s better, I think, is to practice kicking that inner critic to the curb on your own. As you sit there shoveling shit (or playing horrible chords), ignore the voice that says “this sucks, give up.” Keep on writing, keep on playing, and eventually, the voice will grow weaker, or you’ll at least stop noticing it quite so much. When the inner critic fades away, your ideas will flow freely, just like the wine at an F. Scott and Zelda dinner party.
Good lord, I’m not telling you to give up the booze. I’m just saying, you don’t need it to be creative. You don’t need it to (one day, anyway) make beautiful music, or a novel of which you are proud.
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