From Thomas De Quincey’s seductive descriptions of his visions under the influence of laudanum in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to Hunter S. Thompson’s coke-addled gonzo journalism, the body of literary writing fueled by legal and illegal substances is rich.
The substance-influenced canon, if we can call it that, includes quite a bit of writing about drugs themselves—trips, binges, and highs are described with technicolored prose, often written while the documenter was still in the throes of the drug, or at least right afterward. Think of “Kubla Khan,” composed entirely (Coleridge claimed) in an opium dream.
But there are also examples where drugs seep into the writing, even when the writer is aiming at something else. In the 1959 existential play The Condemned of Altona, Jean-Paul Sartre uses the metaphor of crabs to describe Nazism. In 1971, he revealed in an interview that the crabs were also inspired by a hallucination he had been experiencing ever since tripping on mescaline with Simone de Beauvoir in 1929.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—not to mention William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jack Kerouac (basically all the Beats), and so many more—were users of one kind or another, and whether that was beneficial to their writing or detrimental is perhaps up for debate.
In the twenty-first century, it’s easier than ever to experiment with how mind-altering substances can shape, spur, and color our writing. It’s no surprise that contemporary writers still explore ways in which using drugs and alcohol can alter their writing for the better. At the risk of minimizing the potential dangers—and to be sure, there are dangers—I’m interested in the how of using substances for writing, rather than the shoulds or ifs.
Personally, I follow the write drunk/edit sober advice often attributed to Ernest Hemingway (even though he probably never actually said it). I find a small glass of wine helps in those moments when a blank Word document has hypnotized me into paralysis. The words I produce under the influence might not be exquisite, but at least they are there to be shaped and formed later. Also, when I’m in need of an aha! moment, five minutes of pacing outside with cigarette in hand usually does the trick.
Curious about what works for others, I reached out to a few writers in my network. I was unsurprised to find they had a lot of good tips to best utilize the legal and illegal options that are out there.
Most of the people I talked to also subscribe to the write drunk/edit sober adage. For example, Danielle Guercio, a New York-based freelance culture writer and artist, generally likes a steady micro-dose of cannabis while she’s drafting.
Guercio primarily smokes her cannabis but likes to use edibles, too, especially when she wants to boost THC or CBD on days when she’s using it to help with her ADHD. She calculates that her joints, on average, contain about ten milligrams of THC, which when taken over a long period of time, works like a micro-dose.
“The more ‘information’ has to come from places other than my brain, the harder it is to execute,” she said. “I try to plug everything in while micro-dosed and edit only when I feel clearheaded, not after a fresh hit.”
Guercio says she can access her “true voice” better when she’s not drawing in the feed of overwhelming thoughts. “The hardest part of having ADHD is turning on the valve when it’s dry or shutting it off when it’s overflowing,” she said. This can be particularly tough for a freelance writer covering multiple beats, including beauty, fashion, food, nightlife, sometimes politics and culture, and cannabis culture. “Thankfully, most of the time, this type of work allows me to check out temporarily and come back when I’m ready. Cannabis helps me turn off the news feed of constant inquiry and get into details,” she said.
Grace Alexander, a ghost writer who also writes essays, found inspiration in narcotics. Alexander has chronic pain due to a genetic condition, and for a while, she was prescribed OxyContin. It had the effect of making her extremely productive. “Honestly, I don’t know if it’s the euphoria from not being in pain that makes it so effective, [or] the fact that I don’t respond to narcotics the way most people do,” she messaged me on Facebook. On Oxy, “It seems like my brain seamlessly puts concepts together, and I struggle less with flow. . . . It’s just like being on this level of superior ability,” she said. It’s not a typical side effect of the drug, which often makes people feel drowsy or dizzy. She just lucked out that the drug makes her hyper-focused and able to work at blistering speeds.
I realize interviewing a handful of writers and quizzing them about writing under the influence isn’t exactly scientific, so I also reached out to an expert. David Linden, a neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins University, is an expert on explaining to lay readers how the human brain works. His book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, explores the relationship between pleasure and addiction. Linden’s answer to whether drugs can help with creativity is, basically, “It depends”: “The important thing is that there are a lot of different drugs with a lot of different effects,” he said.
So, for example, stimulants—amphetamines, cocaine, coffee—might not help you have a breakthrough that is creative, but they’re good for focus and productivity. Depressants, on the other hand—alcohol, barbiturates, benzos—“are really not that useful,” Linden said. “They kind of make you tired and sloppy and stupid. I think some people will claim they can get creative on them, but I would say the evidence for that is pretty bad.”
When Linden told me this, my feathers ruffled a little because, of course, I do like to have a drink or two once in a while when I’m writing at night! Plus, as a lubricant for certain kinds of writing research (i.e., social situations), you really can’t beat alcohol.
I discussed this quandary over a pint with my friend, the poet Paul Dickinson, who, like me, is not opposed to mixing craft and craft beer. “It kind of helps me melt into the world a little bit, in a social sense,” Dickinson told me. “To see the world around me.” Dickinson’s favorite haunts are dive bars, which he calls the quintessential American experience. “I like to write at the bar,” he said. He’ll jot down phrases in an evening, which might later become a poem. “I’m more like a spy, overhearing conversations or thinking about the world and getting out of my comfort zone,” he said.
“My problem with contemporary writing today is that it’s too healthy. Writers should loosen up and drink some more,” Dickinson tells me, although he noted that, like a rock musician getting too drunk to play, writers can suck if they get to the other side of things.
He adds that he needs to be sober to endure the brutalism required for editing.
“Are there nights I should have stayed home and done writing and not gone to the bar? Probably. I don’t want to do that math,” he said.
Linden also talked to me about the role drugs can play in instigating notable experiences, which writers might draw from in their work. Think Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, based on his experiences taking mescaline, which he uses as a launchpad for philosophical musing about transcendence and transformation.
Linden notes that hallucinogens have the best evidence of being an actual link to creativity. “The interesting thing is that a lot of times it’s not so much that someone is going to take mescaline or LSD and, while in the throes of it, have some great insights, which they put into their work.” Instead, he said, a trip can provide material for later writing in the cool light of day. “Hallucinogens can legitimately give you new perspectives.”
That’s been the experience of another writer I talked to, Megan (who asked I not use her last name). A poet and fiction writer who does content writing as well, Megan experimented with micro-dosing LSD every three to four days over the course of about five months.
You have probably heard of micro-dosing: it’s having a bit of a moment right now, what with high profile folks like Michael Pollan and Mommy-Track Mysteries writer Ayelet Waldman singing its praises. Micro-dosing means you take just a minuscule amount of a drug, which, for hallucinogens, means you won’t hallucinate at all but will still experience a sharpness of the mind. According to a study conducted by psychologist Bernhard Hommel of Leiden University in the Netherlands, micro-dosing benefits both convergent thinking (logic) and divergent thinking (idea generation).
Megan had experimented with larger doses of both LSD and psilocybin in college, experiences she described as informative and enjoyable, but she wasn’t interested in that degree of psychic destabilization at this point in her life. “I did a lot of research leading up to the decision, as I wanted to make sure I would not experience any incapacitating effects from the drug,” she said. “I followed a very exact process for diluting and measuring out the LSD, and a prescribed regimen for taking it.”
Megan explored with micro-dosing LSD during the research, writing, and editing stages of her process. “The LSD has a mild stimulant effect, which I think was most helpful for the writing and editing,” she said, adding that the drug was particularly helpful for her copywriting work, as it worked as a stimulant that provided focus. “There were certainly aha! moments here and there while using it, but it’s difficult to know whether to attribute them to the drug. . . . I do feel that, overall, my brain was making more nuanced connections.” That being said, Megan found LSD wasn’t so great for doing research. “I would often find myself going down rabbit holes—which can be generative, but not always productive,” she said.
Finally, I talked to Linden about a drug that doesn’t fit so easily into categories of stimulants, depressives, or hallucinogens: cannabis. Like a lot of other drugs, cannabis activates the dopamine release in the brain, creating euphoria. While not as strong as with hallucinogens, Linden said there is some evidence of links to creativity with pot.
Nicotine, too, is a “funny drug”—it tends to calm people down when they’re agitated and stimulate them when they are low, according to Linden. I can certainly relate to that. The writer’s overflowing ashtray is almost a stereotypical image, and one that is a near constant in my own life. I keep my ashtray outside and get my best ideas while pacing back and forth in front of the duplex where I live. The drug itself gives me a little surge of energy, but I also think I’m partially addicted to the ritual of taking a short break to reflect.
Perhaps for a lot of writers, whether they are using alcohol, pot, cigarettes, caffeine, or some other drug, what’s really going on is an element of self-medication. The kind of drug a writer uses is going to depend on their particular ailment, whether that be anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, or even, God forbid, a dearth of creative ideas. But writers and non-writers alike use substances to bring us up, cool us down, level us out, or stir things up—to keep the demons at bay or let them inside to play.