What science says about creative writing's most famous piece of advice.
Read Time: 4 minutes
Proto-most-interesting-man-in-the-world Ernest Hemingway is given attribution for his pointed piece of advice to aspiring writers:
"Write drunk, and edit sober."
Whether or not it was Hemingway who said this, or if it was actually said at all, is still a matter of debate. But what historical research may not be able to prove as a sage quote, science can certainly examine as a physiological event. A seeming appropriate topic for Friday afternoon for a website that ends in "buzz," let's dive into the truth-vs.-fiction of writing drunk, and editing sober.
I think all of us who dabble in writing to one degree or another have felt the sting of a creative muse after imbibing a few libations. Van Gogh painted while sipping absinthe. Hemingway penned some of his best ideas through whiskey clouded eyes. It is a well established stereotype that creative individuals indulge a bit to get the juices flowing (get it?). Admittedly, sometimes if I take to serious writing after a few drinks I think I do write better. It seems the flow is better, the wit is sharper, and the narrative more interesting. Then there are times when you write something that you know is off the chain brilliant, only to wake up the next morning to open the document and read "Purple elefants so down to innovation and efficiency man on Mars." Nobel prize hopes crushed. We've all been there. But again, sometimes I really do feel that I, personally, write better after a drink or two. Now why is that? Well...
Alcohol can make strange (mental) bedfellows.
First, you can delete the word "mental" in the sub-head and the statement would still be true, albeit in a TOTALLY different context. One effect that alcohol has on mental function is to depress responses which tend to block unusual associations. You see our brains become wired for familial connections. "Up" goes with "Down." "Cold" goes with "Hot." This is an oversimplification, but you get the point. You don't associate "Up" with, say, the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Whatever chemicals or neurons work to keep these connections in a logical web are screwed up by alcohol. We are more apt to consider associations of things that are seemingly of a disparate nature. Sometimes this can just be sheer nonsense, but sometimes this can translate into very innovative narrative.
The same thing that makes drunk people annoying can bolster your imagination.
You know the drunk guy in the bar who is audaciously loud and obnoxious? That guy got that way because alcohol decreases the working memory of your brain, which makes you less aware of your surroundings. If your brain was a computer, then alcohol is a way that it clears it's cache. In a social setting, this leads people to blurt out less-than-flattering comments about people sitting a few feet away. Alone, however, when there is really not external stimuli to which to react to, the brain turns inward. Less working memory means more imaginative generation.
The originality factor
The incomparable Sir Ken Robinson famously defined creativity as "producing something original that has value." Well, let's consider the first two points above - alcohol suppresses responses which block unusual associations, and alcohol increases cognitive bandwidth dedicated to imagination. Taken together, we have the perfect soup for creativity. Being able to make unusual connections between things that exist and ideas in your imagination, or even connecting two imaginary ideas, means that you are creating something original. Now if these connections just so happen to hold some revelation or value, viola, what you have is - by definition - creative.
Taking all these physiological effects into account, alcohol can help create a mental environment that is really conducive to "writing outside the box." But hold on there, Edgar Allen... before you head out for the evening to throw down a bottle of vodka and expect to pen the next War and Peace, you should understand the principle that more can result in less. Studies have shown that the "sweet spot" for optimizing creativity with spirits occurs at a blood alcohol level of .07% (or just under the legal limit in most states). That is the equivalent of two to three drinks for most people. Getting sloshed will kill off the creativity the same way too much water will kill your daffodils.
So this begs the question - Why were so many of histories great writers, well, basically drunks? From Poe to Capote to Tennessee Williams to papa Hemingway to F. Scott and many others? Well, there may be a little "social norming" theory to apply here. If you take all the great works of literature throughout the centuries, the vast majority of them were NOT crafted by people who were WUI (you know what that means). C.S. Lewis certainly wasn't prone to tie-one-on. You didn't witness Henry David Thoreau three-sheets on Walden very often. I think that many of the great writers who also struggled with alcoholism were such big personalities and celebrities in their own times that popular culture developed the perception that writers were alcoholics, plain and simple. Just like most actors and actresses actually aren't doing lines in the bathroom at Spago's, most writers aren't actually drunks. There just happen to be some really really big name writers who were.
But how do you reconcile the scientific claim that too much alcohol actually hurts the creative writing process, when you also have works of genius like The Great Gatsby? Well, I think quite honestly that comes down to the fact that these people were just plain gifted writers, regardless. I'm fairly certain that Lebron could do a keg stand and still take me down in a one-on-one matchup (although I would take that same matchup vs. Levar "Never Lost" Ball). Maybe the alcohol helped their process in some way, and hurt it in others. Either way, great writers gonna write, bro.
So if the sage advice is actually "write a little buzzed," what about the "edit sober" part?
Well, turns out this is absolutely true. And actually, we can take it a step farther. Just as alcohol decreases our working memory, caffeine actually increases it. Caffeine interacts with the brain in a way that tells the body that it's energy reserves are fine (even if they're not), so there is no need to slow down and conserve. Of course, you're likely to crash later, but you'll get a good two-hour boost out of a strong cup-o-java.
The moral of this story? Don't mix Irish cream with your coffee when editing.
Please write responsibly.
Happy Friday, everyone!