“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time,” Stephen King states in his memoir, On Writing.
King has spoken openly about his struggles with drugs and alcohol throughout his career. In fact, many of the monsters in his books are actually metaphors for the different facets of addiction (looking at you, Jack Torrance).
So why does the myth of the tortured, drunk artist endure? Writers like Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald helped cement this trope — their work largely deals with isolation and despair, all the while romanticizing the concept of drinking away one’s pain and alienation. And Kurt Cobain famously quoted Neil Young’s lyrics, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his suicide note, further hammering this idea home.
Although the zeitgeist may celebrate drug and alcohol-fueled creativity and the self-destruction it causes, it sure as hell is not a requirement. In fact, I’d like to go a step further and say that substance use doesn’t enhance creativity, it corrodes it. I’ve been a writer and comedian for nearly 20 years, and my best and most meaningful work was created in recovery.
I’ve been a writer and comedian for nearly 20 years, and my best and most meaningful work was created in recovery.
Before I went into recovery, I thought that creativity was a means to an end. It was making something people considered “good,” so therefore I would be considered “good”. It was getting an A on my art project and having tactile proof that I was worth something. For me, this rigid, fixed mindset created all sorts of problems.
I started drinking and using drugs in art school as a way to cope with depression, anxiety, and trauma, although I didn’t realize it then. I just did it because it made me feel good, and my default was feeling bad. Alcohol, in particular, made talking to people easier, and it temporarily dampened the crippling doubts I had about my own work and whether or not I had any talent. After having something I created out in the world, either by being on stage, screening a video I made, or having something I’d written be read by others, drugs and alcohol provided a safety net between myself and the criticism I feared. And getting drunk and high seemed to be the only way to shut off my brain, which seemed to always be going.
However, as time went on, it became harder and harder to hold together a basic life, let alone accomplish any creative projects. As Raymond Carver wrote, “Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you’re going to do a good job with it.” Other than drinking, it seemed like most of my time was spent panicking, crying, not having money to pay rent, being steeped in paranoia that people were pissed at me, envying my peers, smoking a lot of cigarettes, and listening to Johnny Thunders.
And then one day, I asked myself: What if I keep living? And what if I don’t “burn out”? What if I just become a burnout?
When I realized that I’d have to get sober, I figured that it meant the death of my creativity, and that I wouldn’t be funny anymore. The irony, of course, is that alcohol made me unable to write and caused me to be generally humorless most of the time. And for several months after I stopped drinking, I didn’t do any comedy shows since I was terrified of the idea of being in a bar. I didn’t really write anything other than writing in my journal. The free time I had was spent either reading or watching movies. That was about all I could handle. Anything more intense sent me spiraling into a panic. Because my whole value system was based on external validation, I was not accustomed to taking a break or giving myself time to heal, but I accepted that it was necessary.
When I realized that I’d have to get sober, I figured that it meant the death of my creativity, and that I wouldn’t be funny anymore.
As time went on, I kept hearing new stories, either in books, film, or through people in recovery, and my perspective shifted. I started to understand that creativity is an ongoing process without right or wrong answers. There’s not an endgame, just discovery. Creativity involves dealing with our experiences, putting abstract images into a narrative, and giving names to nameless feelings. Art can be incredibly healing and therapeutic. It’s not about getting “butts in the seats” or having a blue check to your name on Twitter. You aren’t required to be creative or create things for anybody other than yourself. Thinking of art as a product or a way to gain followers on social media is an incredibly cynical approach, in my opinion.
I’ve found that “getting my shit together,” which was only possible when I ditched drugs and alcohol and went into recovery, was the best way to reconnect with my creativity. When I started to address the reasons why I drank, I was able to have a much more stable life. (Not going to lie, this took a couple years.) But having that stability built the foundation I needed to be creative and make new projects I was excited about. I realized that living the tumultuous life of a tortured, substance-using artist who was always on the verge of having a breakdown was not conducive to creating anything.
Being creative in recovery is like a lot of other things in recovery; it involves being kind to yourself and showing up for yourself. It’s more about letting things happen than trying to force them. I now understand that the pause I had to take in early sobriety was actually an integral part of my creative process. This “fallow state,” was necessary for my recovery — to rest, recharge, and heal. In those early days I listened to Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask quite a bit. Reed made the album right after he got sober, and it’s packed full of gut-wrenchingly honest songs about the pain that comes from living with addiction. And frankly, it was nice to know that I could still have rock and roll without the drugs.
The myth that you have to self-destructively use substances in order to be talented is just plain garbage, my friend. The multitude of artists in recovery who are doing amazing work have proven this cliche wrong time and time again. Alcohol doesn’t enhance creativity or give you any kind of edge you can’t otherwise find inside yourself. If you aren’t sure, I invite you to listen to Waves of Fear from The Blue Mask.
And if you don’t feel creative, or you can’t be creative right now because of all of the other things you’re dealing with, that’s ok. When you feel ready, it will be waiting for you. It doesn’t go anywhere, because it’s already a part of you.
I realized that living the tumultuous life of a tortured, substance-using artist who was always on the verge of having a breakdown was not conducive to creating anything.
I’ll close with my favorite quote from King’s memoir. “It starts with this: Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”