“Write drunk, edit sober.”
This line has been famously and repeatedly credited to the legendary writer, Ernest Hemingway, although there’s no evidence that he ever said that.
On the other hand, American novelist Peter De Vries did say, “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
What’s the truth behind these words? Can being intoxicated lead to more creative generation of ideas, as suggested by the quote, which a good round of sober editing, integrating and implementing can nail the work down into a polished end product?
I love my alcohol, and I’d be excited at the prospect of being able to utilise a sin to drive my work. What an ideal marriage of vice and virtue!
Could an injection of wine and spirits into the early phases of a project, such as the idea generation or brainstorming phases, prove fruitful?
When it comes to creativity and innovation, as many would know, sometimes the hardest part is even coming up with anything interesting to work with at all.
The Drunk Test
One writer did bring to bear the evidence regarding this speculative aphorism. In June 2015, Crissy van Meter, the founder of Five Quarterly, proceeded to try five nights of drunk writing and five days of sober editing to see if alcoholic writing really improves writing.
There were some moments of brilliance in writing, but overall her work suffered. Drinking made her hungover and lethargic, so sober editing itself was difficult to do. The repeated nights of drinking were so bad that she only did this for four days and bailed from the project on the fifth.
Perhaps repeated nights of drinking is taking it a tad too far. Also, neither Hemingway nor De Vries specified exactly what or how much should go into the intoxication diet in order to ‘write drunk’ effectively.
But there is general consensus (if not common sense) that it’s not just ineffective but also irresponsible to work while intoxicated. Various other proper psychological studies have generally found that alcohol impairs cognitive and motor skills which leads to less productivity, and not just at work itself but also from carried over lethargy when the body needs to recover from a heavy night of drinks.
The Creativity Myth
There’s also something more deeply disturbing about believing such a notion of the glamorous miracle of drunk writing.
We’re enthralled with the idea of drunken kungfu masters who seem to be able to keep it together while heavily intoxicated. People also have a misperception of addiction and living life on the edge.
Indeed, the myth of art and addiction persists. We like to believe superstitions and false ideas about what makes a person successful. Athletes put their shoes and socks on in the same order every time, musicians conduct pre-concert rituals that have little to do with the music, and students make offerings to gods before their exams.
You may have your own little quirks too. But why do we think these quirks make us creative or perform better?
For one, it allows us to have a convenient excuse if we do not perform well and blame it on the alcohol or the failed ritual!
If anything, such false beliefs, such as that alcohol can boost performance, propagates the sad myth of creativity. This myth is the belief that art and creative work is whimsical and not serious.
How often have we heard people scoff at literature or marketing as bogus disciplines? That’s because the work that goes into such pursuits that require creativity and their outcomes are not the most easily measured.
Yet, we know that creative work is serious. PR professionals and marketers spend a great deal of time researching for and developing their communication and sales pitches, artists and designers lock themselves up in their rooms for days crafting up the best sketches and models, and entrepreneurs rack their brains for long periods to think of business solutions.
To think that a drunken haze is all that’s needed to reach a eureka moment trivialises creativity and doesn’t give creative work its due credit.
If addiction, intoxication, craziness, or other irrationalities are seen as part of the creative process, then one simply doesn’t grasp the nature and importance of such work.
Creativity is Hard Work
Instead, creativity requires arduous, hard work. Despite the quote being misattributed to him, Hemingway never wrote drunk. And even if he did say “write drunk, edit sober,” he certainly didn’t practice what he preached.
Instead, Hemingway, like many other successful creative professionals, worked hard and got to where they were with practice and experience.
The author Jeff Goins said, “The difference between good writers and bad writers has little to do with skill. It has to do with perseverance. Bad writers quit. Good writers keep going. That’s all there is to it.” Likewise, anyone working in other creative industries can take heed from this advice.
From time to time, we are enticed by the idea that the disinhibitions of alcohol and other substances can produce wildly creative ideas.
How often have we had nights where some whiskey or gin led to some of the craziest thoughts or opinions imaginable?
But alcohol-induced good ideas are a roll of the dice.
Let’s stick to what works reliably: Good old hard work.