The Lie That Drugs And Mental Instability Make Us Great Artists

Bob Marley smoked a ton of pot, died young, and everyone loves him.  Mitch Hedberg did hardcore drugs, OD’ed, died young, and everyone loves him.  Same with Chris Farley and just about 50% of the comedians we all love.  Vincent Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated as time passed before (maybe) killing himself, but created beautiful art, and we love him.  Ernest Hemingway is knowing for saying, “Write drunk, edit sober” (which he didn’t actually say, by the way).  And boy do writers love him, if only for the quote.

And many of us creatives have noted these things about our favorite musicians, comedians, artists, and writers, and have seemed to take their cue.  We think, based on the evidence, based on perhaps the other creatives we know, that the key to unlocking our creativity is somehow found in mind-altering substances or simply in being emotionally unstable.

Often, especially when doing drugs, or feeling emotionally unstable, it certainly feels like this is true.  The words seem to pour out so much more easily if you’re a writer.  I’ve tried out some drugs as a writer, trying to tap into whatever secret existed in those substances.  From drinking to smoking to ADD pills even to psychedelics.  Everything seemed to have an advantage, and they all shared the quality that they reduced my defenses and made me less self-critical.  And at the time, it certainly seemed like I was more creative when I used them.

Writing poetry was also easier after something horribly emotional, a moment in which I was feeling vulnerable.  I would spill my guts after a breakup and write the best poetry I had ever put onto paper.

I’ve seen this same idea, this same narrative, exist among so many artists, it’s impossible to count the times I’ve heard it.  Reddit’s writing subreddit, for example, seems to fetishize drugs and mental instability.  Weed has for years been associated with the creativity movement, especially after the 60’s and 70’s.

Emotional Narrative Vs. Messy Reality

Unfortunately, a narrative is not the same thing as reality.  A narrative is an easy package, something that makes life easier to swallow.  Reality is messy and complicated and not so clear.

Artists, in particular, love narratives.  Their whole goal in life is to process reality and transform it into something emotional, something powerful, something understandable.

And unfortunately, this tendency is killing a lot of potentially great art, and, much much worse, killing artists.

We tend to love the stories of Van Gogh and Marley because they give us hope that even if drugs destroy us, at least they will have inspired great art.  And there are, of course, artists out there who have survived plenty of years even while doing drugs.  So what’s the big deal?

It’s that we’re omitting reality.  Omitting the stories that don’t fit into this narrative quite so neatly.

There’s Stephen King who, in his writing memoir On Writing, wrote how not only was his life an absolute mess because of his alcoholism and eventual cocaine addiction, but he didn’t enjoy his writing and now can’t even remember much of the writing process itself.  Ever since his family finally put their foot down, he’s created much more, and much better, writing.

In fact, Stephen King is famous for a few quotes about this very subject:

“Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

There’s also Cedric Bixler-Zavala of Mars Volta who just wrote an incredible piece about how he thought pot was essential to his creative process, but that it really just held him back.  Man, did he get flack for that one.

There’s the fact that while we tend to hear about the artists who died early in their careers because of drug use, we forget how psychologically, it’s easier to idealize someone who’s died young as an artist due to the fact that we don’t have to see them grow older, create worse art over time, and perhaps change our opinions of them.  Dying young gives us artists an easy narrative, a neat one.  It doesn’t actually take into account whether these artists truly were aided by their drug use, it’s just a correlation.

My point isn’t that every single drug user is going to die young, or that a person can’t smoke pot and create great art.

This is about something else: the clear dependence many artists have on drugs or emotional instability.  The belief that they simply can’t create great art without drugs or being emotionally unstable.

Why some artists latch onto the drug/instability myth

To be an artist means to be sensitive.  It means, also, that for those of us who live in the Western world, our culture is not so hospitable to sensitive people.  From the bullies that roamed the schools looking for any sign of sensitivity in their classmates to exploit to the trolls of the web who are willing to traumatize anyone they encounter on the web, our culture fetishizes insensitivy, rationality, and left-braindedness.  Even those who aren’t bullies or trolls expect the sensitive to not fall apart or become traumatized by their run-ins.

In my personal experience, and in my experience seeing drug-using or emotionally-unstable artists around me, artists tend to run to drugs as a way to self-medicate their pain of living in such a world.  They also tend to have many emotional “issues” because of the scars of living a sensitive life in an insensitive culture.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many of the greatest artists in the world have done so many drugs?  Is it any wonder that Van Gogh, one of the most sensitive people to ever live, killed himself?

Both simply were looking for an escape from a world that did not value them, either through substances or death.

None of this has to do with creativity.  It has to do with being a sensitive person.  And dealing with it in the best way a person thinks they can.

Where art really comes from

The problem is that somewhere along the way, we’ve started to confuse correlation with causation.  That all the stories of drugged-out artists meant they found their secret within those drugs.  Artists themselves often sold and sell this very myth.  It helps them create their own narrative, and justify their unhealthy behavior.

Because the truth is that the root of creativity is not drugs, and it’s not being emotionally unstable.  It’s simply from bringing out our inner truth boldly and freely.  Wallowing in emotional instability may help us do that in a moment, but it’s not sustainable.  Doing drugs may lower our inhibitions, but it’s called self-medicating for a reason: it’s a bandaid over a wound that’s gushing and that needs actual, educated medical attention.

Not to mention that lowered inhibition can actually have a negative effect on our creativity.  As Brenda Ueland wrote:

“Now some people when they sit down to write and nothing special comes, no good ideas, are so frightened that they drink a lot of strong coffee to hurry them up, or smoke packages of cigarettes, or take drugs or get drunk. They do not know that ideas come slowly, and that the more clear, tranquil and unstimulated you are, the slower the ideas come, but the better they are.”

If bringing out our inner truth boldly and freely is what it means to be an artist, then it stands to reason that our emotional and physical health are not just an important component, but are essential to our success as artists. Sustainable creativity comes from caring for ourselves.  It comes from living healthy, fulfilled, full lives.

In other words, being an artist isn’t so different from being a person of any persuasion, only moreso.  We feel more, and so it’s even more important that we care for ourselves, especially emotionally.

A new age for the sensitive

In the last 50 or so years, we have been given more tools than ever to deal with an insensitive culture as sensitive people than ever before.  If anything, this is the dawn of the “sensitive person” age, for better or worse.

Psychology has gone from a guessing game to being more and more refined.  Our understanding of the brain and its chemistry has leaped ahead.  Our culture itself, thanks to the internet, has become more empathetic towards the sensitive and/or introverted folks of the world (just see how many viral posts there are about depression, introversion, and other mental health topics).

In other words, maybe in the past it seemed that there were less options, that drugs and instability were just what it took to be an artist, to allow ourselves to truly be sensitive feelers in a world of hard-shelled thinkers.

Whatever the reason for this myth to exist in the past, there’s no excuse for it to exist today.  We are blessed to have all the tools and the people available to us to be able to navigate the choppy waters of left-brained culture.

Let’s put the myth to rest, put down our drugs and excuses, and start taking ourselves.  If we do, we’ll be able to tap into something golden: a sustained creativity that could last our entire lifetimes.  Which would be much more useful to the world than our burning out fast and hard. 

From Stephen King to Bob Dylan to Will Ferrell (who’s often noted as some sort of anomaly for being a comic whose life isn’t in shambles), there have been so many examples of artists who have been able to sustain themselves for a lifetime of creativity that enriched our world.  Imagine an entire generation of artists who embraced their health, who kept their health, who didn’t let drugs drag them down.  That’s a generation that could finally turn this culture from hard-shelled to soft and mushy and artistic.