Don’t Let ‘Inspiration’ Kill Your Creativity

Cartoon: Henry couldn't decide what he missed the most - the alcohol or the being an asshole.

Image by Hugh MacLeod

Drink and drugs.

A writer’s key to inspiration? Or a demon to your creative success?

One of the hottest debates surrounding inspiration is that of the effect of drink and drugs. Some firmly believe they are essential for great creations. Even German philosopher Nietzsche stated that:

For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic society or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.

You don’t have to think too long to conjure up a list of famous writers whose work emerged in spite of or perhaps because of their ‘intoxication’, yet there is something simplistic and fragile about this as a foundation for creativity. For every Bukowski or Burroughs, there are thousands of writers whose names we don’t know, their potential success suffocated by their intoxicating ‘inspiration’.

Novelist and journalist Will Self is one of the well-known, modern-day literary rebels; an initiated member into the fraternity of hell-raising writers. Self’s addiction to drink began before he was a teen and he was addicted to heroin by the time he attended university. A brief stint of sobriety resulted in his first book The Quantity Theory of Insanity being written, but shortly after its publication he embarked on a decade of alcoholism, drug abuse and prolific publication.

Decadence and Drugs

Self’s lifestyle became almost as famous as his work. The experiences he had throughout his period of addiction heavily influenced his work, for example, it was hanging out with “repressed homosexual upper-class drug addicts” in the early 1980s that gave him the characters in his popular book Dorian. As Self admits:

The reason why I have written so much about decadence and drugs is because that is the way I have lived.

Despite pushing “a bottle of scotch a day” throughout most of the nineties, it was an industrious time for his writing. Between 1991 and 1998 he wrote eight books in addition to producing articles and interviews for The Observer, The Independent and GQ.

Whilst Self’s addictive personality and party lifestyle heavily influenced his work, he states that it is just a facet of his personality, rather than the reason for his creativity:

I own my work, but I don’t think that’s what’s me, necessarily… I like to think if I had run a donkey sanctuary in Cornwall then I would have written well about that.

Self never ran a donkey sanctuary in Cornwall, and there were many times when the lifestyle that fed him his inspiration simultaneously threatened to destroy his writing career. His addiction was famously exposed and Self was subsequently fired from his position at The Observer when he was caught taking heroin on the Prime Minister’s jet in 1997. It was a depressing blow to Self and his strong work ethic.

After this, Self got serious about separating his intoxication from the creative process, and now that he is sober full time, he enjoys a more robust and sustainable writing career.

Taming Your Inspiration

If you think your inspiration is making the transition from muse to demon, the following may help:

Learn when your inspiration is taking over

Signs that you may be experiencing more inspiration than creativity and productivity might include:

  • Missing deadlines
  • Missing out on work because you’re out of touch with clients and the industry
  • Never having time to write because you’re out every night
  • Editors and other writers avoiding your calls

If so, then you might want to…

Find new inspiration

You might find out that you can get the same inspiration, or even more inspiration – from less destructive sources. It might be something like going to more writing events, reading more books or magazines, going away for the weekend or even finding new people to spend time with.

Keep your inspiration and your productivity separate

Inspiration is the sexy side of creative success. Its less popular sibling is Hard Work. If Inspiration is the party animal, out every night, then Hard Work is hunched over the books in the library with no time to talk. You need both of these to succeed, but the key seems to be keeping them separate. Hard Work can’t concentrate if Inspiration is swishing around in the background singing ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, and Inspiration isn’t going to have a great night on the town if she has to carry Hard Work’s book bag with her.

Even when drinking, Self recognised this and would separate, to a degree, his writing and the booze. Drink would be a reward, either Scotch at the end of the day, or a bender when a book was completed.

This may sound like it is all part of the rock ‘n’ roll writing lifestyle, but in a world of heavy competition, you’re going to lose opportunities to those who know when to buckle down and when to relax after the hard work is done.

Don’t forget your addiction to your art

Remember that feeling of completing your first story, article, or commission for a client. Chances are you felt like you could take over the world. That buzz you get from writing, doesn’t come from anything else except the art itself. Get drunk on that. One of the reasons Self has sustained his career for so long in spite of his destructive lifestyle, is that above all else, it was the writing that mattered.

I’m fucking serious about the writing. That’s what I do.

What Do You Think?

Where do you get your creative inspiration from?

Have you ever had too much inspiration and not enough productivity?

What do you do to keep your inspirational muse from becoming an inspirational demon?

About the Author: Amy Harrison is a copywriter who helps entrepreneurs find their voice online. She is author of The Copywriting Phrasebook (501 shortcuts to compelling copy) which helps business owners find the right words for their web content and sales copy. You can find further creative contemplation and copy tips for entrepreneurs at her copywriting blog or find her on Twitter at @littleunred.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Most inspiration comes from digesting other people’s work and knowledge.

    So, for me, trying to read more only proves to help me generate more ideas and execute them better.

    Sure, living and experiencing life is also important, but I count the consumption of content to be my number one inspiration.

    • I can understand that kind of inspiration!

      What do you do to make sure it doesn’t take over the productivity process? One of my weaknesses is wanting to gather too much “inspiration” and information from the people I admire.

  2. As the person who was responsible for the initial debate on drugs earlier this year, I am happy to see one more article about this and even more proud of myself for being able to be inspired 24 hours a day without ever having taken drugs/alcohol in my life.

    Thank you so much! :)

    • You are very welcome, thanks for commenting.

      There is a huge debate to be had about the influence of drink and drugs within the creative field – it’s fascinating.

      I know at university we used to think that as “training writers” we had license to drink for inspiration, but by far, the best (and most) work I’ve ever done was with a completely clear head.

  3. Nature is best source for creative inspiration..

  4. Hi Amy,

    What an interesting and thought-provoking post. As you saw on Saturday evening, I do like a glass of wine or three, but it’s definitely an evening thing and something I do separately to my writing.

    Still, your questions got me thinking. I’m someone who’s not often short of ideas. Put me in a room with other folk talking about a subject dear to my heart – whether it’s a real room, or a virtual space, like on Twitter – and I’ll be on fire. I also read a lot and get lots of inspiration that way.

    The harder craft, as you so rightly point out here, is the work of grounding ideas and bringing them to life. I’m a big Stephen Pressfield fan and love what he says about turning up to the task. I guess before I started writing I imagined I had to “feel inspired” to do it. Now I know it’s a daily thing. It’s a job. Without the commitment to keeping the content flowing, there is no flow.

    • Hey Christine, lovely to have you here.

      I definitely enjoy the idea stage of possibility a lot more than the process of putting the first words down on paper. That’s why procrastination is such a common occurence. Far nicer to stay in the realm of ideas, and creativity than doing the hard graft of putting it all together which sometimes goes okay, or sometimes feels like pulling teeth.

      I guess it’s the commitment and the reward of giving birth to the final piece that makes us go through it time and time again. :-)

  5. Amy: Thanks for the great post. I agree with Bottom about nature or the physical world in general. I’d offer this, too – inspiration and perspiration come from the same root – ‘spiritus’ as in ‘to breathe.’ We breathe and we breathe through. So, I agree that inspiration and perspiration might need to be parsed out for some writers and artists, but my experience is to cultivate inspired action and surrendered outcome. My productivity has to feel inspired else I’m just a head-heavy cog. Yoga of all things became my muse years ago after it screwed my up my hard-core writing life. (Bad boy Neal Pollack recently had a similar turn-around with yoga.) I’ve written quite a bit about the old school of ‘booze as muse’ and the possibility of ‘breath as muse’ replacing it. Poets & Writers also ran a piece recently about how sober writers are these days. I appreciate your contributions to the dialogue. Very necessary. Who knows? Maybe this shift is part of a new more sober rock and roll lifestyle.

    • I wonder if there will eventually be a shift towards seeking out inspiration in ways that are good for us but require a bit of discipline and patience before they take effect.

      And will people turn to those options first, rather than waiting till an alternative has to be found because of burn out or hitting rock bottom like Self did? Interesting!

  6. Good article. I especially liked the fact that you didn’t give a real opinion, one way or the other, about drugs and/or drink in someone’s life but instead focused on how the drugs/drink can start taking over. Very, very nice to see someone talking about taking responsibility :)

    I find my inspiration from the content of others. I see something and will think that maybe I can use bits and pieces of that to do something of my own.

    • Hi Kari,

      I definitely wouldn’t like to judge. I’m more fascinated about how artists might keep their “inspiration” and productivity in balance so that they can complete their work. One of the reasons I love Lateral Action is that Mark reminds us that apparently being a creative type isn’t all about sexy rock and roll hell raising. Apparently you have to get things done as well. :-)

  7. Hi Amy,

    Great article. I agree with the other comments. My most powerful muse is the sea. No amount of booze can replace the exhilirating feeling of breathing in her salty air and breathing out words.

    I think the drunk / high artist is a tired cliche at this stage. It’s not needed, and from my own experience, it hampers performance and drags you down.

    Conor

  8. Amy, great article, and a nice entry into an interesting debate.

    I find that if I wait around for inspiration, generally speaking, I end up wishing for perfection, and ultimately never acting on my creative impulses. So sticking to a routine and writing whether inspiration has struck or not are both vital parts of my creative life. I find that often the act of sitting down to write can call down lighting faster than brainstorming or free-writing about it.

    For me, Ms. Hard Work gets started, and then Ms. Inspiration wanders over because she’s bored and looks over HW’s shoulder until she eventually takes over.

    On the other hand, sometimes even Hard Work is getting the bare minimum of juice, and then I know I just need to play. Everything from yoga, to a hike in the woods, or a bike ride, to painting cover art to go with the piece or gluing together a collage about a character’s angst can serve to inspire. I do little kid stuff like finger paint and color with crayons. I bake. I rake leaves and jump in them. Then I sit back down the next day with renewed energy.

    I don’t particularly like to be under the influence, and I don’t like my work when I’m under the influence.

  9. Looking for inspiration in a glass seems pretty dangerous to me, the ol’ slippery slope. Plus how can you function with a foggy brain the next day? I can’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love my beverages. A glass of wine or good craft beer at the end of a day can definitely loosen up my mind and get it out of the cage it might have fallen into without me knowing.

    Inspiration comes to me when chopping vegetables, probably because my mind is still chewing on something I read earlier and a fuzzy idea starts to take life. The trick is to capture it. One of my challenges, or demons, is to put limits on how much I read. I know it’s good for me and I enjoy it but I can get carried away with it and not leave enough time in the day to write. I have to set a timer so I’ll get up, turn it off and switch modes. Don’t worry, I’ve done my writing for the day so it’s okay that I’m here. Thanks for making me think!

    • I’ll be honest, if there’s something I really need to get done, I’ll ban booze altogether for the same fuzzy headed reasons. Gone are the days of springing back by 11am, (although sometimes I forget this and think I’ll get away with it – I never do:-) ).

      Chopping vegetables is an interesting source of inspiration. Do you think it’s because your mind has to concentrate and stay anchored on the job at hand, but because it’s a repetitive task, the rest of your brain is free to swhirl around ideas?

      • Yes, exactly, Amy. It’s a familiar activity, sort of brainless but concentrated, a lot of cooking or baking is like that for me. I’m present and focused but my monkey mind can go where it wants, unlike meditation when you really want to keep completely still, so impossible except for a few short periods of time here and there. Something similar happens when I’m at a good lecture or conference. I’m engaged, in out of work mode, but my brain is still on high alert, if I’m inspired by what I hear, my mind goes off in tangents and I come up with great ideas, or at least they seem that way at the time.

  10. Haha this article was great – well written and superbly researched. It’s refreshing to stumble on a blog post like that.

    I feel a bit like a try-hard though… because my source of inspiration is genuinely exercise. I get my best ideas while running and tend to scribble notes for blog posts etc as soon as I get home. I should keep a notepad in the shower!

    Not particularly rock’n'roll – but it seems to work for me. I find myself drinking less and less as hangovers seem to take more and more of a toll… on both creative output and life in general.

  11. The mentally powerful women yogis in India spoke of *intoxication* in a non-alcoholic sense.

    Since your quote is taken out of context–I’m not sure Nietzsche was referring to inebriation.
    “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic society or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.”

    Intoxication = excitement and elation beyond the bounds of sobriety

  12. Marie: You’re definitely onto something. Nietzsche actually was speaking of the need for artists to stop being so straight-and-narrow Apollonian and to merge with their art in a more Dionysian way. (He explores these ideas more as an essayist than as a philosopher in The Birth of Tragedy.) A contemporary of his, Charles Baudelaire wrote this prose poem, apropos to this conversation. Amy’s comments remind us how 20th-century artists and writers took the advice a bit too literally, but your comments remind us that all puritan productivity and no in-your-bones inspiration can make us productive hacks. May we all be drunk with virtue and poetry and life. (prose poem below)
    Cheers,
    Jeffrey

    You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

    But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

    And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

    • You’re right, and I loved that quotation because it suggests that we need some kind of heightened state of thinking of feeling in order to create our art. Whilst we do associate intoxication with being drunk on substances, we can be just as intoxicated on “poetry or on virtue.”

      I also think that there are a fair few creatives who hang on to the romantic idea of being “intoxicated” in the drink / drugs sense of the word because it suits a lifestyle or an image.

      The artists who are truly driven by and commited to their work (like Self) tend to show us that getting their work done in spite of that is actually a much uglier battle.

  13. thanks Jeffery
    I do enjoy reading your reply and the Baudelaire prose poem. I’ve had my own creative writing and poetry much published in literary journals and small press publications, as well as being an exhibitng painter.

  14. ‘Drugs’ seems to be being used to refer almost exclusively to depressants. What about coffee?

    Inspiration for me nearly always occurs due to a moment of clarity. Clarity for me is far more often experienced due to stimulation, whether it is as a result of exercise, great writing or a double espresso. I’m yet to experience such moments (that remain clear when sober) due to depressants.

  15. For starters, I’m glad this post was written eventually as I have always heard people say a lot of things relating inspiration to intoxication. Producing facts to debunk this erroneous view is so enlightening. Thanks Amy!

    My source of Inspiration is from within -i’m driven to creative work because of my passion to make a difference in my chosen field of influence in life. Sometimes it comes as a muse, other times it has to be painstakingly persuaded through hard work.

    Whichever way, I do not think being intoxicated helps creative inspiration, but as the story of Self above portrayed, it is more destructive than constructive.

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