If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.
Many creative people hate to feel themselves constrained by the rules and conventions of society. Moderation and common sense are all very well for the bourgeoisie, but the Bohemian quarter has traditionally been a place of indulgence and tolerance, its cafes, bars and louche hotels the setting for all kinds of debauchery. The ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ lifestyle is a lot older than rock’n’roll, and many see it as an inevitably corollary of a creative career. But does it really make you more creative? Or is it at best a distraction – at worst, the pathway to self-destruction?
This is the question posed by a concerned Lateral Action reader in response to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks.
This isn’t my personal creativity block (thank heavens), but I have a big problem trying to prove people that their creativity issue is more likely an issue of not having creativity or a very wrong way to solve what really blocks it.
I run a website for a musician and a lot of musicians gather on my forum. A lot of them encourage drug use and explain how that makes them inspired and creative. Can you prove that this approach is stupid and that they should dig deeper for the true source of the problem instead?
Hello ’Concerned’, thank you for writing in with such an altruistic block!
You ask whether I can “prove that this approach is stupid” – I assume you mean whether I can prove it to the musicians and persuade them to change their ways? My answer is “Probably not – but I can offer a different perspective that may change the way they look at it”.
Once upon a time, I worked as a substance misuse counsellor, with people who were overindulging in various drugs, legal and illegal. My clientele included people whose habits were endangering not only their health but their lives. And it was remarkably difficult to persuade some of them that continuing was not a good idea. The reason is that human beings are pretty impervious to well-intentioned, sensible advice. They often have to find out for themselves whether or not something is a bad idea. And that’s doubly true when it comes to ‘rebellious’ behaviour like taking drugs.
And setting aside the question of health and well-being, I’d probably have a hard time persuading the musicians that intoxication never leads to inspiration. I’d imagine they’d be pretty quick to cite examples such as The Beatles, David Bowie, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin as evidence that the sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with creativity. And it’s not just modern rock stars – Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously described how the inspiration for his poem ‘Kubla Khan’ came to him in an opium reverie, while 17th century poet and libertine John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester could have given Keith Richards a run for his money when it came to debauchery. And it’s not even limited to the artistic types – biochemist Kary Mullis has said that insights from his experiences with LSD were central to his development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
So it’s indisputable that some outstanding creators have credited psychoactive drugs with a positive effect on their creative thinking. But does that mean drugs offer a reliable source of inspiration? And is inspiration enough for creative achievement?
A quick glance at the numbers should give us pause for thought. There are a hell of a lot of creative types out there living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, with a vague sense that William Blake must have been right when he said ” the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. And lots of them claim to have amazing insights and experiences along the way. But there aren’t quite so many people creating truly amazing artwork or music or literature or scientific breakthroughs or whatever.
Hugh MacLeod has some strong words on the subject:
It’s a familiar story: the kid reads about Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix or Charles Bukowski and somehow decides that their poetic but flawed example somehow gives him permission and/or absolution to spend the next decade or two drowning in his own metaphorical vomit.
Of course, the older you get, the more casualties of this foolishness you meet. The more time they have had to ravage their lives, the more pathetic they seem. And the less remarkable work they seem to have to show for it, for all their “amazing experiences” and “special insights.”
So the bars of West Hollywood, London, and New York are a wash with people throwing their lives away in the desperate hope of finding a shortcut, any shortcut. And a lot of them aren’t even young any more, they had B-plans having been washed away by beer and vodka years ago.
Meanwhile the competition is at home, working their asses off.
The thing is, even if drugs do bring you a bit of ‘inspiration’, inspiration is often the easy bit of creativity. As we’ve said right from the beginning of Lateral Action, creative thinking is not enough; and more recently, creative doing beats creative thinking.
To return to a our earlier examples: Coleridge, The Beatles, Joplin etc. Yes, they did have some pretty amazing insights on their psychedelic trips, and yes, these did contribute to some of their best work. But those moments of inspiration were only the tip of the creative iceberg. Look below the surface, and in each case you’ll see years of dedication, practice, learning their craft and assimilating the influences of their artistic peers and forebears. Take away all that hard work and discipline, and the drugs most certainly would not have worked. They’d have been no more remarkable than the next guy at the bar mumbling into his beer about his undiscovered genius.
So if your musicians are pursuing drugs as a path to creativity, I’d suggest they are looking in the wrong place. I’ve worked with hundreds of artists, musicians and other professional creatives, and almost invariably, the ones with the most ‘inspiration’ are the ones who work the hardest at what they do. Some of them like to have a good time as well – but usually at weekends, and not to the extent that it interferes with their artistic practice.
So if I were talking to your musicians, I would ask them how much of the following they are doing:
- listening to great music – and not just within the narrow range of their particular specialism
- challenging themselves to try new things, technically and stylistically
- playing live
- listening to their own music with a critical eye, and finding ways to improve it
- going to gigs
- watching and learning from undisputed masters, past and present
If the answer is ‘not much’, then I’d gently suggest that drugs are not likely to be the magic bullet. As Hugh points out, there are no shortcuts to creativity.
If the answer is ‘lots, all the time’, that would indicate that they at least have their artistic priorities right. In that case, I’d suggest that, while the drugs may feel like the icing on the creative cake, the cake itself is more important. Cake without icing can be delicious, but if you’re tucking into a bowl of icing on its own, you probably have a problem.
What Do You Think?
Do you think the sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is a help or hindrance to creators?
What would you say to the musicians in the forum run by ‘Concerned’?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.