Too Sober to Be Creative

By Amy Dresner 11/30/16

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert

A woman with paint all over her shirt and arms.
More creative?

When I was 36 and shooting cocaine, trying unsuccessfully to write a novel and get sober, my father sent me that quote.

“Print it out, frame it, tape it to your wall. Something, Ames,” he said.

Active addiction can be fertile ground for creativity (see Bukowski, Burroughs, Thompson and every asshole who’s ever written an addiction memoir). However, I found that it’s tough to be organized and disciplined, let alone stick to a schedule or meet deadlines when you’re too high to shower or sick from withdrawals. Also, getting arrested or being put in a four-point restraint tends to cut into your…umm…writing time.

But it is a common fear amongst creative people that if they get too sane or too recovered, they’ll lose their edge, their funny, that the muse will wither away and die from lack of “crazy.” But is that really true?

I admit that I have been exploiting my own addiction and depression for artistic purposes for years.

When asked by Scientific American if there is a link between creativity and addiction, David Linden, neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of The Compass of Pleasure, said quite simply, “No.” However he did go on to admit that “there is a link between addiction and things that are a prerequisite for creativity.” What he’s talking about here are risk-taking, compulsivity and novelty-seeking, which usually accompany a low-functioning dopamine system (that genetic variant which can be responsible for addiction). Because those personality traits are more likely to get you into crazy situations as well as compel you to put your ideas out into the world, they are often the precursors to creativity.

And, as we all know too well, just because you’re sober doesn’t mean you have relinquished your delightful “addict brain.” Now, instead of meth, you just channel that demonic proclivity into other things: exercise, sex, love, work, 12-step meetings, Ben & Jerry’s. Emperor Addict still resides comfortably in our brains angrily demanding mood-altering events, instant gratification, and more of…well, everything. And when we say, “No. No you can’t have one cigarette or a third cupcake or a 5th nitro coffee” (like a terrifying cross between a three-year-old and Henry VIII), the emperor bellows “WHAT? You dare say no to me, woman??!”

In theory, getting out of active addiction should not extinguish nor even reduce creativity. As David Linden says, “When you cure the addiction, you're not changing your genes…If you develop a full-blown addiction to a drug, the indications in rats are that it changes the brain forever. You can get it back a little but never entirely.” Good news for all you ex-tweakers who were scared they had lost their mad collaging ability or their OCD-level organizational skills.

Self-destructive tortured artist icon aside, why then this well-accepted connection between creativity and addictivity (it’s a real word, look it up)? Well, creative people ARE highly sensitive and it’s understandable that highly sensitive people would be more inclined to blunt their big pain and turn down the volume on their loud feelings. Unfortunately, coincidence is not causality. And I don’t know about you, but I know brilliantly creative normies and dull as fuck junkies. Okay, so out goes that theory.

But then how come so many people feel like once they get sober, they’ve got nothing to write, sing or paint about? I’d always thought that much of creativity was the need to work “it” out, express it, make sense of it all. So if you’re doing that on a comfy couch with a $200 shrink or on a hard chair with your sponsor for free, that urgent need to put “it” out there or understand “it” would be gone, right?

Well, not really. I did some research. And surprisingly it’s not so much the misery that makes you creative, it’s the intensity of the emotion. It doesn’t matter so much whether that emotion is positive or negative. So as long as you’re “intense,” you can still be an artiste. Phew, right?

And there’s another thing, proven by multiple studies, that is shown to be crucial to creativity (and no, it’s not threesomes on psychedelics). It is, as Scott Barry Kaufman says, “the experience of unusual and unexpected events.” So basically any life experience can promote creativity as long as it pushes you outside of your comfort zone. This could be marriage, living abroad, having a baby or it could be being homeless, giving $15 blow jobs or tripping your face off on bath salts. But all these smart science guys say these experiences don’t NOT have to be traumatic to promote creativity. Personally, I’m relieved.

My first book, My Fair Junkie, which is due to be released next fall by Hachette, is the relentless highlight reel of my life’s epic fuck-ups, framed by stint doing community labor. Now, at almost four years sober, in a stable loving relationship with no recent psych ward or ER visits, I found myself thinking, “What the fuck will I write about next? Will I have to burn my life to the ground again to have a good story?”

I admit that I have been exploiting my own addiction and depression for artistic purposes for years. Saying that, I never intentionally crashed into a wall for material per se, but I certainly put pen to paper pretty quickly after I stepped out of the steaming crumpled heap of metal. With lunacy and addiction, you have a built-in dramatic and, dare I say, humorous element. Not so much with mundane life. So yeah, my subject matter will have to change. I will have to dig deeper to find the funny and the dramatic in what they call “normal life.”

Writers find their "thing" and if they get some commercial success from it, they have no reason to move beyond it. It becomes comfortable and many times, it becomes their signature style. They’d only move beyond it if they got bored, wanted to push themselves or—gulp—their survival depended upon it.

I choose to think that I’ll continue to be creative and hopefully become a better writer as I mature in my sobriety. (Barf.) And let’s be honest, it’s easy to be creative when you’re loaded. You’re delightfully uninhibited and arrogant and your inner critic is either shitfaced saying “that’s mahhhhhvelous” to everything or he’s passed out in the corner with magic marker on his face. But when you’re sober, your little inner Siskel and Ebert is amped up on coffee, interrupting you to tell you how every single word is a piece of shit. But I have faith. I look to my ex-addict literary heroes like Augusten Burroughs and Jerry Stahl, or my fellow comrades like Mishka Shubaly and Bucky Sinister. They all continue to be creative and prolific, churning out warped witty books well into sobriety. And let’s be honest: I’m better than I was, but I’m far from “well.”

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming My Fair Junkie. And she is on Twitter.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.