Should You Really ‘Write Drunk, Edit Sober’?

write drunk edit sober
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

First, let’s get one thing straight: Though he’s often credited as the source of this quote, Ernest Hemingway probably did not give the advice of “write drunk, edit sober.” Not only was it totally out of character with his daily habits (Hemingway loved to write in the morning), it also can’t be sourced.

That said, plenty of other creative thinkers and makers have touted the benefits of alcohol as a mechanism to unlock creativity, including best-selling author Julien Smith.

“Get as blitzed as you can handle” said Julien on cjLIVE with Chase Jarvis, “and then hang out with your friends…the next morning, that’s your content.”

Why? Because sometimes, getting outside of yourself with the help of an intoxicating element can help you come up with different solutions or inventions that you usually would.

“As a human being, you’re a pattern-machine,” explained Julien, “That’s what has allowed you to survive…but it’s also necessary to break out of those patterns.”

In scientific studies, alcohol certainly does seem to deliver — within reason. Multiple pieces of research have found that when individuals drink a modest amount, they come up with a more diverse, creative range of answers to questions and problems. In word association games, for example, participants are more able to go outside of the predictable answers, drawing connections where they might not otherwise.

There are a variety of theories as to why this might be, ranging from the notion that alcohol changes the way you remember things (a different memory of a previous experience might result in a different conclusion) to the pretty common idea that a little “liquid courage” lowers inhibitions and thus, quiets the voice of self-doubt that cripples many creative thinkers. Alcohol also “manipulates focus,” which can help you, as Julien describes, break outside of your usual thought patterns and zero in on something you might not have otherwise.

Alcohol also potentially has a magical (ok, chemical) power. After a long day or a large amount of work, your brain releases adenosine, a chemical which basically signals that you’re getting tired. Both caffeine and alcohol thwart the deployment of adenosine, meaning that alcohol might be able to help you power through a particularly tiresome or dull project, and that it might be able to give you an extra boost at the end of an exhausting work day.

There’s also no shortage of anecdotal evidence, mostly in the form of the many examples of the archetype of the drunken artist….which could be more of a problem than a solution. Alcohol usage is often credited as a source of creativity — though, in the case of many artists and makers, it could a way of self-medicating, and actually hinder the creative process.

After all, alcohol isn’t really the same as caffeine, which is lethal only in pretty high doses and doesn’t actively impair you. It does have side-effects — and the creative benefit of alcohol seems to drop off once you go from buzzed to barfing. If you let your focus be too manipulated, you might not get anything done. Or, if you do, it may be riddled with errors, due to a market lack of critical thinking. This is where the “edit sober” of “write drunk, edit sober” comes in — and it’s not to be skipped.

Creating an original work can be scary, which means that lowering inhibitions in able to do so it a pretty smart idea, especially if you’re facing some serious creative blockage. But execution requires a lot more dedication, clarity of thought, and motivation. And because alcohol is a depressant, it has the potential to leave you feeling tired and without the necessary drive to collect your thoughts and actually do the cool thing you thought of when you were drunk.

Alcohol is also, of course, potentially addictive, which can derail creativity and productivity entirely. If you’re going to lubricate some before a brainstorming session, it’s crucial to know your own limits, and ensure that you’re keeping your health and wellness in mind.

The answer, then, to whether or not the advice to “write drunk, edit sober” should be heeded, is: It depends. If you’re a person who can safely have a drink or two and continue to plug away at creative work, then a stiff drink or a cold pint might just be what you need to break out of a rut. But like most things, it’s more  a question of knowing what does — and doesn’t — work for you.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.