Don’t Believe the Hype
Photo by the author
My wife read musician Nick Cave’s latest post to his Red Hand Files, out loud, to me, today. We love him.
He’s open about being clean now, after many years of active heroin addiction.
He answered a couple of questions about the relationship of an addict’s use of drugs and alcohol vis-a-vis creativity.
It inspired me to speak on this topic, as well.
(Note: I’m going to name a lot of famous people in this post. Please think of them as artists rather than as celebrities. It's not fame that makes them important, it's their creativity. They’ve become famous because they’ve made remarkable work.)
First of all, the question: does alcohol/drug use fuel creativity?
Undoubtedly, it surely has fueled amazing creativity for many artists of all kinds. There is no doubt about that.
More importantly, if it’s an addiction, and your life is on the line, is it worth it? Is it sustainable?
Can you be brilliantly creative without it? Do you have the courage to find out?
If you’re a creative addict who is hanging on to alcohol and drugs in the name of creativity, are you lying to yourself? Can you see yourself differently?
These are only a few of the people I would cite as being extraordinary artists whose sobriety has allowed them to stay alive, and to continue to work:
Two of the greatest actors in the Western world, Anthony Hopkins and Samuel L. Jackson, have been sober for decades. I respect and love their work immensely.
It’s been a privilege to follow the work of Nick Cave, whose work has acquired depth and poignancy and potency over his years of being clean.
Denzel Washington. Edie Falco. Danny Trejo. Gary Oldman.
Ringo Starr, Eminem, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes.
This could be a very long list of admirable artists living a clean and sober life.
Yes, there are survivors who appear to have continued to drink and to use, in whatever fashion. Keith Richards. Dennis Hopper. Jack Nicholson, and others. OK. More power to you.
But for everyone who survived and continued to make good work, there are dozens who died, and whose work stopped, cold.
I can only imagine the inspiration that Jimi Hendrix got from using, feeding his imagination and his flights of fancy. But he choked on his vomit when he was 27 and he stopped creating.
Same thing with Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. All gone at 27.
I can only imagine what those artists would have brought forth if they’d gotten clean. I believe they would have all been extremely important voices in our society.
Considering the legend of alcohol/drugs fueling creativity, the first thought that came to me was to consider the end of Ernest Hemingway’s life. He’d lived a life committed to drinking, and he wrote of it. Although there were other factors that contributed to his suicide, alcoholism surely prevented him from getting the help he needed and he ended his life with a shotgun.
Jack Kerouac was also inspired by drugs and alcohol, and he wrote about it. Brilliantly. What would a second chapter of his life have been like, as much of a spiritual seeker as he was? And as prolific as he was? Dead, from alcohol, at age 47.
One of the greatest actors of my lifetime, Philip Seymour Hoffman, gone at 46. I had the good fortune to see him on stage, and my memory of that performance is indelible. And we all know the incredible work he did in films. I believe he was clean and sober for most of that work but tragically died after going back to using heroin.
My God, the mercurial artistry of Charlie Parker, whose heroin addiction took him out at 34. John Coltrane’s heroin problems led to liver cirrhosis, which killed him at 40. Chet Baker made it to 58, but heroin destroyed him. He fell out of a window. And the beautiful and soulful Billie Holiday. gone at 44 from cirrhosis related to alcohol.
Michael Jackson, 50, prescription drug overdose. Prince, 57, opioid overdose.
Marilyn Monroe. Montgomery Clift.
This could be a reaaalllly long list.
Don’t believe the hype about the old saw that drugs and alcohol fuel creativity. They may.
But, they’re not needed. They’re not necessary.
What do you have in you, the real you?
What do you have to say to the world through your own eyes, with your own voice?
Do you really want to credit your creative work to the substances you ingest?
Are you hiding from something?
I fell prey to this myth myself, in my younger years.
I had some fueled flights of fancy that made some inspired work.
But, I couldn’t really show up the way I wanted to. And I couldn’t find my true voice until I got clean and sober.
Whatever youthful fire and raw talent I had was constantly blocked by my habits.
I thought it was cool to do one rehearsal of a play I was working on while high, usually around the middle of the rehearsal period. I thought it gave me a different feeling and experience of the play, and the character I was bringing to life. Maybe I had an insight or two. Then again, maybe I was just high and it would’ve been better to be more present in reality.
I’m still exploring creativity in sobriety.
I became a filmmaker, which is something I never saw coming. I love doing that work. I love the collaboration, and I love the process.
Writing here on Medium, and on my own website, is new. This style of writing directly in the first person is different for me, having written primarily in screenplay form, works of fiction with imagined characters and dialogue.
To put a point on this, for me, my addictions became a matter of life and death, as it did for everyone I’ve mentioned in this article, whether they survived it or not. I was fortunate to be able to stop, and to stay stopped.
I’ve been dealing with life in a straightforward fashion since 1989. Of course, I’ve dealt with loss, but also with love. A lot of love. I’m married to the love of my life, my best friend. I live in the present with no chemical cloud or block between me and you.
I love art of all kinds, and my deep wish is that my best work is still ahead of me. Who knows? All I can do is to stay clean a day at a time and to keep on trying.
What other choice, really, do I have?