Write Drunk, Edit Sober.

Written by Cole Schafer


I’m not sure if all great writers are anxiety-ridden chronically depressed drunks. Or, if all anxiety-ridden chronically depressed drunks are great writers.

What I do know is that Virginia Woolf put stones in her pockets and walked into a lake, that Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger and that Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven, gassed herself to sleep and never woke up.

I’ve long thought the line between creativity and madness to be as thin as the thread that comes out of a spider’s ass and perhaps it is even thinner where it concerns writing.

There is a deep fascination among readers in regards to this line that writers choose (or are perhaps forced) to walk along to make great art –– a deep fascination that has lead to an elegant romanticizing of creativity, writing, madness and drunkenness.

For as many writers that are mentally ill, there are just as many that drink like fish.

There’s quite a funny story about Hemingway stealing a urinal from his favorite liquor hole after deciding he had pissed away so much money in it that he might as well own it.

While Hemingway might be most famous for his time on the barstool… Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe were no strangers to the devil’s juice either.

Interestingly enough, despite society’s obsessions with writers and their drinking, few of them actually wrote drunk.

Or, at least, Hemingway didn’t.

He is often misattributed for saying (or writing)… “Write drunk, edit sober.”

The quote was actually uttered by a writer named Peter De Vries.

Sorry, Peter.

However, for creatives, entrepreneurs and writers… this quote brings up an interesting question… do those in creative fields do their most creative work under the influence?

While we would never want our surgeons to cut us open while sipping a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, perhaps in some professions alcohol is the secret weapon to producing wildly creative work.

The advertising god, David Ogilvy, sure thought so… at least where it concerned coming up with big creative ideas. He wrote the following in Ogilvy on Advertising

“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.”

Ogilvy might have been onto something.

Decades later there was a study done.

A bunch of creative directors were separated into two rooms. They were both given a series of creative briefs and a few hours to create advertising campaigns around said briefs.

One group was allowed to drink while the other was forced to stay sober. The advertising campaigns were then handed to a group of sober high-caliber creative directors to judge.

Four out of the five most creative advertising campaigns chosen were thought up by the boozers.

That’s interesting.

So, maybe, just maybe, there is something to be said about creativity and alcohol.

Regardless, I think everyone can agree that the “editing” aspect of creativity, which certainly requires something more technical… should be an act done sober.

In other words, when writing, or finger painting or brainstorming creative marketing ideas… it might be okay to have a drink or two. But, when later editing the writing and the finger painting and the brainstorming… you better have your wits about you.

I, myself, do a lot of writing…

Between the brands, I work with at Honey Copy, the weekly newsletter I send out at Sticky Notes and my publication One Minute, Please? I will write as many as 5,000 words in a single day.

If I were to be drunk during every one of these words, I would have killed off my liver a long time ago.

So, I will drink but it is generally only when I am coming up with big creative concepts (like what Ogilvy mentioned above) versus shelling out a 2,000+ word article.

So, going back to my earlier statement…

I’m not sure if all great writers are anxiety-ridden chronically depressed drunks. Or, if all anxiety-ridden chronically depressed drunks are great writers.

I’m still not entirely sure.

But, what I do know is that for those of us who aren’t great writers –– us non Hemingway’s, Woolf’s, Plath’s, Bukowski’s and Poe’s –– we should probably stick to Ogilvy’s advice and only have a drink when doing big creative thinking.

Writing, itself, is generally hard enough… and while drinking might be a jolly good time… a part of me argues the act only makes the writing process harder.

But, I digress.

By Cole Schafer.