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Great Writers and the Struggle of Addiction: Why So Many Famous Geniuses Suffer

In a 1954 interview, Ernest Hemingway (does he need an introduction?) spoke of his writing routine. He would start writing at first light and bang away till noon.

Charles Bukowski, a great poet of the 70s, approves of this routine, but strongly suspects Hemingway got his writing done by noon so he could spend the rest of the day knocking off dry martinis.


Hemingway’s drinking habits are legendary and well-documented. One gets the feeling had he not died of a self-inflicted wound to the head, alcohol would have been his end.

Yet, the story of Hemmingway is not unique. F Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and many other famous geniuses were dedicated alcoholics.

Why do writers struggle with addiction? Are writers any more prone to addiction than other professionals?

Of Drugs and the Desire for Greater Creativity

Let’s get this out of the way.

Among many modern creatives, there is a general appreciation of alcohol and other psychoactive substances as fuels for greater creativity. And it’s easy to understand why. Some of the greatest writers of our time were drunks, for instance. We idolize them. We want to be like them. We do what they did – to an extent.

Ask any modern-day writer why they drink or do drugs. OK, they might not admit to using/abusing as a means to creative excellence, but deep down they know their creative gods were addicts, so why not?

But do drugs really enhance creative thinking in any way? Not that scientific research readily agrees.

Sure, a 2016 study on the relationship between creativity and psychoactive substance use did establish an association between artistry and substance use. However, this association can be negative or positive. This, if anything, is reason enough for an artist to become an active user.

The Need to Obliterate the Present

Elizabeth Bishop, a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry in 1956, was a binge drinker who on multiple occasions drank Eau de Cologne – a fragrance – when liquor was out of reach.

In her poem “Drunkard” she says nothing could quench her love for liquor.

Elizabeth, though, drank not to find creativity, but obliterate the present. She was a lesbian at a time when almost everyone was as straight as a spear (only 6 percent of women had a lesbian inclination in 1952). It was dangerous. Lesbians were considered perverts. Security risks even.

Today, many artists face similar or even worse circumstances. Unable to confront their present-day situations and thrive in a society that rejects them, alcohol becomes an obsessive friend; the only way to wipe out the present.

Hemingway’s words “Modern life, too, is a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief” couldn’t be more appropriate.

Writing Is a Lonely Art

It’s easy to think writing is no longer a lonely art. Especially with writers cranking out stories in crowded newsrooms unperturbed. Oh, well. Journalists. Writers. There is a difference.

The writing process is lonely. Solitary.

Perhaps it’s the calming presence of self that gets a writer firing away. Or the fear of attracting the wrong energy from other humans. Or the urge to sink into a lone, imaginary world where every word tickles, every phrase arouses, every chapter whets, and every book wins a Nobel Prize.

Emily Dickinson, an American Poet of the 1800s, led an introverted life and died alone. In a “Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner writes about loneliness. Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet and writer, died a lonely man. The examples can go on, but they will all lead to one thing; great art comes at a cost – loneliness.

Loneliness isn’t harmful, however. Most writers find invention in this state. But extended bouts of loneliness can lead to depression, which makes one prone to alcohol. Even prescription depressants have a high potential for abuse and addiction.

A Self-Confidence Crisis Among Famous Geniuses?

Harper Lee won a Pulitzer with her first (and only) book “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It’s not every day that a writer hits stardom on the first attempt, and Harper confirms it. In one interview, she admits success was never in her mind. She expected brutal reviewers to promptly send the book to the place where half-assed books go to die.

This tells of a writer who was low on self-confidence, a mental condition that plagues many artists. There rarely is a work of art that meets their self-set high standards of artistry. For writers, there is always a phrase to perfect, a paragraph to rewrite.

Even the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t what’s in the book today. It’s probably also the reason some old, exemplary writings are published for the first time after their authors die. You get the feeling they thought their writings were only worthy of a place in the bin.

It’s this lack of self-confidence that drives most writers to alcohol, drugs and addiction. In a sober frame, these writers are always wondering what readers will think or say about their work. Is it crap? Absolute waste of time and money?

But after several glasses of liquor or a good dose of a drug, out goes low self-confidence, in checks euphoria and a self-belief of unimaginable proportions. To maintain this state? More liquor. More substance. Addiction gets a field day.

Achieve Artistic Greatness Without Addiction

Many famous geniuses bore the brunt of addiction. Whether they turned to alcohol and drugs to bury the past, bear the present, escape the future, beat loneliness or get their creative guns firing, is not for us to judge.

Ours is to learn from their experiences and acknowledge that we can rise to the perch of art and fame without relying on drugs. Even if you slip into addiction, there are enough tools and resources to help you fight it. This site, for instance, will help you learn how giving your life to Christ could be a turning point in addiction recovery.

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