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How a sober stint impacts your creativity

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Madeleine Dore

Does alcohol lubricate our creativity or stifle our best work? Creatives weigh in on how sober stints have impacted their creative process and offer advice for rethinking your relationship with alcohol.
How a sober stint impacts your creativity

Cath Glassbie's illustration for Everything Happens for a Riesling by Grace De Morgan 

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” 
Oscar Wilde

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An artist’s job is to see the world and things as they really are, and to simultaneously imagine something new entirely.

Wilde was not the only artist to proclaim alcohol as a pathway towards both options. From barbecues to the opera, drinking permeates all levels of Australian society, with binge drinking and drinking to get drunk responsible for a wide range of health and social problems.

Read: How creatives can stop drinking themselves to death

Yet a common perception that alcohol is conducive to creativity persists. In a study of 70 young adults between the ages of 19 and 32, researchers at the University of Graz in Austria found that mild intoxication does not so much boost creative abilities as thwart getting stuck in a “mental rut”.

While a drink may be able to help someone move through a creative block, a large majority of the creative process requires traits that are typically linked to sobriety.

‘Creativity is about discipline and perspiration, and if you pursue a creative enterprise, the best work is usually done after an enormous amount of effort and perseverance,’ said Chris Raine, founder of the online community Hello Sunday Morning which is dedicated to helping people to change their behaviour around alcohol.

While alcohol can have benefits when it comes to social connection, said Raine, its impact on our sleep and focus can have a negative effect on our creativity.

‘I think the unique trait around alcohol is that it can quite easily can zap your motivation towards doing things that are creative,’ he said.

The gift of time

Hello Sunday Morning was born in 2009 when Raine undertook a year-long experiment to change his own relationship with alcohol.

He soon discovered that hangover-free Sundays also delivered the gift of extra time and the productivity required for writing.

‘The year I took off drinking, I wrote every Sunday morning equating to almost a book of stories. Now that I am currently working on a book, I know that I can't drink the night before if I am going to focus for a few hours the next day on writing.' Raine said.

A stint of sobriety may be the antidote for the busyness trap – especially for those who have limited time for their creative practice.  

‘For someone working nine to five, the only spare time you might have is the weekend and if you're out drinking, often the last thing you want to do is get up and write or paint or be creative. It's really about the allocation of time,’ he said.

It comes back to choices, added Raine, not being perfect.

‘I think there is an expectation that I’m the perfect drinker and I live in this place of complete balance, and that's just not true. For me, there are daily trade offs and choices – whether it is alcohol, sugar, go to the gym or not go to the gym, we are constantly confronted with this choices that we make around how we manage our consciousness and it is not all bad.’

The art of the sober stint

Designer and owner of The Carlton Club, The Windsor Hotel and the Gertrude Hotel, Tracey Lester had an epiphany more than 20 years ago and realised she needed to change her relationship with alcohol in order to avoid the drinking spiral of the industry.

In that moment of realisation, Lester became an “occasional drinker”, meaning she only drinks on special occasions, roughly six times each year.

During periods where intensive creativity is required, Lester limits her alcohol consumption.

‘If I’m doing my design work, I don’t drink – I make sure I’m clear and focussed and get a good night's sleep and can tap into that creative energy, because otherwise I find when I’m drinking my brain is half dead the next day and I make unhealthy choices when I’m hung-over,’ she said.

Recently, writer Grace De Morgan spent six months writing about wine for the wine guide, Everything Happens for a Riesling.

‘I was concerned that I had inadvertently formed a habit, so I did FebFast earlier this year,’ she said. ‘Taking a month off was a really great way to give my liver a break and reassess my relationship with alcohol.’

The process of writing the book also inspired De Morgan to focus on quality over quantity. ‘It also made me realise that wanting to [not drink sometimes] doesn’t make me a killjoy – it means that I can enjoy the times when I choose to drink more.’

De Morgan recommends an alcohol free month every now and again to other writers and creatives. ‘Or better yet, just making sure you’re having one or two alcohol-free days a week works too. I also find organising an activity – like going for a walk or swimming at the beach – makes it a bit easier to catch up with friends without feeling the need to smash a beer,’ she said.   

Artist, writer and graphic recorder Sarah Firth has recently introduced two 60-day sober stints into every year and has found them to be fertile ground for creativity and focus.

‘I find that during sober stints I have much more energy at night and tend to socialise less, which means I have more productive creative time. Sobriety has also led me to getting in touch with very painful emotions, which has been hard, but also inspired real personal and creative growth. Through going sober I have also discovered the benefits of walking and tiny naps as a great stress reliever, which help reset my brain, relax my body and gain clarity, which inevitably benefits my creative output,’ Firth said.

The pressure to drink in order to connect

In a recent podcast interview, Nigella Lawson described being the only one not drinking in a social setting as feeling as if you aren’t really in the same room.

This may be the fear for some individuals who wish to cut down on drinking but don’t want to be left out of the loop during networking situations.

But in time, Lester has found that she can ‘pick up on the vibe’ of a room without having to drink alcohol.

Nevertheless, she does witness the pressure to drink, particularly on artists, with events like art openings and alcohol often going hand in hand.

De Morgan has also noticed this assumption in the arts industry that people will drink at events, ‘whether the booze is lukewarm Chardonnay or not’.

She noted: ‘If there were amazing wine at every opening, show or gig, I’d understand it more. But it feels like alcohol is often there to give people permission to loosen up. And I’m not sure that’s the ideal way to enjoy wine or get to know other people professionally. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bev, but I don’t want to feel pressure to drink so that someone else can feel comfortable talking to me. If you want to drink, do your thing, but I’m not a fan of the implicit social contract that we all have to drink to have a good time.’

A sobering reality

While sobriety can come with benefits such as having more time and a clear head for creative work, for some this can bring up anxieties.

‘It can be also quite difficult to have all this time on your hands and not be as social as you used to be,’ added Raine.

During her sober stints, De Morgan found that her work improved a little, but not drastically. ‘I noticed that socialising can be trickier when you’re not drinking, so I would often go home early or sit events out, which gave me more time to write. But then I missed out on some of those quality conversations and ridiculous adventures that wine seems to inspire.’

Alcohol can both sooth anxiety and perpetuate it. When we use alcohol to mask our anxieties or fill up a perceived void within us, those very voids are exposed when we stop drinking.

‘I also found my anxiety was both better and worse,’ said De Morgan. 'It made me realise that I use wine to wind down, but that drinking too much gives me a lot of anxiety the next day. That is, if I drink a lot, I inadvertently say something silly and spend the next day obsessing over it. A lot of nervous energy gets wasted when I’m being a hungover neurotic.’

For Firth, alcohol acts like ‘a holiday for my brain’. But often, when we numb ourselves and our brain, we can numb our creativity.

‘As I’ve gotten older and more self-aware, I’ve I realised that drinking has become my go-to for numbing or self-medicating my social anxiety, mental health troubles, relationship issues, trauma, grief, and stress,’ said Firth.

‘The main thing that prompted me to try sobriety stints was needing to deal with some deep trauma, and I noticed how my compulsive drinking was preventing me from getting emotionally real with myself. I wanted to find ways to manage stress and mental health issues in a healthier and sustainable way,’ Firth added.

Are there any positive ties between alcohol and creativity?

While there are links between creativity, focus and sobriety, it would also be an illusion place not drinking on a pedestal.

‘I think there is an illusion that absolute sobriety is the path to absolute creativity, but certainly there's a very clear and strong argument to the idea that you can be more focused and get better sleep and all the things that are going to help you become more disciplined with your art,’ added Chris Raine.

For Grace De Morgan, work accomplishments have also stemmed from drinking. ‘Let’s just say the opportunity to write Everything Happens For A Riesling would never have come around if I were a teetotaller. Now I get to write about wine in a fun, self-deprecating way and interview professional winos. I couldn’t think of a better job,’ she  said.  

There are times when drinking can help with writing, Firth added. ‘I usually find drinking useful during the initial phases where I’m throwing around ideas and playing, and then in later writing phases when I want to loosen up the tone of the piece. Drinking also makes me feel more open, confident and playful which benefits my social and creative generation because I’m less stressed and worried about what other people think,’ she said.

Finding emotional supports

If you do want to make healthier choices or undergo a sober stint to rewire your relationship with alcohol, focus on a creative project, or learn more about yourself, it will no doubt be challenging.

Looking at the emotional relationship you have with substance use is also important, adds Firth. ‘I did a lot of journaling and therapy during my initial sobriety stints because big stuff was coming up and I needed to make sure I had support for working through it,’ she said.

Chris Raine’s foremost advice to those who join the Hello Sunday Morning community and beyond is to ‘self-love, no matter what.’

‘Always to come back to a place of finding a deeper curiosity around the choices that we make, and resist trying to label them or make ourselves feel bad about them and just look at them as instructive,’ he said.

There are plenty of resources and tools on Hello Sunday Morning and via other organisations' initiatives, but it comes back to trying to love yourself a little deeper, said Raine.

‘Life is a constant evolution of trying to process our past and understand it and let it go, and I think drinking and drinking too much is sometimes an escape from that. It's just another thing to look at and accept and move on if it no longer serves you,’ he concluded.

If you or a friend or family member is looking for information or support about alcohol and other drugs, a range of options are available.

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator