Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Inspiration+ Drugs - repost

(This post originally appeared in August 2008 here on The Flying Trilobite.  Lots of fascinating comments on that post too - check 'em out.  I thought I'd re-post it for new readers.  Comments and debate welcome.)- -
So here's the thing.

While in University, and continuing to today, I'll show somebody examples of my work for the first time, and I will hear, "Whoa, so just what are you onman? Must be some good s--t!"

Yeah, the good s--t is my brain. My creativity. My diverse range of interest and my hard-won madskillz with a pencil. My brain dwarfs other brains. And I can tell you why.

I've been attempting to write this post for a long time now. It's a hard one to write without sounding smug and preachy or after-school-special. So I'm just throwing it out there in plain language and not worrying too much about it.

I don't drink alcoholic beverages, and I don't do recreational drugs, and I follow no religion. Period. Never have, and likely won't. Over the course of an entire year, I maybe polish off one glass of wine divided up over New Year's, a random evening and my wedding anniversary. I should probably drink a bit of wine for the health effects. Keep meaning to do that.

Let me cut off some common assumptions at this point: I really really don't care if other people drink alcohol. It is not something I do, but I am not passing some kind of moral judgement on people either. In a free and open society, I am free to not drink and think you're cool. No need to explain to me how it's really good I don't drink, and you admire it, or to accuse me of accusing you of wrongdoing. Telling me my coffee-drinking is "at least something, kind of wimpy, but something," makes me laugh.

I don't drink or do drugs for a bunch of reasons, but here's one of the largest. As I emerged like a delicate, lumbering butterfly into my University years, I was asked "what I was into" more and more. And in my first year survey course of Western Art, we began talking about Hieronymous Bosch. Bosch did fascinating things, unreal visions of heaven and hell with the most unlikely structures made from the tools of alchemy. And a theory we were presented with, very popular and assumed to be true by my peers, was that ergot of rye in the fields near the artist were causing Bosch to experience the effects of very mild LSD.

Everyone nodded. Of course. It was instantly assumed this is where his genius and creativity stemmed from.

It was an outrage! An outrage because what if it wasn't ergot of rye? A great disservice to a great mind. It was an outrage because in my view, it smacked of complacency by my fellow art students. Wanna push your art further? Drugs. Worked for Bosch.

If it was true, than my mind would be unremarkable without intentional damage inflicted upon myself. No thanks. I needed to hold fast against the weak undercurrent of peer pressure and create fantastic, unreal images in the face of pure sobriety.

I'm not the next Hieronymous Bosch. I'm doing what I do. My body suffers from asthma, and I have some medications I take regularly, daily, along with a love for coffee. Throwing more into the mix will not help. One day, will someone cite my puffers as the source of my creativity? I hope it is not the case.

And I spoke above of my thoughts on alcohol, how do I feel about drugs?

I think they are kind of lame. (There I go, sounding like an after-school special.) I am especially weary of marijuana. It is so present and so popular now, you can't escape it at parties. And users always want to tell me all the scientific facts they know, about how it's no worse than alcohol, they only use it sometimes to fall asleep, I've studied it way more than you, blah blah blah. You know why it bugs me? Because alcohol stays in your glass and on your breath, but marijuana goes into everyone's lungs. Smoking marijuana is lame and selfish.

I am writing this post not to judge others, but to judge myself. Perhaps it is not an achievement to be visually creative without drugs, and this is seen as nothing more than a fearful person stamping their foot saying "I don't wanna". In my view, my brain dwarfs many other brains. My synapses are intact, my dendrites and neurons hum happily. This creativity is mine, and not the product of liquid or inhaled inspiration.

I'll reiterate, I really don't judge others by what substances they use for fun. Friends say I'm fun at parties. I simply get cross when someone gets pushy or insulting by wondering what drugs/alcohol/religion I am on, and won't believe I can live without those things.

Please feel free to disagree on this touchy topic, and make comments.

Oh, and cheers!

This week I am re-posting a few pieces previously posted due to the topic. In order, these pieces are entitled, from the top, Anthropomorphic GestationKnowledge Pupates, & Asthma Incubus.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow


traumador said...

Marijuana "lame and selfish", couldn't have said it better myself!

I am NOT cool with people smoking up around me anymore. Despite their "scientific" facts, doup is a hell of a lot worse than alcohol. I've never encountered anyone who has gottten a mental illness from drinking (mind you I have three good friends all in AA due to the addictiveness of the stuff... but that is a truly treatable illness in comparison).

I had one of my best friendships completely destroyed by that friend smoking up during his teens and early twenties only to develop severe mental conditions as a result (very accute paranoid schizophrenia). One of the neglected facts about marijuana is it has a very adverse effect on people with delicate brain chemistry, and can prematurally or outright trigger mental illness that otherwise hadn't mainifested yet. My friend's family history did have the odd case, but not to his level, and the doctor's upon hearing how much he smoked pinpointed that as the likely cause.

Now my interacting with my friend (or not interacting) causes him to freak out as being his (former) best friend I know him very well. His paranioa is so deep anything I do is somehow a plot against him. So I've had to completely cut him out of my life due to the stress this was causing both of us, and sadly most of his other friends have had to do the same.

So yeah I'm not only against marijuana use, I'm also a little preachy and righteous about it too! Not that you have to be Glendon ;)

Glendon Mellow said...

I've seen some bahaviours from some friends change radically - I don't know if the behaviours changed and part of that led to a "chronic" lifestyle, or if it was the marijuana wagging the dog. Either way it's always kind of disappointing.

That said, over the years tons of my friends, really great friends recreationally smoke up and I don't see an effect in their usual social interactions.

Drinking I am a lot less concerned with - most people successfully drink and moderation, and even though I don't drink alcohol, it bugs mess less.

But really, the main peeve is the way people prescribe creativity to drugs and alcohol use. Personally, I find if you need to prompt creative ideas with substance abuse, you're probably not a very good artist anyway.

Sharon said...

Comments that relate creativity to substance abuse are right up there with the "my kid could do that" comments about abstract art (from non-artists). They get me immediately on the defensive. I'm so tired of hearing those kind of cliches over and over. Ugh.

Glendon Mellow said...


Tommy Leung said...

Well, I've already written a few thoughts on this matter on the "Attributing creativity to Higher Deity" post, but I have also given this matter further thoughts.

One thing that anyone heavily involved in work which demands a high degree of creativity - either as either a profession or a hobby - can tell you that it is can be quite mentally demanding. It's fun, but it's still hard work and challenging to be really creative - and if you are doing it as a profession, it is almost expected to be available "on tap" (I don't know about the art world, but in science, the Higher Powers of Administration - which are populated by people who knows nothing about science - seem to expect their staff to come up with ground-breaking ideas for lucrative grants at the drop of a hat/hammer).

So for people who don't "get it", drugs and other substance may seem like a short cut to creativity. I'm sure some of it might be born out of an inferiority complex too ("I can be that creative too - if only I took some more of that X/Y/Z), but the idea of having an easy shortcut to something which would otherwise be challenging can be quite appealing. It's like equating mind-altering drugs to performance-enhancing drugs in sports and other physical feats - of course, the mind doesn't function like that.

I've found that there is a "performance enhancing" substance (of sorts) when it comes to creativity (though it won't be palatable to people who wants a shortcut because it require attention and patience): reading fiction. The thing a lot of people don't quite appreciate about reading fiction (especially in the age of social networking and immersive gaming) is that it is an *interactive* process in a way. When you read about a scene or characters, it force you to engage the neural circuitry for imagination and creativity, because you have to reconstruct them all in your own mind based on what have been described. The more you use those connections, the stronger they become, and that leads to creative spillover which can apply to activities other than reading fiction.

I remember having writer's block a few months ago when I was putting together a big grant proposal, but I found that it cleared right up after I read a short story collection by Charles Stross. Or if I'm just drawing a blank while trying to start a manuscript or coming up with the next Big Idea (if it so pleases the Higher Powers of Admin), I pick up a blank piece of paper and start drawing critters and stuff instead. It's all to keep exercising those same neural connections

So to the people who thinks the path to creativity is paved with pills and joints - grab a (well-written) novel or a book about a challenging topic and exercise those creativity circuits - because they will serve you much better than any drugs ever will!

Kaitlin Beckett said...

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what I was ‘on’, I’d have enough money to buy a whole bunch of drugs :D

Morgan Jackson said...

Not much to add to the discussion; drugs = lame, beer = good; religion = waste of time.

BUT! "Knowledge Pupates" is fucking awesome. Like really awesome. Like filling my mind with awesomesauce awesome. Just thought I'd pass that along!

Glendon Mellow said...

Really good points Tommy - I suppose at times it could be a matter of jealousy at successful creative thinkers, or at least a misunderstanding of how creativity works.

And I love love love your comment about fiction being a creativity performance enhancing drug --that's so true and so apt.

Kaitlin - and then you and I would be at War with America. :-)

Morgan - LOL! And thanks. I get a lot of mixed reactions from that drawing.

davor said...

This is a great post, and you're right, the commenters have turned in a clutch performance. So if I may weigh in...

I think it's all rooted in the mystical qualities we ascribe to creativity. If someone isn't experiencing it in the same way you are, they might resort to finding "additives" to your mind that explain it. The thing is, raw creativity is nothing special, it's having the discernment and talent to work with it that makes you an artist.

I also tend to be suspicious of drugs because I don't want that rational part of me compromised. It's hard work to begin with, so I can't afford to erode it more! It's funny, it's sort of like my atheism. In high school, I hung with a group that rebelled by being straight edge (a response to the stoners of our beloved championship football team) as well as rejecting religion. These were emotional, neurotic reasons. Thankfully, over time, they have been eclipsed by rational reasons.

I have come to enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage, but it wasn't until I was into my thirties. So, I skipped over the binge drinking phase so many people revel in, and have never considered drinking a boost to my creativity. A way to dull certain psychological pain, yes, but not to the point of passing out drunk. It's also a decent cure for insomnia.

I do think it's true that "altered states" can be creatively fruitful, but I'm pretty liberal with the term. When I'm stuck, a brisk bit of exercise, some good hard manual labor, or indeed some fiction reading can absolutely change something in me that gets those magical juices flowing.

I wonder: will creativity ever be understood? Is it one of those questions science will never answer?

Tygenco said...

I'll drop in my few cents worth...

I'm not into recreational/illicit/illegal substances. I know people who are and I know it's their choice, even though I don't like that they indulge. It was their choice after all. And I'm not afraid to say that I will break away from people if I feel that I can't tolerate things anymore. Same goes for alcohol--and while I'm old enough to legally drink, I don't, because I don't like the taste of most alcoholic drinks and me being on a blood thinner presents more risk than it's worth.

If I'm picking anything, my drug of choice is music. Music doesn't alter my ability to think clearly, it's something I can access almost anywhere at almost any time without causing trouble or harm, and it's an acceptable thing for me to be tapping my foot to the beat while I'm working. Much like Mister Orr, I would apply the term "altered states" liberally. There are, I'm certain, plenty of ways to find one's self in an altered state without the aid of anything illicit/illegal and without risk of being arrested.

I think it was in one of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld books where he described creative moments like huge clouds of shooting sparks that sleeted through people's minds on their way through the universe at large and that for some people they had to put the ideas on paper or shape them out of clay, lest they go mad otherwise. Clearly no drugs required to attain the sparks sleeting through one's mind but perhaps if the ideas aren't given a form one might need some help from a medical professional.

(I suppose that my view may also be a tad different from others because of where I grew up and how things were accepted there. I was an outcast because I didn't go off partying and drinking like so many of my then peers)

Tommy Leung said...

Yes Tygenco, music! I actually treat music as mood-altering substance ("audio drug" as I sometime call it) - and those who have read "The Extended Phenotype" and remember that bit about the nightingale will know what I mean.

And I agree it doesn't alter my ability to think clearly and I like having it in the background while I work - however, the thing I have noticed about music is how it influences the tone of what I'm working on, and it may becomes slightly darker, more mechanical, or softer depending on what music I have playing in the background. The influence is very slight, but I can tell it's there.

I also find that music can trigger very strong memories, and sometimes they become associated with significant events/work. For example, I remember listening to "The Con" by Tegan & Sara over and over while finishing up the last chapters of my thesis (my officemate on another hand had opt for Guns'n'Roses and ACDC as the soundtrack to finishing his thesis). While more recently, I remember listening to a lot of Ladytron while writing up a big grant proposal. However, I must admit the latter was a somewhat conscious choice. I had an inkling that Ladytron would put me in the right mood tackling that grant proposal.

Glendon Mellow said...

Interesting thoughts from Penn Jillette here.

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