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Writing Drunk, Editing Sober And The Ego

First off, let me apologize to all three of my readers for my recent online absence. Last week (was it just last week?!) we moved to a different city and are still living out of boxes. Plus, there’s been a lot of behind the scenes work over at the self-published fantasy guild I belong to, Sigil Independent, but I’ll be talking about that soon enough in much, MUCH greater detail.

Anywho, the phrase “write drunk, edit sober” is often attributed to Hemingway, a man notorious for his alcohol consumption (and mutant cats). But, according to my most cursory of googles, he never actually said that. But it still makes for a good story because of his mythology.

And, truly attributed or not, there’s a truth to the idea.

Because, believe it or not, writing is really hard. Perhaps because we’re taught the proper way to structure a sentence in elementary school, then the proper way to structure an essay in high school, we fear sitting down to write almost as much as we hate public speaking. Sure, we love texting and writing messages to friends, but those are simply communitive. Once we add a creative aspect to it, it suddenly becomes heinous.

And my theory behind it is because of the Ego.

Now, I should point out that I don’t mean ego as in the sense of self worth (though that too gets in the way), rather the Freudian sense. In that there is an awareness of self as an individual. Because, it turns out, when you have that awareness, it gets in the way of writing and any other creative endeavor.

Again I’m siding with Freud (and Jung, obviously) in that creativity in any form springs from the Unconscious mind. And the Unconscious, as its name so plainly states, is the opposite of self-awareness. Inspiration springs out of it, taking the author/ painter/ designer/ etc. completely unaware and driving them to express an idea they’re still figuring out along the way.

If you’ve ever taken a corporate course on brainstorming, you’ll have heard the phrase “there are no bad ideas in brainstorming.” This is a patently stupid and idiotic statement, as anyone who’s had to sit through a corporate brainstorming session can attest, but there’s (again) some truth to the idea underlying it: If you stop to note how stupid an idea springing from the Unconscious is, you then invoke the Conscious Ego to critique it, thus entirely derailing the creative process.

Which is why a lot of writers, myself included on occasion, seek out alcohol for the writing process. Because it decreases the Ego by lowing inhibitions and blotting out self-awareness one delicious sip at a time, thus facilitating the creative process.

I wish I had a link to this story I heard on NPR probably circa 2015/16 but haven’t been able to dredge it up on the internet (this isn’t it, but it’s similar). The story goes that they sought out an improvisational jazz pianist, the best in his field, thus exemplifying the creative process in that he would create songs on the fly. They then sat him in an MRI machine and monitored his brain. And as they had him create his songs, they found that his frontal cortex, the part of the brain that gives us our sense of self and Ego, was suppressed.

He could create on the fly because he wasn’t thinking about himself at the time, rather the music.

And yes, there’s a lot more to the story (I remember him saying how much practice was important so his hands could immediately do what his mind wanted), but the point remains that focusing on the self and being critical just gets in the way of the creative process.

Which is why whoever they were interviewing on that NPR story theorized why so many authors and musicians have drug and alcohol problems: They’re trying to temporarily set the Ego aside so they can create.

But, as every author who seeks inspiration from the bottom of the bottle can attest, there’s a very delicate balance between having just enough that you can ignore all your doubts and getting so drunk that you can’t type a sentence without spellchecker blooming redder than the setting sun.

Yet while getting the raw idea/ rough draft on the page is an unconscious process (or at least one that doesn’t need the Ego getting in the way), editing necessitates awareness. Again leaning on Freud: The Unconscious minds is basically a child (Id), which doesn’t care about typos, logic, or how many times you reuse the same word in a paragraph. The Unconscious just wants to get the idea out and doesn’t care in the slightest how complex, precise, or aesthetically pleasing the idea is.

And that’s where the sober editing Ego comes into play: rationally looking at the scrawled output of the Unconscious and putting it into order others can understand. Because, while the Unconscious HATES order, audiences need it to comprehend the idea in question. And it’s only the awareness of the Ego, not only of the self, but others and what they’ll think when they see the piece, that can translate the Unconscious inspiration into something the rest of the world can enjoy.

So while I never advocate alcohol consumption (except for those couple of times I have), there certainly is a case for its application in the creative process. Just as there is in being sober for the editing of those ideas later.

Because if you ever attempt to edit drunk, that’s when you’re probably just a drunk.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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