Pipes that had smoked opium and hashish were found in Shakespeare’s family home. When Wordsworth wrote “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” he probably had his experiences with laughing gas in mind (something I got to try recently in Vietnam).
Picasso, Van Gogh and everybody else in their era were drinking way too much absinth (so much so that Picasso painted at least a dozen paintings of absinthe and even made hideous little absinth-cup sculptures).
In Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) Thomas De Quincey writers with Suspira or impassioned prose: opium inspired, ornate dream-narratives that straddled the line between poems and essay.
Whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony. Wine robs a man of self-possession; opium greatly invigorates it.
In Les Paradis Artificiels (The Artificial Paradise) Charles Baudelaire also comments:
Opium magnifies that which is limitless, Lengthens the unlimited, Makes time deeper, hollows out voluptuousness, And with dark, gloomy pleasures Fills the soul beyond its capacity.
But Charles also experimented with marijuana, and published ‘The Poems of Hashish” which were later translated into English by Aleister Crowley (you should really go read it, it’s fabulous).
“Among the drugs most efficient in creating what I call the artificial ideal, leaving on one side liquors, which rapidly excite gross frenzy and lay flat all spiritual force, and the perfumes, whose excessive use, while rendering more subtle man’s imagination, wear out gradually his physical forces; the two most energetic substances, the most convenient and the most handy, are hashish and opium. The analysis of the mysterious effect and the diseased pleasures which these drugs beget, of the inevitable chastisement which results from their prolonged use, and finally the immortality necessarily employed in this pursuit of a false ideal, constitutes the subject of this study.”
He also comments,
It is time to leave on one side all this jugglery, these big marionettes, born of the smoke of childish brains. Have we not to speak of more serious things — of modifications of our human opinions, and, in a word, of the morale of hashish?
He wrote that in 1843, and his words are just as applicable to the modern political machinations of marijuana.
The American author Fitz Hugh Ludlow used Tilden’s Extract (a medicinal cannabis concoction marketed as a cure-all) to the point of hallucination, as research for The Hasheesh Eater (1857) His praise for the drug’s ability to simulate “the stoppage of time” and to expand the mind “into great spaces surrounding me on every side” kicked off a cannabis craze in the New York literary scene during the 1860s.
Ludlow describes the marijuana user as one who is reaching for
“the soul’s capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth and Good than she now gains through the chinks of her cell.
bring up these writers because they can talk about drug-related experiences intelligently, as (educated) gentlemen, and I think perhaps it’s time that someone like me can do the same.
I started this article years ago, when I was in Washington and recreational marijuana was legal; which means I can go to the store and buy weed and smoke it at home and I’m not breaking any laws. Although it still has a stigma as something naughty and dangerous, artists and writers have always sought out mind-altering experiences or heightened perception.
Now it’s legal in Oregon, which is even easier. I can go to the store, look at a menu, know exactly how much CBD and THC is in every strain of weed, and try a moderate dose to see how it improves my creative thinking and productivity.
Common symptoms of marijuana include:
- rising feeling
- acute perception of physicality
- extreme sensitivity
- a little hard to think forward (what do I want to do /say next)
- eating sensations are novel and entertaining
- trouble remembering things
Previously, my theory of marijuana use and creativity had been this: marijuana relaxes your conscious, critical mind, which should be good for turning off your filter and producing more, naturally flowing work. It may increase lateral brain connections so you can pair and relate non-obvious ideas, or make interesting if unfounded connections between things. But I would have cautioned against using it often because I think productivity is the real challenge for most people, and marijuana use can lead to apathy (I no longer believe that).
A lot of my friends have said that marijuana improves their writing, that they write better when they are high.
Even bestselling author Lee Child smokes marijuana 5 times a week and thinks it should be made compulsory. Lady Gaga smokes pot when she writes music, and even Martha Stewart knows how to roll a joint. Steve Jobs said marijuana makes him feel “relaxed and creative.”
I was skeptical of these claims, and since I don’t like having unfounded opinions, I determined to find out for myself. I’m finding it a little difficult to hold my train of thought. I started this article while I was high, and now I’m finishing it while high. I’m making more typos and spelling errors than I usually do.
It can be difficult to focus on what I’m doing or what I need to do next. On the other hand sometimes things will pop up I’ve been avoiding, so I get right to it…but then get distracted. I feel much slower than usual, if I’m searching for something specific or locating a file on my computer. But as long as I’m into one project and it’s right in front of me, actually I’m finding marijuana is pretty great for most of my work.
I feel especially the research part of this post was difficult, and writing may be slow as I ponder my way to the next thought (that depends on the type of marijuana though – see below for some alternatives).
Let’s try some fiction:
The girly pink unicorn rolled down the fluffy green hill wearing a pair of army pants and a pink sweatshirt. Her horn pierced the wall of reality and she was suddenly ripped away from her familiar town, the one she’d never left before in her whole life, and sucked out into the void.
Time seemed to ripple in the space around her, and a booming voice called out from everywhere, “What do you want?”
Ok, enough of that. I’m finding that imagination – picturing scenes and characters in my head, is much more visible and realistic. This is probably ideal for “manifesting,” or for thinking up dialogue (it might be especially good to improve crusty dialogue with something more fresh and interesting.)
And it may also be really good for filling plot holes, if you know there’s trouble but you’re not quite sure what it needs. In other words, whenever you want to be more “creative” in the traditional sense, as in free-association generation of novel ideas, marijuana may be very helpful. In fact the increased flow of loose associations is one of the proven effects of marijuana use.
Just make sure you don’t have any distractions or responsibilities, and focus all your attention on that one scene, or daydreaming about your books, or visualizing plot events or places.
But if you need to do anything else, such as research, multi-tasking, editing, emailing or organizing, stay sober (or use attention focusing supplements like coffee or tea, ginseng, gingko, etc.)
Another observation I’ve had this evening is that “Be Here Now” – the new age philosophy/mantra that everybody keeps repeating as the ultimate goal for spiritual awareness and wisdom, is incredibly easy on marijuana. It’s not that I’m suddenly more tuned in, it’s just that my brain feels turned off. I don’t have any rambling thoughts or pressing concerns or worries. Everything feels kind of heavy. I’m very “present” in my body and aware of physical sensations (sounds like I must have been on an indica).
It would be very easy to focus on my breathing, or my heartbeat, and “go within.” So if meditation is something you’re interested in but you haven’t been able to still your mind, be in the moment and appreciate the miracle of life, smoking some weed may seriously pamper your inner yogi.
But I also feel like, even if I was able to get some good work done, I’d spend 3 hours watching movies and eating chips (something I would never otherwise allow myself to do, because I’d be too concerned with all the projects I need to finish).
In which case, frequent use would be disastrous for my productivity. I put in a good 10 hours of hardcore, totally focused work just about every day. I don’t socialize or watch TV or “relax”. I don’t party, I don’t exercise and I even bath infrequently.
So my recommendation for marijuana and creativity or writing is not enthusiastic – once or twice a month at the most should be plenty, and only if I needed to brainstorm or visualize, not necessarily if I needed to produce.
The Best Weed for Creativity (2017 update)
I started writing this post years ago when I was applying for a Fulbright, and left it unpublished until I finished my Ph.D. During that time, in my time home in Oregon, I’ve had a lot more time to experiment with weed. Some things I discovered: my chronic migraines are a lot more manageable with daily weed use. That means I could stop taking the low level antidepressant I’ve been taking for years to control migraines. I’ve also found that daily use significantly increases productivity, depending on the type of thing I’m doing (and the type of marijuana I’m on). Here are some of the strains I’ve tried recently.
Sell Wood Thunder
Music sounds good, heavy eyelids. Got distracted and planned out my goals, budget and marketing plan. Scatterbrained, lots of thoughts but feel like I’m going in circles trying to do things.
Finally got my document opened and started. Had to review it for awhile, and I wasn’t eager to edit or fill in blanks, so I skipped to the end where I needed a totally fresh scene… after I few minutes, I found the right place to start, a great visual image, and a killer first sentence.
Then I wrote for 30 minutes. I found my visualization to be excellent – in that I could see a whole scene clearly, and focus on important things like color contrast (I’m working on Shearwater, so I’m thinking about what color her tail should be, to contrast with the teal water and gray sky, for maximum visual impact.)
Switched to non-fiction and wrote for a couple hours. Got about 4000 words, which is great for me, so that’s encouraging. I don’t feel great though – head feels unfocused and heavy, also feel anxious and tight in my body.
Black Lime Reserve
This is why favorite. My mind is clear and sharp. I feel good, confident, have a nice body-high (increased skin sensitivity), still a little trouble keeping things organized, making lists, logical thinking… but I can hold it together enough to write well, cleanly, no typos. I even feel particularly articulate.
I came up with 2 or 3 new content ideas at the movies tonight (Magical Beasts and Where to Find them), will probably do several chapters of the non-fiction book I’m working on, and organize all the contents of Prescient Part 2 so my cowriter can start trying to make sense of them. In short, it’s 12:38am and I expect the next few hours to be very productive. I have no desire to relax or be lazy, I want to get shit done and keep clearing my todo list. Part of that might be the pressure of deadlines; I have two books to finish this month and I’m running out of time, plus dozens of other projects I need to manage and stay on top of.
I smoke once in the evening and work all night. My appetite is increased, which is great because I’m more commonly prone to sickness (symptom of the migraines). So I generally feel pretty good which also boosts my productivity.
Others I like…
- Lemon Diesel
- Green Crack
The Creative Brain on Drugs
Over the next few weeks I may post similar creativity-inducing experiments; it’s necessary research for a book I’m writing on the historical and practical use of various substances and how they relate to art and writing (The Creative Brain on Drugs: Smart Pills, Nootropics and Other Mind-Altering Substances in Art, History and YOUR Life).
It’s one of many projects I may or may not eventually finish… if not this year, maybe next.
What makes you more creative?
Do you know any famous writers who rely on marijuana use?
Suggested further reading: