I started this post a few years ago when I was working on a book project called “The Creative Brain on Drugs.” I’ve left some of the original content down below – but more recently I’ve been focused on writing faster and boosting word count: when I searched for “best smart drugs for writers” Google actually showed me this post…
So I’m going to assume you might also be researching how to boost your productivity, avoid procrastination and writer’s block, and unleash a “genius mode” where you can easier crush your daily word count goals and make consistent progress on your book.
Something I’ve learned recently, after trying out nearly every kind of nootropic, is that writing productivity is only partially about mind and mood: a large part of it is confidence, enthusiasm, and external pressure (in the form of hard deadlines or partners waiting on you to do the work).
Supplements can help, but they aren’t the only thing or even the main thing to keep in mind.
That said, I’ve experimented with just about every brain-enhancing chemical, supplement, medication or substance I can get my hands on, so this post will be a brief introduction with some more general comments on sustainable creativity-dosing for enhanced performance.
Creativity Enhancers & Boosters (Nootropics)
What is creativity though? Creativity experts say there are two types of creativity: inspiration and perspiration. One is mechanical, logical, plotting it out and doing the work; learning the skills and craft and having the diligence to follow through. The other – more fun – is the madness of divine inspiration.
So it’s worth mentioning that even though everybody really loves the second version, it’s not all that useful; and the academic definition of creativity is making useful things (in a new, fresh way, by combining things in a way that hasn’t been done before).
So if you’re just looking for new art or business or book ideas, then yes you need some “creative” juices flowing which are formless and despise limiting boundaries. There are SOME things that work just for THIS, which aren’t all that useful in terms of day to day productivity – for that you need OTHER things.
That’s important: there’s no one, everyday cure for optimal creative or mental performance because it depends on your aims.
Rule #1: there 2 types of creativity and you need both
But there’s something else that’s also important: you need rest and relaxation to achieve maximum creativity. It’s like a furnace. Even if you keep adding fuel, you’ll burn out eventually – the longer you burn through excessive creativity (approaching a manic genius I’ll describe later) the more time you’ll need for recuperation. In other words, you can’t be full-on, full-out, creative genius all the time.
Rule #2: nothing is sustainable
This is why some creative geniuses have bursts of energy followed often by weeks or months of depression and inactivity. It’s a challenge to stay stable, grounded, uniform, for constant reliable production… but that’s not really all that valuable. Real creativity is not sustainable. It’s muscle, it can be enhanced and improved and maintained, and paired with knowledge, skill and expertise, but only if there’s an outlet and if you understand you’ll need an equal amount of rest.
Rule #3 you need a focus or mold
Being creative is kind of worthless. It’s fun to get high (or weed or whatever) and have crazy, out of the world ideas. But it doesn’t matter unless you figure out how to build them, produce them, feature and promote them, etc. Creativity has value, when it is productive (making things other people want and value). For a simple metaphor, picture the train engine: You’re throwing fuel on it wondering why it isn’t working… but you haven’t built the tracks yet. You don’t have a destination. Of course you’re not going to get anywhere.
If you’re trying to write a book and think you can just “be creative” and fill every page with words and end up with an exciting plot… that’s not how any of this works. It’s not enough to have sustained effort – often fueled by passion. You will always get stuck and demotivated – you’ll always run out of tracks – unless you figured some stuff out first. Some of it, of course, you can only fix in the middle; you lay tracks as you go piece by piece, until you hit a rock or wall or river, then you need to be creative and solve the problem. That’s always how it works:
You creatively solve every specific problem when you get it to.
But you need to start off with some general idea of what you’re making, where you’re trying to go.
Best Smart Drugs for Writers
If you just want a quick list of smart drugs to help with writing, here are some brief comments:
Modafinil. It’s amazing but not great for long term use, and I often get a tension headache or migraine the next day. However especially when you’re having trouble holding the WHOLE book in your brain and figuring out plot holes or organizational problems, this can really boost your cognitive ability and let you “see” the whole picture.
I also think it kills my procrastination (I usually procrastinate for emotional reasons, because I don’t want to do the work… with Modafinil I just do the work I’ve been avoiding, without the resistance. Warning: also takes away your filter, so you can sound like an asshole (even though it makes me more confident, more eloquent, and able to easily remember more information – great for class – it can also make you sharp or edgy or say mean things).
Huperzine A. This is included in many nootropic stacks and it’s dangerous. Taking for several days makes me manic, which can be awesome: you feel invulnerable, your have HUGE ideas and limitless confidence; but it may be hard to sit and focus on the work (and you may do risky things… I almost got a tattoo and jumped off a boat.) I still take it sometimes when I need Big Ideas.
Green Tea/Mate. Both of these are excellent. Sometimes I add some Pu-erh tea as well. Lots of nootropic stacks include theanine and caffeine, which are both found in green tea – but they add too much theanine which slows me down (caffeine can make you shaky or buzzy, so they try to balance it out with things that make you calmer, for a relaxed focus… this is OK for lots of sustained productive work, but NOT for high level, big-brain energy when you actually have to do really, really hard things.
* Side-tangent – if you’re an ADHD procrastinator like me, making a decision or starting to do the work takes a lot of mental energy, you may spend all day burning energy just for that one hurdle, to overcome the resistance you feel towards the creative work; this often means it’s something you *should* do but don’t want to do. I take occasional ritalin and it helps alleviate this resistance so I can just do the work without wasting all that energy. I don’t love ritalin for creative work, at all – but it’s helpful when I’m doing nothing or I have work I don’t want to do. If it’s work you WANT to do, you may not feel the resistance, until it gets hard – when you’re faced with a challenge or problem that you aren’t prepared for and you need to do some practice or learning or something.
Coffee/Espresso. With some mct oil, butter or coconut oil (“bulletproof coffee”). Some coffees give me muscle tension, and you should drink lots of water, but generally this is a great combination. For me, a lot of coffee makes me feel crappy but some is clean; experiment with a good source. But still, Balzac drank 50 copies a day and burned out his stomach. Don’t try to “be healthy” and avoid stimulants and think you can still crank out a hundred novels.
Lion’s Mane. This is a mushroom; it has subtle effects that are harder to define. I do feel warmth, increased sweating, which are classic indicators of Genius (being in an energized, hyper state). I’m not sure the energy is primarily cognitive (there’s a difference from having more energy so you can work out/exercise/be more social or communicative vs. sitting in your butt and putting in a few thousand words). But this seems to be worth something worth taking.
Marijuana. Some sativas are excellent both for productivity and creative visualization, which makes them ideal for writing fiction especially. Some indicas, which are more relaxing, actually give you a “body high” but an extremely clear and focused mental energy.
My current favorites are Sensi Star, Jack Herrer, and Mauei Wowie. These are great for the drafting phase especially, which I always have trouble with – if I’m editing/revising I will do it mainly coffee/lion’s mane. But if I’m rewriting/polishing, I may use weed because it increases dual-hemispheric cognition, which means my word choice, metaphors, the way the syllables taste in my mouth, make my writing more unique and interesting. Here are my favorite weed strains for creativity.
Kratom. Still legal in most places, Kratom is a tropical tree from southeast asia with psychoactive effects. In small doses, it can increase energy, sociability, and alertness. I much prefer marijuana, but if I’m somewhere I can’t get it, Kratom is an interesting alternative. It basically makes you feel good and increases focus. It can feel a *little* bit like an opiate, focus and confidence, general positivity.
Nicotine. One of the purest stimulants available, like Lion’s Mane it has a “warming” quality, I feel energized without the mental focus and clarity I prefer, but in limited doses or combined with other things it can give you an edge. I use the mints or patches. Edit: I wrote a big post on tobacco. Basically I can see the appeal, it’s a little bit of the relaxed focus people hope to achieve, I feel good, but I don’t think I’m necessarily sharper or smarter, especially after long term use. But for just one crazy night out, getting drunk on absinth, smoking tobacco and marijuana, putting yourself in different states of mind, can sometimes reveal a breakthrough you didn’t know you needed.
*Sidenote: most people define nootropics as beneficial, as opposed to drugs or something with negative longterm effects, nootropics will build and improve over time.
Refined sugar. People talk about a sugar buzz or sugar high for a reason. I also plan to train myself to enjoy writing by ONLY letting myself eat junk or cookies when I’m doing writing sprints, to trick the dopamine receptors in my brain. Don’t forget, sugar, tea and tobacco’s introduction into Europe basically ended the dark ages and kicked off the enlightenment.
Gabapentin. This makes me more social/outgoing, so my hypothesis is it will also decrease resistance and let me get into the story (there have been some studies that show just this: the potential use on procrastination). Still need more testing though.
Ritalin. The beat poets used amphetamine for mega-writing sprints (sometimes finishing a whole book in a few days). Personally I haven’t found it great for writing, you feel energized but also antsy, you want to get outside and do things (most drugs that give you a novel sensory experience are too distracting to sit down and do the work… they can be great for giving you a different way of looking at things or a unique insight into your story). I’ll test this a few more times under more controlled writing settings to see if I can boost my daily wordcount.
Propranolol – I take this for migraines, but it’s good for anxiety also; or stage fright if you need to speak in public or present something, it’ll calm your nerves. If you’re nervous or anxious about creating things, pay attention and be aware of that feeling. It’s probably because of one of the 2 types of creative fear; if so read this (dealing with doubt and insecurity).
Oxygen. Too easily discounted, you really need to be breathing deeper and taking walks in nature, as often as possible. It’s critical to the writing process. Just have a notepad with you to jot down your ideas.
I also take some general brain-healthy supplements like fish oil, magnesium, vitamin C and turmeric, but haven’t found any I really recommend.
LSD/Mushrooms If you can find them, they’re worth doing at least once, because they absolutely shatter your normal sensations and awareness and alter your perspective of reality. Yes they were illicit, but now that they are allowed to be studied again, there have already been a slew of studies that show they boost creativity and even out-perform most pharmaceutical solutions for depression or anxiety.
– Microdosing: Taking a little bit of the above will make you feel slightly speedy, and also improve your sensations; you’ll be more present and aware, and notice details, because sounds and colors are sharper and more defined. Many people find a light daily dose significantly boosts all types of regular creative productivity, while still being absolutely functional (you won’t curl up under your couch; you can still be social). Just make sure you’re careful and safe and know your appropriate dosage.
Best morning routine for creativity
I’m not a morning person, and I hate routines… but out of all the stuff I mentioned above, this is what I actually would if I could:
- espresso with cannabutter or edibles
- a little ritalin/moda
- A cup of tea and a smoke
Edibles hit in a different way with a sustained effect, and they aren’t all the same. I like gummies (but not for breakfast) so maybe a cookie, or just pure butter that’s been melted with pot and enfused with THC and other good cannabinoids (which are super healthy). Not a lot, not to get high or buzzed or baked. Just enough for a slight positive feeling and reduction in procrastination – a good sativa edible can be energizing without making you anxious.
Ritalin and modafinil are strong so you shouldn’t take them every day (unless maybe you have adhd but even then….) I rarely take a full adult dose, I take a quarter pill followed by another quarter pill. Effects last a few hours.
I’d have an omelet and some good breakfast food when I can get it, depending on the country I’m in, and later in the afternoon (if I’m awake before the sun sets) I’d smoke a little pot and have some strong tea. That could be a good, creative day with roughly 3 to 6 hours of sustained high level creative work.
If I was doing something easy, that took time but no brain power, I’d probably skip most of this and take it easy with an off-day to rest my mind (some work you can practically zone out, listen to music or even watch netflix in the background).
Create a writing habit
The main thing is, you need a sturdy writing habit first, you need a baseline. Just taking some drugs isn’t going to suddenly turn you into a writer. You have to know what you’re writing and what happens next, although like I said, if you get stuck on something, sometimes being able to use your brain differently with modafinil or marijuana can give you the epiphany you needed.
Things I want to try: I stopped using modafinil because of the terrible side effects; but recently I tried it again and was fine (I think I just got a better brand). I’d like to try it with L-tyrosine and Sensoril Ashwagandha (L-theanine leaves me foggy, but the calming effective of Ashwaganda might balance out the modafinil).
Also, even though I dislike choline, it’s probably important to add some to my diet, so I may find a stack with choline that I can take at night. (Most nootropic stacks add choline as a way to balance things out; they always make me super sleepy. Since I’m adhd, I’m neuroatypical, and my cholinergic levels probably don’t respond just the same: meaning, you need to find what works for you.
What about nootropic stacks for writers?
I’ve tried a lot of nootropics, and generally I don’t like them because they have a bunch of random stuff in them that sounds good, but doesn’t work as intended. Many have huperzine A, which I warned about above. Others have L-Theanine, which is supposed to create “wakeful relaxation” (it always makes my brain feel sluggish and too relaxed).
People like it because it reduces stress and gives you that “zen” feeling… but for juggling thousands of words together in your head and organizing huge amounts of data, I’m not a fan). A lot of others also include Choline – while this may help some people, I’ve also gotten severe brain fog from it, so I try to avoid it.
I really appreciate this article from MindLabPro, which does a great job of outlining the things writers need:
- Focus and Concentration
- Decision Making
And then offers why its ingredients will give you those results… but I disagree in practice.
I also adore the ads for Qualia, which is targeted towards helping creative people bring forth their vision into the world… great branding. BUT the benefits are subtle, for the price (there are two separate pills, and they’re really big) the first is decent, so I used up those… now I use the bigger pills every few days before going to sleep; the choline makes me drowsy and I can’t eat it daily because of the huperzine A).
In short, I’ve tried a lot of stacks and I love the idea, but have never found any that work: mostly because, unlike regular people who just need energy to get through their productive work day, maybe a workout, normal life stuff: I’m a full-time creative – which means I have no boss and no schedule and no deadlines.
It’s on ME to be productive, and I need a lot more support to do things. Also I’m not sure if I mentioned it earlier but I got into all this stuff because of severe migraines, so I see all this supplementation first off as making sure I don’t have a brain explosion that puts me in bed for days, which is always a risk.
Mood and mindset
Make sure you realize, getting discouraged or burned out is part of the process. It will pass. The more excited and driven and passionate you get for a project, the worse it’s going to feel when that energy runs out. Don’t panic. Don’t expect to stay “high” on your creative ideas all the time (yes you are literally high; flooded with intoxicating brain chemicals; flushed cheeks, sweaty arms, hyper-aware).
There is nothing wrong with supplementing your brain to make sure it has all the best fuel so it can perform at its max capacity: but there is productivity and maintenance. Sometimes, you need rest and inactivity – I’d shoot for roughly the same amount of time off as you have time on.
The creative brain on drugs
Someday I might write a book on creativity and drugs. It isn’t finished, but given a popular and title-loaded article I’ve seen circulating this week (“Will smart drugs really make us smarter, or just ruin lives”) I thought I’d share my basic introduction to the topic.
My book is called “The Creative Brain on Drugs: Smart pills, nootropics and other mental stimulants in art, history and your life“.
The foundations of this book are two-fold
The first is that the past 5 years have seen a flurry of publications on creativity and productivity – due to the outsourcing of blue collar work and the unstable job market in a shaky economy, the myth of getting a job and saving for retirement – the American Dream – has largely failed to inspire.
Instead the only way to preserve your value and earning ability is to be an “ideas-man”; to be creative; to produce your own content or start your own businesses. If you aren’t creating (not only value but innovation and novelty), you’re easily replaceable.
As such there are scores of books rushing to market with promises of improving your lateral thinking, creativity or innovation. Scientists are writing about brain chemistry and artists are writing about the creative lifestyle. Our cultural heroes are the great artistic geniuses of old; the mad scientist; the emotional painter; the rebels and non-conformists. We romanticize these creative producers and their biographies and highlight their frustrations and inabilities to be “normal.”
But at the same time society largely perpetuates the false stereotype that creativity necessarily verges on madness. “Peer into the abyss and the abyss peers back at you” (Nietzsche). The Faustian dilemma of “going too far” and straining against natural limitations is read as a cautionary tale rather than a practical primer (Faust was an early story of drug fueled creative discovery).
What is conveniently forgotten, even hidden and disguised, is that the creative output of the greatest minds in the history of civilization was mostly drug induced. The ancient philosophers were all initiates of secret mysteries, in which some form of psychoactive substance brought about novel experiences. The Enlightenment thinkers had the newly introduced foreign substances of tobacco, sugar and coffee.
Van Gogh, the impressionists and other modernists had Absinthe, hashish and opium; Edison and Freud used cocaine; Einstein and other mathematicians used speed/meth (if you doubt any of these claims, you’ll have to read the book for my arguments). Kerouac and the other beat poets used Benzedrine.
It isn’t merely that, in the history of mankind, some artists and writers used drugs: I will argue that drug use is nearly unanimous, and that the history of art and literature coincides neatly with the history of what mind-altering substances were cheap, legal and widely available.
Humanity has been flirting with prohibition and state legislation of illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals for just over a century, and despite an outpouring of research from all fields proving prohibition leads to increased violence, crime, dependency and addiction, policy remains largely in force. But there are cracks: millions in jail for possession of marijuana as Colorado and Washington introduce full legalization, without prescription.
Voices previously silenced by a restrictive, conservative religious elements which targeted dissenters and free thinkers as “Communists” during the Red Scare and then “Satanists” during the hippie movement have begun to reemerge, pointing to the long and deep history of social philosophy and political theory which warns of the dangers of a police state regulating citizens states of mind.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
For decades, housewives have been prescribed barbiturates and other mood regulators, and students have been taking speed or other uppers to keep up with school (often on the recommendation of the family doctor). Today, a wave of restless young graduates with dim career opportunities rush into startup and entrepreneurial communities and compare their daily “stacks” of productivity boosting meds, supplements and vitamins to increase their competitive edge.
The subReddit board for Nootropics features incredibly precise and calculated dosages, cutting edge scientific research, and personal experiences with various new chemicals being made in Russia or China and ordered online. These are no kids getting stoned in the basement; these are health and brain-conscious individuals pushing the limits of human cognition with self-experimentation.
As someone who works in both publishing and fine art, I receive dozens of emails every day from creative people trying to start businesses, not sure what they should paint or write about, not sure how to be more productive or more successful. It’s a shame that many of the most significant creativity boosters known to man remain largely unrecognized for their contributions to civilization, progress and science, art, literature and music. And not only unrecognized, but viewed with disdain, skepticism or mistrust, as “dangerous” or “evil.” Decades of anti-drug propaganda have convinced the general public that such drugs lead to violence, crime, psychosis and ruined lives.
Even though the greatest creators, artists and musicians in history – those most deserving of the term “creativity” – were moderate to heavy users of novel and foreign substances that greatly altered thinking, sensation and awareness; we tend to assume their creative genius was a gift so strong they could access it despite the drugs, or that they were using the drugs to bolster their natural genius or mental activity. We think “what a pity nobody appreciated their genius and they had to turn to drugs to comfort themselves” even when they’re telling us openly and without hesitation, that drugs were integral to their creative process and output.
If you’ve never been high on any drugs (substances) you literally have never been in the same “state of mind” or had a shared mental experience with 99% of the greatest writers of all time. On the other hand, if you drink coffee in the morning and Chamomile tea at night, you’re already familiar with self-medicating and controlling your mood, energy and productivity levels.
Given then, the current obsession with creativity boosting, and a not unconnected rise in the interest of “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers” to maximize productivity, a proper research into the subject is warranted.
The history of Creativity Enhancers
How this book is organized…
Part One: The history of boosting creativity with deliberate drug and substance use.
Part Two: What is creativity? Who needs it? What’s it good for? How can we get more of it?
Part Three: A practical and personal guide to the available substances and how to use them for creative success.
I hope by the first section to prove that a great many iconic creative thinkers and artists were quite literally experiencing states of mind that can only be replicated with similar mind-altering substances.
We cannot envy them their creativity while refusing to experiment with the same mental states. Aspiring to their levels of creativity with only coffee, fish oil and moderate exercise is doomed to be a frustrated ambition.
The Definition of Crazy…
You’ve heard it before. Crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Let’s say you want to finish the book, or start that business, or quit your job. You’ve been thinking about it for years. But you’re stuck in a routine. You’re missing that “Big” idea. So you just keep doing the same thing and hoping, somehow, things will change.
But “big ideas” don’t just strike out of the blue, and you won’t get them by using your brain the same way you always do. Your thinking follows the well worn paths of brain pathways. To get them to jump off that highway and go somewhere new, and make new connections, your brain needs to be used in novel and unprecedented ways.
That said, NONE OF THIS is required to be a creative writer. In that case you might be looking for stuff like writing prompts, but that means you don’t actually have a story to tell yet. Do some research. Find your story. Figure out your genre and plot and learn how to avoid common writing mistakes. Writing books is not “being creative” and you don’t necessarily need to be a creative writer to write good books.
Good books are products that have a reliable feel and form and function. You can be a great creative writer who writes books. You can write great books without being all that creative (yes it might feel more formulaic but the truth is it’s always creative: because creativity is filling in the blanks and pouring content into the mold – not the explosion of random nonsensical and useless ideas that you cannot turn into a valuable product.
Creativity Boosting Resources
I’ve been writing some recent posts on this stuff, so these might help.
But am also working on a massive post which may become a book called “writing under the influence” – since that can include a lot of productivity boosting rituals or processes which aren’t limited to drugs or supplements.
PS – if you want to be a successful creative entrepreneur (make stuff and sell stuff) sign up for my crash course on becoming creatively independent (6 steps to your best work)
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.