QuestionAre hangovers good for writing?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. We asked alcohol experts, psychologists, writers, and a biomolecular archaeologist if alcohol withdrawal fosters creativity or not so much.
Hangovers. Curse the things. We hate the headaches. Our stomachs churn. We find ourselves feeling emotionally unstable as the effects of last night’s enthusiastic bout of drinking begin to wear off. Most of us spend the day in bed, catching up on entire seasons of our ‘guilty pleasure’ TV shows or being useless at work. But what if we tried to write?
Scientifically, the majority of the symptoms one experiences when hungover are actually due to dehydration; the more dehydrated you are, the more likely you are to experience a plethora of symptoms including headache, nausea, irritability, and depression. (Other symptoms of discomfort be caused by a lack sleep or nourishment, or an unrelated illness gone untreated.) While we can assume the headaches and nausea might not be so good for writing (or doing much of anything really), many a famous writer was plagued by depression and irritability; April is the cruelest month, you say?
We asked some experts if we wrote better when hungover. Here’s what some alcohol experts, psychologists, a few writers, and a biomolecular archaeologist had to say.
Dr. Steven Alter
PhD., psychologist in New York City, faculty member at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies
My thought is that hangovers do not lead to creativity. Hangovers cause a general mental fuzziness, a lack of focus, which would interfere with creativity.
I do not think you can compare the physical and often depressive state induced by alcohol withdrawal from the type of depression that we often see with creative people. Additionally, although many believe it to be true, the assumption that depression leads to creativity would be incorrect. Depression more often zaps creativity. What is more likely is that creative people are more prone to depression. Creative people have the gift of seeing things from many different perspectives and this can lead to a harsh evaluation of the self.
Also, creative individuals often struggle with motivation to channel their creativity into creative acts. This struggle can lead to severe self-condemnation, which can cause depression.
A hangover vs. alcohol poisoning
While a hangover can be bad, alcohol poisoning is far worse and can be a life-threatening emergency. Here are the cardinal signs of alcohol poisoning:
Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
Irregular breathing (a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)
Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
Low body temperature (hypothermia)
Difficulty remaining conscious
Passing out (unconsciousness) and can't be awakened
If you are experiencing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, call 911.
Sommelier, beverage industry expert, Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor
I have to say that I think hangovers are terrible for writing. I find that one of the biggest manifestations of over-service is that part of my brain is running at lower capacity and my vocabulary suffers. I’m not even talking about gold star quality words here. I find myself reaching really hard for such pillars of the lexicon as ‘temperature’ and ‘qualify.’ Cylinders are firing, but the rockets only go part of the distance on those days. Best to avoid that situation if you plan to write afterward.
It’s estimated that hangovers cost $148 billion annually due to poor job performance or people missing work. That’s an average annual cost of $2,000 per working adult.
Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania
Although heavy drinking can induce creative activities, a hangover is probably not going to lead to lucid writing.
Coleridge might disagree for his Kubla Khan, written under the influence of opium, an intoxicant. [Editor's note: Coleridge was a prolific writer, who pioneered the Romantic Movement in England, was a major influence on the transcendentalists, and coined many familiar words and phrases, including suspension of disbelief. Coleridge suffered crippling bouts of anxiety and depression and it has since been speculated that he had bipolar disorder. With physical ailments stemming from rheumatic fever and other childhood illnesses, he was treated with laudanum, which fostered a lifelong opium addiction he could not shake. He died of a lung disorder that may or may not have been related to his opium addiction.]
Drinking, self-delusion and denial
The average number of drinks Americans admit to consuming per year
The average number of drinks Americans actually consume per year
Author of Alcohol: A History, Professor of History at Carleton University, Editor at Journal of Family History
I'm not sure about hangovers, but there's a lot of literature on drinking/taking drugs and creativity. The best-known is absinthe, of course: many late 19th-century French writers and artists drank absinthe, and it was credited with enhancing creativity. But absinthe was a very popular drink, and there's no evidence that ordinary French absinthe-drinkers were unusually creative. Some creative people are heavy drinkers and create/write effectively when they're drunk or hung over. Most of us aren't. It has less or nothing to do with the hangover, and most or everything to do with the person concerned.
People in D.C., Wisconsin, Utah, Rhode Island, and Missouri complain about their hangovers the most.
Frank Kelly Rich
Editor of Modern Drunkard Magazine
Well, it depends on what sort of hangover we’re talking about. A light hangover is fine for writing. A heavy duty, Moses-coming-down-the-mountain hangover is awful for writing. It’s like trying to paint a landscape in the middle of a field during a hailstorm. Those hangovers are, however, perfectly suited for making hard and cruel decisions, so they’re fantastic for editing. When you’re in that sort of mood, it’s easy--even enjoyable--to bayonet those ‘little darlings’ writers are always trying to sneak into their work. When Solomon sprung that “Let’s cut the kid in half” thing on those women? Hungover as a motherfucker, I can practically guarantee it.
GENETIC FACTORS account for nearly half of the reason why one person experiences a hangover and another person doesn’t after drinking the same amount of alcohol.
Genetics account for 45% of hangover susceptibility in women and 40% in men.
Former Editor in Chief of Asia Tatler
The social nature of running a magazine was as important as the business side of it. It was essential to attend events after work approximately three nights per week, which ultimately led to mornings at my desk, clutching my head and mumbling into my coffee. My coworkers were equally hungover, yet we produced an enormous amount of work for a small team. Knowing that I had deadlines to meet, I would focus more aggressively on the task at hand; completing the work meant that I could finally go home and get some rest. So, for six years or so, I can say that hangovers drove my desire to complete my work in a timely fashion. Whether the output was improved, I cannot say, as there is no point of comparison for that time period. So, I am not sure that alcohol improved or impacted my creativity necessarily, but I know that its effects increased my motivation to complete my work.
That said, when the entire team would be feeling the effects of a large event the previous night, the mood in our pitch meetings (in particular) could get silly. Somewhere in our exhaustion, we felt comfortable laughing about the ridiculous. It was a shared mentally, something psychiatrists refer to as ‘mass hysteria’ almost. In these moments, we could come up with our best ideas. There was a liberty, a total freedom from convention, because we all knew that we were hungover and tired. I remember those meetings as being some of our most fruitful, and that can be directly linked, I think, to alcohol's lingering effects of inhibition-reduction as well as plain old exhaustion.
Signs of alcohol abuse
You have problems at work or school because of your drinking, such as being late or not going at all.
You drink in risky situations, such as before or while driving a car.
After drinking, you can't remember what happened while you were drinking (blackouts).
You have legal problems because of your drinking, such as being arrested for harming someone or driving while drunk (intoxicated).
You get hurt or you hurt someone else when you are drinking.
You keep drinking even though you have health problems that are caused or made worse by alcohol use, such as liver disease (cirrhosis).
Your friends or family members are worried about your drinking.
Author of The Dogs Who Found Me, The Kind I'm Likely to Get, and editor of The KGB Bar Reader
When I was younger, and drank more, I also seemed to write more, but I don't know that it was related to my hangovers. I was in graduate school, working full time, and volunteering my time, but somehow managed to write everyday.
My hangovers may have had this effect: many of my fictional characters were drunk and stupid.
These days, I drink less and spend more time with my dogs, and when I'm lucky enough to find the time to write, it’s typically dogs, and their relationships with people, that populate my work.