Sobriety and Creativity

I have had this draft titled “Sobriety and Creativity” on my computer for months now. I keep coming back to it, adding new thoughts, editing things out, yet I haven’t been able to complete it. The reason this post has remained a draft for so long is likely because of the stigma attached to discussions of alcohol and addiction, and my fear of judgement from family, friends, colleagues and clients who may read this. I am pushing through those fears, however, as this topic has been an important factor in my creative life for the past year and a half, and it deserves unpacking.

In January 2018 I took a break from alcohol, and what was a temporary pause has since become a permanent state of sobriety. In her wonderful book The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Catherine Gray talks about the scale of addiction, noting that even drinkers who sit on the lower end of that scale can find unexpected joy when they remove alcohol from the equation of their life. My own position on the scale would not have appeared a problem to most people who know or meet me, but it wasn’t until I took a break I realised how entwined alcohol had become in my life, and how much it was affecting my physical and mental health, as well as my ability to do what I love, which is to explore my creativity.

Alcohol seemed to have threaded its fingers deep into my creative practice, and drinking had become a part of my image of myself as a creative person. We can all close our eyes and imagine the artist in their studio drinking their way to creative epiphanies. And not just the tortured artists, but the achingly cool, the subversives, the romantics, the deep thinkers, the eccentrics, each with their own particular choice of poison. Or perhaps picture the historical Salons, where creatives come together to drink, debate, share their work, and contribute to the tide of ideas that slowly shifts the turn of the world. Remove the alcohol and the scene is simply an artist at work, or a group of colleagues discussing their thoughts, and where is the romance in that? Alcohol had become, for me, a way to find the old fashioned drive that the internet destroyed when it stole our attention spans and turned our personal interactions virtual. Drinking was a reason to sit down and work, or a reason to leave the house and connect with others. Without the romance of alcohol, creative activities are simply work, yet the work is the essence of the thing.

Contrary to the romantic image that had built up in my mind, most artists, writers and creatives who were known for their drinking were productive despite the alcohol, not because of it. Indeed, the majority of my own Song-Chain Project was conceived while sailing a river of wine, and while I managed to produce a body of work I am extremely proud of, I wonder what the outcome would have been if I were sober. I am not about to attempt a second iteration of the project to test my theories, once was more than enough, but I suspect I may not have struggled so desperately toward the end of the project, and made it further through the year than I eventually did.

Reflecting on the Song-Chain Project it becomes clear that I was using alcohol as an incentive to practice or do creative work. Before switching my focus to the double bass one of my goals had been to learn to improvise on the guitar. After The Song-Chain Project ended I started to take this seriously, yet I made glacially slow progress. A glass of wine was my motivation to spend an evening in my practice room after a long afternoon of students, yet after more than one drink my brain was a fog and I became incredibly unproductive. Trying to practice technique was slow and clunky, and it was impossible to order thoughts into a cohesive whole. It wouldn’t take long for me to get frustrated and angry at myself for ruining a night’s work, and retreat to the couch. The biggest trigger for my sober-curiosity was the guilty mornings, waking up deeply ashamed and angry at myself for having wasted another evening on the couch when I had planned to be productive. I knew that I had to make a choice about my priorities, and alcohol was really not fitting with what I wanted my life to be. I started my journey on bass after I’d stopped drinking, and there has been a marked difference in my focus and drive compared to my efforts with guitar.

My progress on bass has been one of the driving factors in my continued sobriety, which can be difficult when a career in the music industry offers regular access to free alcohol. One of the very first things I did after I stopped drinking was go on a small tour with Nathan Power to promote his debut EP, and every gig came with a generous band rider that I declined. A real problem in Australia is the proliferation of low paid or unpaid gigs which usually come with a bar tab, and there is a strong pull to take advantage of the free drinks to make up for the lack of pay. Thankfully Nathan is great at booking gigs, and our weekends away were financially profitable. This removed that urge to get my “money’s worth” on the band rider, but well paid gigs are not always the case, particularly in the original music scene. Since I stopped drinking I have found myself less and less willing to say yes to unpaid performance opportunities, as once the wallpaper that is a band rider is removed you can see the cracked system for what it really is. It is deeply problematic that alcohol is considered adequate compensation for musicians providing entertainment services, and a symptom of larger issues in our local music industry. Since the recent formation of Musicians Australia, a new active union for Australian musicians, I am hopeful for change, although I suspect it will be a slow and difficult road.

Since taking a break from drinking I have thought several times about introducing alcohol more mindfully back into my life. On New Years Eve I put a bottle of champagne into the fridge intending to celebrate with a glass after a gig. But once it came to opening the bottle I decided instead that eating, talking and laughing with an open mind, and getting a good night’s sleep for a bass lesson the next day, meant more to me than a glass of champagne. This is how I have felt every time I have considered the idea of reintroducing alcohol to my life. There is always something else I would rather do, some reason to keep my mind clear. I have discovered that for me sobriety is easy, while moderation is not, because it requires too much planning and willpower and weighing up options of will I or won’t I drink tonight. So for now I choose the easy path.

It seems I am not alone in questioning the role alcohol plays in my life. Newspapers are regularly reporting that sobriety is on the rise, and there is a growing sober movement that has proved both informative and inspiring on my own journey. If you are feeling sober-curious I would recommend reading The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober by Catherine Gray, or This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. The former focusses on all the positives of sobriety, and the latter on deprogramming the messages fed to us by the alcohol advertising industry. Gray’s book is my favourite of all the sober literature I’ve read, and it was the kick I needed to give alcohol-free life a try, so that would be my recommended starting point for the curious. And if you are wondering what I drink when I’m at gigs now, I won’t lie, the options in Australia are fairly dismal. I’m not a soft-drink person, so coffee or tea if the venue has the capacity to make them, or just soda water. I’m looking forward to our bars and restaurants catching up with the general public shift toward healthier lifestyles and introducing some more exciting non-alcoholic options to their menus.