“Dance above the surface of the world. Let your thoughts lift you into creativity that is not hampered by opinion.”
— Red Haircrow
Beginnings are always the hardest. Sitting at your computer, chasing that perfect opening line across your mindscape, searching, constantly searching. In what lair is it hidden? In what vault is it kept? In what forge is it created? And where are these places located? The mind is a strange realm, indeed; there’s so much uncharted territory that has yet to be discovered.
I’m not gonna lie: I struggled to start this essay. But this struggle isn’t new to me and it’s not a problem. In fact, it’s normal to feel some resistance when starting work on a piece, whether it’s something new or something that’s already in development. The reason for this is simply that our minds have to be shifted into the right gear, kind of like a car, which usually can’t just go from stationary to top speed in seconds. Or better yet: it’s like when we go out running; without a good warming-up it can be tough to keep a steady pace and make it to the finish line.
That’s what the process of writing this essay is like for me, right now, as I’m typing this. Where moments ago I struggled to get started, I now find that with each word that I type this is getting easier. Collocations, connotations, associations—words light up along the semantic web, and they fall into place like pieces of a puzzle. And this is how I experience writing: it’s a game of figuring out how each word connects to the next; how to craft sentences that flow like a river of sound and rhythm. I keep my eyes on the prize, on that faraway finish line, and without looking back I keep going. And then it happens: I’m no longer lost in thought but making it up as I go, and it feels like the piece is writing itself. This is it. This is what I call the writer’s high.
I’ll tell you where this idea came from. I was writing an essay called “Death of Ideas,” which is the fifth and final installment of my series Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist. The opening section of that essay was somewhat similar to this one’s, but shorter and much less detailed. At the time, Rachel, one of my editors, told me that what I wrote there—that the essay was writing itself—reminded her of the runner’s high: the moment where you break through weariness and it feels like you’re running automatically. She coined the term writer’s high. My other editor at the time, David, suggested that perhaps this notion could make for an interesting essay topic, and I started thinking about how to pull that off. I tried to put together some kind of outline, to figure out the steps beforehand, but that actually felt somewhat disingenuous to me. After all, planning an account of what the writer’s high is and how to enter it just seems to be besides the point. So I decided that, in order to write this stuff down, I’d actually have to enter the writer’s high myself.
In this essay I’ll provide an analysis of what’s going on in my head as I continue to write toward the end. I’ll also slip in a few tips and tricks that might help you achieve a similar state of consciousness. And yes, I realize that this word choice, along with the notion of a writer’s high, sounds a little sketchy. But no, drugs aren’t required. Regardless, it’s one helluva trip, dude, and that’s the truth.
Let’s be real for a second. You can take all the drugs in the world—and yes, caffeine and alcohol are drugs!—but is any of that going to help your writing process? Well, I suppose that it could. There have been many famous writers amped up on amphetamines, high on marijuana, blissed out on acid, wired on cocaine and/or surfing the waves of alcohol, and some of these writers have produced wonderful work. Of course, Hunter S. Thompson comes to mind, who supposedly maintained an outrageous drug schedule to fuel his writing process. But, in my humble opinion, the question that any writer who’s considering to use substances should ask themselves is this: to what extent are external compounds required to produce writing?
Look, don’t get me wrong, this is not a moral issue for me. If, for example, you want to smoke some grass to put you in a creative mood, then blaze it, my friend. I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. After all, our writing processes differ because we all have unique brains. So, rather than advising anyone on how to access that writer’s high, I’ll just stick to what works for me personally.
To enter the writer’s high, there are a couple of things that I need to take care of first. To begin with—and this is the most important step—I need to be in a specific state of consciousness before I can enter the writer’s high. For me, that is a sober state. That means no coffee, no alcohol and none of the other compounds that are out there. I need to be awake and clear in the head and, above all, not be distracted by outside interferences. No noise; no voices; no movement; no company; and definitely no social media. When I write nonfiction, there can’t be music because I’ll get swept up by the tunes and before I know it I’ll just be listening instead of working: I require dead silence. When I write fiction, there can be music but only if it’s not intrusive and I’m able to sync my lyrical prose to the melodies and the beat of the song.
Furthermore, the time of day matters, because this influences my mood and, by extension, my state of consciousness. For example, I enjoy writing in the morning because it means I’m starting my day being productive, which is motivating. This motivation can trigger a writer’s high, because when I’m off to a good start I want to keep up the momentum. Afternoons, on the other hand, are somewhat tricky because most distractions occur during this time. I might get phone calls or texts; maybe I have to head out the door; maybe there are chores that need to be done. But I’m also the most awake and clear-headed during this time, meaning that—if there are no distractions—it’s easy to enter the writer’s high. Lastly, I also like to write at night, especially when I’m working on fiction. For one thing, there are no distractions at all because everyone’s asleep, and the nighttime is just kind of magical, what with the stars glittering in the sky and the moonlight trailing into my room. The downside is that when I get sleepy, the drive to write diminishes rapidly. And yet, when I lie in bed, my head is so full of ideas that I can hardly sleep. It’s not always easy finding the right time to write, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of just doing it, whatever the circumstances may be.
To emphasize how subjective all this is, let’s briefly discuss the late Maya Angelou, a famous American writer of poetry, autobiographies and essays. In an interview published in The Paris Review Angelou describes her writing process. She says that she rents a hotel room for several months, makes sure she gets there by six-thirty in the morning every day, then lies in a particular position on the bed (“so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses,” whatever that means), and she stays “until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon.” She never sleeps in the room. She always has “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible” at hand. She’s very particular about the bed not being changed. To me personally, the fact that she requires so many external factors to write is kind of hard to understand. But on the other hand, as weird as this entire thing sounds, it’s also very specific. There’s a pattern: she always shows up on the same time every day and she always has the same materials with her. Though the rooms are different, the process itself never changes. Essentially, Angelou figured out exactly under what circumstances she writes best. The point is that if you figure out under what circumstances you write best, then you’ve figured out how and when it’s easiest for you to enter a writer’s high.
It’s also interesting to note that apparently Angelou’s writing process isn’t specific to a genre of writing. Whether she writes poetry or prose, she’s always in a hotel room. For me, I suppose that the process does change, because I literally start thinking differently when I switch genres. When I write fiction my thoughts run on autopilot: I simply let the story carry me wherever it pleases, and I love that element of surprise, even as the piece’s author. However, with nonfiction I usually keep my outline close at hand, and I often stop typing just to think about what exactly I want to say. I like to stare out the window while doing so. And then, once I see how the arguments build up to the conclusion, I continue writing.
I also notice that with nonfiction my writing speed is slightly lower than when I write fiction. This is partly due to the fact that I sit in a different position, which causes energy to flow differently through my body. That is not exactly a conscious decision, though. It seems like the way that I think influences how I sit. With fiction I’m more relaxed; I’m just leaning into the process and so the energy flows more freely; sometimes I even absentmindedly sway to the rhythm of the text that I’m producing. Additionally, with fiction I don’t have to think critically; I just enjoy the process and I’m not concerned about linguistic errors or getting all the descriptions and metaphors right—that’s all part of editing, not writing.
Yet with essay writing I sit up straight and have both feet firmly on the ground so the energy is directed toward specific parts of the writing, for example an argument or a conclusion. And while nonfiction is not necessarily more serious than fiction, there is a bit more pressure with nonfiction because it’s important to convey the information in such a way that people can understand the arguments. This involves a high level of critical thinking, which forces me to sit in a specific position and write slower. If I deliberately try to sit in a different position while writing an essay, it feels unnatural and it’s actually harder for me to see all the connections. What this boils down to is that I have to flow with the energy in the moment and not try to adjust it or resist it, because that hinders my creative process significantly. But poetry is a whole nother story.
When it comes to poetry, I find it hard to give a shit about how the poem turns out. I usually write them as quickly as I can, stringing words together, whatever sounds nice. Half the time I’m not even sure what I’m writing about. This is because I only ever write poetry for myself when I’m absolutely bored out of my skull and have nothing better to do. But there is one exception.
I’ve discovered that I only enjoy writing poetry when I’m writing for someone else. If there’s a specific person on my mind, someone I love dearly, merely thinking about them conjures up lines in my mind. I’ll feel the urge to write these lines down, and they usually form the first stanza. This first stanza then introduces to me the idea that I’ll continue to develop, and from there on out it’s like I can pluck the rest of the words straight out of the ether. Now, that is not to say that the poetry is good—I’ll leave that up to the people I write for to decide—but the flow is there and I follow it down.
Which brings me to my final point in this section, and this pertains to all genres of writing. When you have a great idea—and I don’t mean just any idea, but a great idea that captivates you, and all you can do is surrender to it—you can feel it in your gut. There’s no denying it. This is not something that can go unnoticed. It will be clear as day. I, for one, know that I have a great idea when it fills me with energy; when I get excited just thinking about it; when I feel like I’m forced to write it down. This great idea can then lead to another idea, and before long everything just clicks. Let’s call it a moment of true clarity. In such a moment it can seem as if you can sum up the entire piece, no matter the length, in just one paragraph, maybe even a single sentence. It’s so clear to you that you can literally see the entire piece in your mind. This is a surefire way of triggering a writer’s high, because once you surf this avalanche of great ideas it’s hard to stop. The key is finding those great ideas.
And these ideas are everywhere, but they are hidden where you can’t immediately see them. Perhaps you have to rent a hotel room and look under the bed and find them there. Perhaps you have to gaze out the window at the sky and see it written in the clouds or the stars. Perhaps you have to smoke some grass, drink some liquor or be completely sober. Perhaps you have to be surrounded by friends or all by yourself. Perhaps you have to meditate and draw it from the core of your soul. The only way to figuring this out is by experimenting. Try writing in different places, under different circumstances, when- and wherever you can. If you are patient and willing and disciplined, a spark will light in your brain and your state of consciousness will be altered, and you’ll ride the wings of creativity.
The writer’s high is a state of consciousness. Just like the tranquility of meditation; the clumsiness of drunkenness; the wooziness of weed; the profoundness of acid; and, of course, being plain sober. Every state of consciousness allows us to perceive reality in a different light. In other words, our brain chemistry determines how we perceive reality, and when we enter a new state of consciousness our brain chemistry literally changes. For example, when we are completely sober we are running our default operating system. This system makes us think and behave in a certain way. Of course, none of this is universal: every individual has their own quirks, likes, dislikes, hopes and dreams, and that is because all of us have unique brains. Now, if we take a substance, like alcohol, this changes the way we think and behave because it alters our state of consciousness. This is also true of, for instance, psychedelics, coffee and even meditation (although the latter is of course not an external compound but rather an internal mechanism that we can activate in our minds).
Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you to death with a rant about how I understand consciousness (it’s not like I’m a neuroscientist, anyway; I’m but a dude with a lot of imagination). However, it’s necessary to have communicated some of these ideas before I proceed.
See, when I enter the writer’s high there are a few things going on in my head. First and foremost, all I can think about is the piece that I’m writing. This is because the operating system of the writer’s high puts me in a very specific focus. While I still see the computer screen in front of me, and feel the keyboard against my fingertips, and am vaguely aware of my surroundings, I am not really paying attention to those things. They are in the periphery, outside my focus. What I see instead are words. Yes, the words that appear on-screen are there as well, but I’m talking about the words that I see in my inner eye. They dance before me, and they form a part of a sentence that works its way to a comma, after which I add another clause that ultimately reaches a full stop. I can see the meanings behind these words; I see colors blooming around these words; I see images representing these words, and soon I’m no longer aware of my desk, my computer, my room. I cross a threshold and enter another place—another realm, if you will. It is here that I meet characters and listen to their stories. It is here that I receive new ideas that, outside of my control, slip into the story that I’m writing. It is here that I find the right lines to express myself. At this stage I’m not even aware of the fact that I’m doing the writing anymore. I’m just cruising through visions which teach me lessons. In that sense, writing is akin to a shamanic experience and highly psychedelic in nature.
Of course I’m not merely trying to sound interesting when I use the words “shamanic” and “psychedelic.” On the contrary, I find that there is something inherently spiritual about writing and therefore I think these terms are appropriate. In order to explain this, let’s first have a look at the etymology of the term “psychedelic,” coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1956. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the term is essentially a combination of several Greek words: psykhē (mind), dēloun (make visible, reveal) and dēlos (visible, clear). Moreover, about Osmond, Tanne writes in her paper that “[he] was at the cutting edge of psychiatric research in the 1950s” (2004) and that “[Osmond] believed that hallucinogenic drugs might be useful in treating mental illness” (2004). Just to be clear, although I’m not against the use of psychedelics, my essay should not be seen as an endorsement for the use of such compounds because these things are not for everyone—but that is a different discussion for another time. The reason I’m including this information is simply because it helps to know about the term’s origins when trying to make sense of it. In other words, Osmond came up with the term “psychedelic” because according to him hallucinations (caused by these psychedelic compounds) can be interpreted as visual manifestations of someone’s psyche. And this is where I’ll establish a link with shamanism and writing.
In many ancient cultures (for example, tribes in the Amazon rainforest) the shaman consumes certain substances that alter brain chemistry in such a way that the physical world disappears behind a fractal veil of hallucination. Soon, the shaman wakes up on another plane of existence and meets interdimensional entities—gods, angels, demons, ancestors, spirits, aliens, etc. The shaman learns lessons from said entities and the experience as a whole. When the effects of the compound wear off and (what we think of as) the real world returns, the shaman passes on these lessons to the community.
If we compare this to my earlier explanation of what writing is like for me, we see that there are many similarities between such shamanic experiences and writing. Where shamans enter other planes of existence, writers travel to the realms of imagination. Where shamans meet certain entities that teach them lessons, writers run into characters that tell them stories. Where shamans return to their community to pass on what they’ve learned in the form of stories, writers record what they see and potentially publish their works for others to read.
This is why I say that to me writing is a spiritual experience. It’s so much more than just typing up a few words (I don’t even consider that part of actual writing; typing is but a physical act that facilitates the process). For me, actual writing takes place in the mind. It is a gateway to my soul. It is a mirror that makes visible to me—and to those who read my works, whether they realize it or not—the deeper layers of my own psyche. Moreover, I believe that writing—much like some psychedelic compounds—potentially has powerful therapeutic benefits. Through the process of writing it’s possible to observe emotions, feelings and thoughts, and if we push on, perhaps we can uncover what lies beneath these cognitive aspects. We can get to know ourselves better and maybe resolve inner turmoil. Especially a writer’s high is a powerful tool that we can use for this purpose, because when the writing goes automatically you won’t have to focus on that and you have the time and space to observe who you are in that particular moment.
A personal example would be “The Lost Boy and the Spirit Dog,” a short story which pretty much wrote itself and which is featured in Writer’s Block #34. It’s about a young man lost in a jungle. As he tries to find his way back to his camp he thinks about his dog, who passed away when the protagonist was only a boy. Halfway through the story I wrote a sequence where the protagonist is still a boy and sits beside his dying dog. It describes word for word how I was sitting beside my dog when he passed on. During the writing process, I felt so much sadness that I quite literally had tears in my eyes as I was writing that passage. And as I wrote toward the story’s uplifting conclusion (even though I had no idea what it was going to be), I felt the sadness inside of me make way for acceptance. That’s not to say that this acceptance instantly resolved my emotional struggle, but the struggle did become easier to deal with because I knew that in the end everything would be okay. I knew this because I was able to observe my own emotional state while writing. The story, the characters: they showed me the way to the light.
To conclude, there are many ways to enter a writer’s high; it’s all about finding the right time and place for writing and figuring out whether or not you need external aids to help your process. Every location, every substance, every environment, every person around you—everything affects your state of consciousness. The writer’s high, because it’s unique to every individual, is not compatible with just any other state. For example, I need to be sober because this is the only state in which I can truly focus on my work. That focus enables me to ignore distractions, and once all of those distractions are set aside, the only thing that remains is the writing process itself. At this stage, it’s not so much my mind that is driving the process, but it’s the other way around: the writing is driving my mind; it has literally become my reality.
None of this works if I’m not sober, because if I’ve consumed a substance, it will cause all kinds of mental distractions. Caffeine makes me very alert, which means I’ll react to every single thing that’s happening around me and the writing will be neglected. Alcohol makes me slow and stupid, and literally everything will seem funny to me, so it’s hard to take the writing seriously anymore. And though I’ve never tried, I expect other compounds to absolutely destroy my focus, so it would simply be impossible to write at all while under the influence.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you’re a planner or, for lack of a better word, a free-writer (someone who doesn’t plan and more or less improvises). While it may seem that the notion of the writer’s high suits a free-writer better than a planner, we should not fool ourselves. The point of the writer’s high is that the creative process takes care of itself. Even if you plan your entire novel from start to finish, you can still enter the high. In fact, if you know what’s coming, this might actually help to enter it fairly easily. Neither type of writer has an advantage here. Everyone is simply different.
Finally, the writer’s high can have therapeutic benefits in the sense that we can become more in tune with ourselves. It’s like looking into a mirror. The ideas that we put on the page are our ideas, they come from our minds, and as such they reveal a lot about who we are. Because of this, and all aforementioned points, the writer’s high can be incredibly powerful. It speeds up the process, and in my opinion a writer would do well learning how to wield this tool.
Higgins, Chris. “Hunter S. Thompson’s Daily Routine.” Mental Floss, 18 July 2016, http://mentalfloss.com/article/33487/hunter-s-thompsons-daily-routine.
Plimpton, George. “Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119.” The Paris Review, no. 116, 1990, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2279/maya-angelou-the-art-of-fiction-no-119-maya-angelou.
“psychedelic (adj.)” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/psychedelic.
Tanne, Janice Hopkins. “Humphry Osmond.” PMC, vol. 328, no. 7441, BMJ, 20 March 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC381240/.