For one of the first times in my long writing career, I’m crippled by writer’s block. I’m sitting in a dimly lit attic space in Denver, taking part in a creative writing class. As inspiration, the instructors have offered up a variety of writing prompts: a passage read from a book, vials of fragrant essential oils, an image from a children’s book. I’ve latched onto a painting they’ve unveiled depicting a somber-faced woman with a lobster claw for a hand. That has to be fodder for a good short story. But for what seems like a small eternity I’ve been staring at the image, my mind terrifyingly blank.
Part of the challenge is that while I’m a longtime journalist, I have no experience coming up with fiction. What might be a bigger problem is that I am utterly, mind-numbingly high. I’m not being a bad student. This event, “Lit on Lit,” is the first of an ongoing series of cannabis-inspired writing classes, possibly the first writing seminar ever that explicitly encourages its students, who pay $39 a session, to get high and then get creative. After an abundance of joints and bowls were passed around the room, organizer Daniel Landes instructed us to “Let it flow.” But right now, all that’s flowing is the time I have left to complete the assignment.
In the brave new world of legalized cannabis, we already have marijuana-infused yoga retreats, cooking sessions, and athletic training. Next up could be cannabis-fueled creative endeavors. Along with Lit on Lit, Denver alone boasts a marijuana art class company called Puff, Pass and Paint and cannabis-friendly escape room operations like Puzzah! Surely someone somewhere is promoting marijuana-infused music lessons.
With the growing legalization of cannabis around the country, the trend was bound to happen. Creative geniuses from Louis Armstrong to Carl Sagan to Steve Jobs swore by the stuff, and in at least one formal poll, more than half of all cannabis users said they’re more creative when they’re high.
But does pot really help turn you into a prodigy? Does a hit of cannabis really get the creative juices flowing, or does it just make you think you’re Jack Kerouac while you’re producing goofy stoner ramblings? That’s what I keep worrying about instead of dreaming up brilliant lobster-women fiction, the blank pages of my Lit on Lit composition journal staring up at me as a communal joint is once again passed my way.
Denver-based Heidi Keyes is sure marijuana acts a muse. Keyes, a working artist, launched an informal “Puff, Pass and Paint” cannabis-friendly art class in January 2014 after a friend joked she should come up with the weed version of the popular wine-and-painting get-togethers. Now the Puff, Pass and Paint empire also boasts cannabis-fueled pottery, cooking and sewing classes, with additional outposts in D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland, Oregon. Keyes partnered with the Denver literature company Suspect Press to produce the Lit on Lit program, and the writing classes are being held in Puff, Pass and Paint’s residential Denver studio.
In other word, Keyes is the Gertrude Stein of marijuana artistry. And she’s convinced cannabis consumption isn’t just a bonus for her students. She believes it fuels their productivity, mostly by helping them shed inhibitions. “For me, personally, when you are doing something creative that you don’t normally do, you are really nervous,” she says. “You are worried about being judged and worried more about the end result rather than the process. The cannabis helps you focus on the process instead of just having a perfect end result.” Keyes might be on to something: Studies suggest cannabis makes people more impulsive.
But judging from the Lit on Lit class, cannabis doesn’t do away with all potential hang-ups in the sometimes messy creative process. At one point, an older fellow suggests the teachers incorporate more poetry exercises into their teaching.
“It’s all words, bro,” declares Landes, a little defensively. “It’s all words, bro.”
“I speak in poetry, you speak in poetry,” interjects a female student, eager to keep the mood mellow.
“Some of us speak in stock market data. Some of us speak in binary,” adds Josiah Hesse, one of the instructors, who’s wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo” symbol. After a beat, he adds, “I am so stoned.”
Maybe cannabis inspires creativity in some other fashion. That’s the theory of Ryan Pachmayer, co-founder of Puzzah!, one of Denver’s most prominent escape room companies. According to Pachmayer, about 5 percent of weekly Puzzah! visitors show up stoned. With about 400 attendees a week, that’s a lot of marijuana-fueled puzzle solvers. And more often than not, they’re exceptional players.
“We have definitely noticed that groups who smoke do better than the average group,” says Pachmayer. He figures cannabis helps inspire the sort of imaginative thinking needed to unlock his puzzle boxes and decode his ciphers. “To solve these puzzles, you have to think outside the box,” he says. “It’s why kids can do really well at them. They are not used to doing the same routines over and over.”
In other words, cannabis may help in what’s called divergent thinking, the ability to generate creative ideas by exploring as many solutions as possible. As it turns out, the only randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment testing marijuana and creativity examined this very concept. In 2012 and 2013, researchers in the Netherlands had several dozen participants consume vaporized cannabis and complete a divergent thinking task (come up with as many uses as possible for two household items, like a pen and a shoe). As the scientists expected, those who vaporized a single potent dose of THC did worse on the task than those given a placebo. But even those given a low dose of THC did no better on the assignment than those in the control group.
“We expected a low dose of cannabis would increase divergent thinking,” says Mikael Kowal, lead author of the study. “But based on this study, we can say there is no beneficial effect, and if you smoke too much, it can have the opposite effect.” He thinks maybe our brains are too distracted by marijuana’s other effects — vivid thoughts, distractibility, the munchies — to devote much energy to generating masterpieces.
Distractibility is about all I’m feeling as I'm nearing the end of my Lit on Lit class. The marijuana I’d smoked doesn’t seem to be helping my divergent thinking, since I can’t come up with any ideas at all based on the instructors’ writing prompts. But then, inspiration hits. I scribble out my story in a rush: the tale of a man falling in love with a lobster-clawed woman who knows that, according to his village customs, he will be required to destroy the part of her that makes her special. It begins with the line “I knew I would be the one required to break Camilla as soon as I saw her,” and ends with the woman handing the man a metallic hammer and saying, “Crack.”
I have no idea whether my story is inspired or simply creepy. And when I read my efforts aloud to the class, I’m too far gone to know if the resulting clapping is authentic or just my classmates being polite. Still, maybe the cannabis has proven helpful. It’s hard to imagine I would have produced such a story, much less read it aloud, stone-cold sober.
Whether all those joints turned us into creative geniuses or not, Lit on Lit’s organizers plan to make the classes an ongoing activity. Still, they aim to tweak a few elements going forward — like just how “lit” the instructors should get as part of the process.
“Lesson one,” says Hesse, higher than many of the students. “Don’t get so stoned before class starts.”