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Workspace Design

Why Creative People Need to Be Eccentric

Do you ever feel like your regular habits are a little bit crazy? We investigate why eccentricity is essential to doing great work.

Creative people have a reputation for eccentricity. It’s not hard to see why when we consider the habits of some well-known creatives.

Like Truman Capote:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.

Or Friedrich Schiller, as described by fellow poet Stephen Spender:

Schiller liked to have a smell of rotten apples, concealed beneath his desk, under his nose when he was composing poetry. Walter de la Mare has told me that he must smoke when writing. Auden drinks endless cups of tea. Coffee is my own addiction, besides smoking a great deal, which I hardly ever do except when I am writing.

[from “Creativity”, ed. PE Vernon] Or artist Maurice Sendak:

All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction… A favorite occupation of mine, some years back, was sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk, and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.

[From “Creators on Creating”, Ed. Frank Barron, Alfonso Montuori, Anthea Barron] Or Victor Hugo:

He gave all of his clothes to his servant, admonishing him NOT to return them until he (Hugo) had completed his day’s work.

Or novelist Orhan Pamuk:

In the mornings I used to say goodbye to my wife like someone going to work. I’d leave the house, walk around a few blocks, and come back like a person arriving at the office.

Many people would classify these examples as ranging from harmless eccentricity to borderline insanity, but if you’re an artist or professional creative, you can probably relate to some of them. And having spent 15 years coaching creatives and observing their work habits up close, they look perfectly normal – even essential – to me.If we recall last month’s piece about the effect of mundane routines on creativity, this kind of behavior starts to make sense. Remember the three characteristics of a hypnotic trigger:

  1. Uniqueness– it should be something (or a combination of things) you don’t associate with other activities, otherwise the effect will be diluted.
  2. Emotional intensity – the kind you experience when you’re really immersed in creative work.
  3. Repetition  – the more times you experience the unique trigger in association with the emotions, the stronger the association becomes.

When these three elements are present, the trigger has the effect of inducing the particular state of consciousness that is essential for creative work. In the case of daily routines, repetition is most prominent; but when it comes to bizarre working practices, uniqueness is probably the most powerful element.Capote doubtless smoked and drank coffee at other times, but the unique combination of lying down + puffing + sipping came to be so strongly associated with his writing process that he could not even ‘think’ unless he was lying down. And note that Spender says he hardly ever smoked except when writing. Apparently the apples reminded Schiller of his youth, wandering lovestruck through the orchards in autumn. He couldn’t have known it, but the neuroscientists now tell us that the olfactory nerve has a strong connection with parts of the brain responsible for storing and recalling emotional memories. For Sendak, music has similarly powerful emotional and creative associations. Hugo’s instructions to his servant were ostensibly to stop him walking out into the hotel corridor, imprisoning him in his room so he had to work. But the fact that he was not the only writer to work naked suggests that the birthday suit can also act as a creative trigger. But why did Pamuk leave “for work” every morning, only to walk straight round the block and back through his own front door? He explains very clearly how important it was for him to separate the stimuli (triggers) of his home and work life:

I have always thought that the place where you sleep or the place you share with your partner should be separate from the place where you write. The domestic rituals and details somehow kill the imagination.

Whenever he could arrange it, Pamuk went to a workplace outside his home. But he and his wife once spent a semester in the US while she was studying, and he had nowhere to work but their tiny flat; the ‘circular commute’ was a last resort, a parody of a daily routine that acted as a trigger for his imagination and got him out of the domestic mindset, if not the flat itself.And just to show I’m as normal as the next creative, you may like to know this article was composed in my usual manner – fueled with coffee, walking up and down my office, dictating to the laptop via speech recognition software, listening to techno and wielding a wooden samurai sword. — How About You? How eccentric are your creative work habits? Do you have any little rituals or props that look strange to others, but feel essential to your creative process?

Comments (281)
  • Emily Molly

    Im an artist, graphic designer, jewelry designer and fashion designer, I do the boring stuff like pay bills or do laundry before starting to work, also clean and organize the area where Im going to work, play groovy music and let it loose. Having a clean space makes me feel like the room is a new canvas where things are going to be created, music just makes me happy and since I have no more “things to do” in my mind, instead of thinking of buying milk, or feed the cat; I dance and sing (badly) while working and let creation happen.

    Also when Im done creating I want to go somewhere else, so if I was designing on the computer I go to rest or go do some jewelry or clothing, then come back to what I was doing and see if its worth finishing it.

    • nestazhe265

      my Aunty Julia got silver Volkswagen Beetle
      Convertible by working parttime off of a home computer… Look At This

  • Joe Dreyer

    Thank goodness there are so many others out there! Was starting to get worried. I’m a photographer and freelance writer. I have to get in my car and drive around aimlessly for at least 30 minutes every morning so as to feel like I’ve gone somewhere. Then, back home at my apartment I have the kettle at the ready and turn into a chain smoker as I pump out various creative content pieces for my clients. I have to have my headphones on too, but that’s mainly just to drown out the noise.

  • Joe Dreyer

    dammit, how do you delete a pic that was meant as your avatar and then showed up as your post?

  • Kathers

    Great piece Mark, fascinating to read what other creatives do to get into their ‘groove’. Before I start writing I like to walk ( or jog ) in my beautiful village, then have a shower, make a cup of tea, put on some classical piano music and open the laptop and start…..actually when I sit down I can immediately feel myself almost going into a trance like state!

  • hardsilver

    I do that for art. For writing, I need classical music. It’s like the other side of my brain needs to be distracted so the needed part can work!!😀

  • Cincim

    #Q thought of the day: Aristotle said, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.” Now I know what my problem is…#winkwink

  • Julie Vatuone

    Thank you Sarah!

  • DebbieT

    For marketing creative and other writing, I talk – either to real or imaginary people and the dialog eventually continues in my head while I write. I have also found that the best ideas come to me in my dreams while I sleep. I seem to solve a lot of my most difficult problems in my sleep and always have. For photography, I rely on things just capturing my attention to determine if and how I will shoot them.
    I almost always have a running dialog going on in my head though… I’ve always thought that was the primary filter for my creative process… if it can’t carry a dialog in my head, it passes to the next topic, and so on, until something is compelling and sticks.

  • Denika

    Being only 17 my writing preparation is varied depending in the circumstances of the day, but there is one thing I always do: I turn on YouTube and find “emotional music” that plays for at least 1 hour and in a category depending on what I’m writing. Celtic usually helps with fantasy works, while piano is soothing to hear when composing something romantic. But if by chance I’m to write any horror, I’ll find my favourite channel, MrCreepyPasta, and listen to him read to me as I write my own gruesome tail.
    I also like to eat cheese when writing, despite being lactose intolerant, and will often talk to myself in order to compose a scene just right.

  • Yuri

    Learn the truth of life at Click on “The Present”.[]

  • Shelter Somerset

    I write on top of a washing machine that must be loaded and running with cold water.

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