Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Creative People Need to Be Eccentric

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?

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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