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 poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (288)
  • Sarah Flynn

    all these examples are men. hardly representative. 

  • ChA

    So…. Go and find some women’s examples, post them here and make me read them. Be active and drive the cause of feminism or equality if you believe in it. Trolling the well-written article does nothing for anyone reading this comment.

  • Richard

    I like the walking-round-the-block-a-few-times idea. Think I’ve heard of others doing that, too.

    I think anything that allows you to switch off from the task can help — so the subconscious can tick away: 1. Fill your brain with the problem and related info. 2. Switch off from the problem 3. Ta-daa!

    Or sit on the toilet: http://wordfruit.com/blog/what

  • Inner Artist

    You win so far!

  • Vicki Trusselli

    no actually i am eccentric and an artist and proud of it and when people who are not eccentric who i think are and they are totally conventional delete me or say it was my fault that they suspended their account because my post had a problem.

  • Fox

    I must admit, this sounds a lot like me as a programmer. My best hours are after sunset, distractions are too easy to follow (esp before sunset), and quality and quantity of effort and creativity don’t kick in until they kick in… then I’m unstoppable. Pretty literally. Talk to me, I might mumble something back. Hand me a game controller, I’ll say “in a minute” that never comes. The work becomes intense and deeply focused, and somehow addictively enjoyable–like playing a game.
    Attempts to change to the standard model have been, for 20 years, unsuccessful, and at times, disastrous.

  • Marc Steinmann

    I have to listen to audio books and podcasts to be focused and entertained at the same time.

  • Joel West

    Same routine, only with the monsters at the moment.

  • Joel West

    sounds better to me.

  • Joel West

    rofl, is it odd, that I’ve done this as well?

  • Joel West

    As one with many creative triggers, I would say it’s certainly healthy and possible. Why would it ever be bad to be more creative?

  • Joel West

    right on right on, I’ve only dabbled so far (hit a wall where I just need someone to SHOW me certain things) but programming is most certainly a creative pursuit. and helpful, you are totally right.

  • H

    Isobelle Carmody, a writer of YA and children’s fiction has the following routines (I remember reading them somewhere): She stays in her pyjamas, because once she gets dressed she feels the need to go somewhere and gets no work done. She starts work when her daughter leaves for school, and her rule is that she puts on the kettle and when it boils, she is ready to work. She makes a cup of tea, then sits down to work. Later in the day she will go out for a swim because she works better after a swim. She loves to write in coffee shops, and has several which she switches between. Her first draft is always in long-hand, her second draft is typed. She has certain books she likes to read while she is writing, and always keeps them with her.
    JK Rowling is another writer who loves to write in coffee shops. I also read that she likes to go and stay in a hotel (I guess her finances allow that!) to keep her away from the distractions of family and home life, and let her really focus on her writing.
    Suzanne Collins, the writer of the Hunger Games, says she gets up in the morning and goes to her desk to write straight away. She says if she writes for 5 hours, that is a good day. Sometimes she might not write very much, she might stare into space, rethink the plot, rewrite sections etc but all this is considered productive work.
    There you go – three female writers and their so-called “eccentricities” – which are really just ways for the self-employed to kick their butts into doing some work.

  • Skaal

    Well, have the habit of walking to find the ideas and discuss them with imaginary people…If people think this is eccentric then I rather think they’re repressed

  • katfishkelly

    i love it! :)

  • Alex Veres

    As a writer, I’m rather proud to be eccentric. I use my imagination to help visualize myself in the world of the books I write.

    This grants me the method to help come up with many new ideas. Plus, a little music from Blackmore’s Night or some Folk music from different countries helps create the atmosphere I need to help visualize

  • Ronald lee Vaught

    Creativity is a destiny with some, with others only a matter of time.UNHR217A111.pdf.rev 2013 by Angela MArie & RonAld Lee Vaught

  • hany

    Why would it ever be bad to be more creative?

  • Mark

    Being creative and eccentric has brought me nothing but hardship. Every job becomes boring as I excel past the norm. Then I have to deal with jealous lazy thoughtless workers who will do everything to bring you down, and because the ratio of clever eccentric people to norms is 1:1000, you are kind of put in the mad different category to which you know its time to move onto the next battle.

    Anyway a bit off track from what the article was about but, but valid all the same…be different to be yourself, but understand that different will draw attention.

    • Thomas Wilson

      Check out the book “Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Everyday” by Todd Henry. It addresses those specific issues and other common pitfalls we as creatives can knowingly (and unknowingly) succumb to that prevent us from feeling fulfilled!

      http://www.toddhenry.com/dieempty/

      Good luck on finding your balance Mark!

  • http://www.straightuptalk.com/ Alyxandria Rae

    Bike rides and lattes. Ha!

  • Maggie Rae

    I do not work in the professional creative field. But I am a creative person through and through. Everything about me is artistic. I have always been seen as just a little “weird” by many people. I used to be hurt by this (I sometimes feel badly now). I could not / do not understand why people think I’m different. But, I’m starting to get it. This article has helped me alot. So back to my drawing board, forget them; I’m going to just be me and embrace me! Thanks to all of you! I’m taking in Paul McCartney’s wisdom!

  • nitroprussian

    wow…interesting stuff…..I’m late as usual. Though I can’t help but relate (being an artist myself) I also think these “quirks” may have roots in a self fulfilling prophecy. However, as previously stated these activities serve as a fulcrum to move the mind. Utility, in my opinion, cannot be eliminated even in the “exclusive” realm of art.

  • Nate

    If I have a lack of motivation I: take a two hour nap, wake up, have a Pepsi and start.

  • Thomas Wilson

    Craft beer, a coffee scented candle and noise canceling headphones are a must for me to feel like i’m genuinely creating my best work beyond shooting in the field.

  • Thomas Wilson

    Toilet ideas >>>>

  • 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
      B­u­z­z­3­2­.­ℂ­o­m

  • 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!! :D

  • 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 http://www.truthcontest.com. 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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