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Big Ideas

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)
  • Joann Sondy

    Nice article, but why pick on writers and artists. I believe EVERYONE has their own “eccentricities” to get their mojo working. Observe a child doing homework, your spouse preparing dinner, husband manicuring the lawn, etc. It’s the outcome that matters, not the caffeine and nicotine some may use as mental triggers.

  • Newdisko

    smoke cigarettes and drink coffee is eccentric?

  • tannerc

    Some great methods here that I think are important for any artist to take note of. No, you don’t have to smoke or drink to get the same results as those before us, but what we do need to do is have some distinct callout for our brain to recognize “Hey, it’s creativity time.”

    That’s what all of these methods are doing anyway, right?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Depends if you do it lying down or not.

  • Nathan Burgess (aka/fka PRCog)

    I’ve long been a believer in being able to enter a work/creative zone under certain circumstances / environments. Good to know there’s quite a few others out there doing the same thing (i.e. it’s a teachable thing….)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Agreed, it applies to all sorts of people. The 99% audience is mainly creatives and artists, so that’s why I focused on them.

  • Patryk Les

    My mental tigger is to seatting with my blind cat in the window every day and observing his “greediness” about the world outside. Very inspiring 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, that’s exactly it!

  • Jess Ruzz

    As a copywriter, I need My Things around me. My faux-Tiffany lamp with cabochon-eyed dragonflies. My hirsute, anatomically correct-ish voodoo doll – kind of like an adult Cabbage Patch Kid, but with the power to make Barbie’s head explode. Silver filigreed baubles. A ceramic mug filled with roller-ball gel pens. Items – it hardly matters what, thought right now it’s a trio of chubby candles – in shades of brilliant blue-green. Books, books, books, books about words, books about advertising, books about the people who live in other writers’ heads. A semi-automatic Nerf gun with extra suction-cup ammo.

    My Things followed me from workspace to workspace (although the barista gave me a strange look when I tried to lug them in to Starbucks, and the voodoo doll is at times more covered up than at others). Without question, My Things are a ritual of surroundings – by virtue of their dance across the edges of my peripheral vision, they’re a five-hour energy drink for my brain, but without the awful fruit-pepper smell.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Sounds perfectly normal to me. 😉

  • David Escalante

    I can only design with my pants down.

  • Jess Ruzz

    Mark, if your definition of “normal” is anything like mine, I’ll take that as a compliment!

  • Lisa Creech Bledsoe

    These don’t seem particularly eccentric, but I still connect to the idea. I think perhaps I collect weird experiences, and those help me be creative.

  • Ryan Bell

    While in college I got in the habit of playing with the drafting tape that usually lined the side of my studio desk in little squares. To this day, any time I have to deeply think about something I instantly get the urge to reach for a piece of tape to roll between my fingers while I think/brainstorm. I go through a lot of tape.

  • Grace Kim

    I was going to say that most of those aren’t really that eccentric. Then realized what that said about me 🙂

  • Grace Kim

    was just going to say that most of those aren’t that eccentric. then realized what that said about me 🙂

  • Grego

    When Designing, I need a sort random music play list I cant control If I can control the music I listen to, I tend to pay too much attention to what I’m listening to and start changing songs up and down.
    When programing, I need piece and quite and a full belly or I get easily irritated.

  • Robbie

    the example seem a little bit ‘gentle’ but do show that ability to refuse to be bound by convention, writing’s ones own rules etc. I prefer a little bit heavier attributes to help me give ‘reality’ the middle finger.
    A little investment in ‘mis-spent youth’ pays off once an adult 😉

  • oddTodd

    Or whether you are lying face-up or face-down.

  • Mark McGuinness


  • TeleDavidOgundeko

    As for me it depends on the intensity of the work. If I’m playing around a concept trying to develop ideas I just take a long walk. A very very looooong walk and I talk to myself all the way.
    But if it’s an intense concept development phase, I walk in circles in one spot in a clockwise manner. It must be clockwise, else I develop a headache and can’t think. I think so well this way, my best concepts and production come from this little trigger.

  • nitingarg

    I wont call it too “eccentric” but i have this habit of an intense need to be disconnected completely from surroundings. And mostly i do this by hearing ambient music & soundscapes in headphones. And this habit has now actually made me a night owl. Just cant work in daytime. Many times have done conscious effort to wake-up early, start a good day & then flow into work. But oh well..

  • mansig84

    I can think only while I have water trickling down my forehead…be it while swimming or bathing…ideas come then and I can compose it whenever…I need pin drop silence while writing…a single sound and I’m distracted and the chain of thought broken…

  • The Original David

    i have to have music, and i have to have to be wearing pockets.. preferably a photographers vest or cargo pants. I can’t work in sleeves. i noticed that if I don’t have music going I start going in circles mentally, but I can see pictures in music, it’s like a jump start. I need pockets to store a collection of pens and of course my mp3 player, straight pens, markers, bits of paper. if i don’t have pockets I feel naked.

  • Comment0072

    Creative people just need to be themselves. If you try and be eccentric – you’ve lost the plot. Just be yourself. If you’re truly creative you won’t have to try too hard.

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