The temporally astute among you will know that this post is a week late. I have growing reasons–travel, writing, a new project [details coming soon]–and my posts are likely to be more sporadic as I focus on my latest creative escapades.
In Red Smith’s famous assertion that “writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and just open a vein” , writers do strange things to keep their words in flow. But what really works?
I have a theory that for every creative trick, there exists a study both to prove and disprove it. For example:
- Coffee and tea. For every coffee-drinking writer (eg. Goethe, Voltaire, Kirkegaard, Gertrude Stein), there is a corresponding tea-lover (eg. Dostoyevsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry James, C. S. Lewis). At his writing peak, Honore de Balzac was said to have ingested ground coffee to the equivalent of 50 cups per day! Tea and coffee have one magical substance in common: caffeine. Studies show that, while the ubiquitous stimulant can decrease fatigue and improve problem-solving, it may diminish the brain’s ability to link ideas.
- Alcohol. Stephenie Meyer doesn’t drink. Nor did Isaac Asimov or Pearl S. Buck. But, according to Tennessee Williams, “American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol.” This may be with good reason. A 2013 study suggests that, while drinking alcohol may not be great for tasks requiring focus, it can help you to be more observant, an arguably necessary skill for any writer.
- Harder drugs. Aldous Huxley’s experimentation with psychedelics is well-documented, and his scientific fervour around the drugs drew in a psychiatrist friend. But do psychedelics really enhance creativity? There is at least one study that supports their contribution to creativity in already-talented individuals, however, when considering other drugs, it is theorised that any increases in creative output may arise from the disinhibiting effects of the drugs.
- Sex. Lord Byron had a legendary reputation for sleeping with 250 partners over the course of a year; Dylan Thomas was also known for his sexual exploits. They are not alone. In 2005, researchers reported that professional artists and poets had around twice as many sexual partners as the average person. Before you start bed-hopping to stimulate your creativity, however, know that researchers have not uncovered a link between lust and innovation, with the number of partners possibly proportional to level of fame. In fact, a 2009 study concluded that love, not lust, enhances creative thinking. Interesting tidbit: if you do need a little action in order to write, apparently 2-3 cups of coffee daily can help; see dot-point 1.
- Exercise. Anecdotal evidence and a 1977 study point to the probable efficacy of exercise in improving creativity, however a 2013 study found that exercise hampered divergent [creative] thinking, unless you are already a fit individual. But surely the swift move of freshly-oxygenated blood to the brain has to help, right? Thoreau seemed to think so.
- Pets. Flannery O’Connor kept peacocks. Charles Dickens had a raven. Henrik Ibsen had a scorpion. Creative writers often have animals in their midst–but do animals encourage creativity, or do creative people just tend to keep them?
The list of creative-enhancing behaviours/stuff goes on–and I haven’t even looked at music, sleep, workspace, rituals, or food!–with studies linking rises in creativity to Parkinson’s disease, Harry Potter movies, and the ability to think about problems from another person’s perspective [15,16,17].
To summarise the story thus far: in order to be creative, you have to be a loved-up, semi-caffeinated, gym-junkie, Harry Potter fan with a neurological disorder who inhabits someone else’s body while alternately teetotalling and binge-drinking. And you have to be all of this while avoiding starting or finishing anything on a Friday (a la Truman Capote) and ensuring you have a ready preparation of rotten-apple smell (Schiller’s preferred prompt) [2,18]. Sound easy enough?
Attempting to pinpoint a universal rule for boosting creativity is like trying to find a silver bullet for weight loss: what works for one person may be counterproductive for another. Courting the muse is indeed a mysterious and deeply personal rite [19, 20].
So…what works for you? Have you done anything strange or fabulous to encourage your flow of creative juice?
I wish you the most wonderfully creative thoughts,
Addendum of 16/06/2015: Yes, I know I missed lots of creative prompts and oversimplified others–eg. yoga and meditation; fitting all drugs outside of caffeine and alcohol into a ‘harder drugs’ category. It would take me months or years to catalogue every possible creative booster; please forgive me for any oversights.
References (in no particular referencing style. Please do look up these fabulous links for yourself):
- Bell, J. S. (2012) “The Perils of Internet Information” on Killzone. Available online via https://killzoneblog.com/2012/11/the-perils-of-internet-information.html [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Patterson, A. (2013) “Writers of Substance (Abuse) – Famous Writers and their Addictions” on Writers Write. Available online via http://writerswrite.co.za/writers-of-substance-abuse [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Konnikova, M. (2013) “How Caffeine Can Cramp Creativity” on The New Yorker. Available online via http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/how-caffeine-can-cramp-creativity [last accessed: 26 May 2015].
- Wikipedia (2015) “List of teetotalers” on Wikipedia. Available online via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_teetotalers [last accessed: 21 May 2015].
- Cofflesh, G. J. & Wiley, J. (2013) “Drunk, but not blind: the effects of alcohol intoxication on change blindness” in Consciousness and Cognition journal. Available online via PubMed: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23357240 [last accessed: 22 May 2015].
- Gibb, N. (2014) “Freakout! (Don’t take the brown acid)” in The Lifted Brow, 23: 13-15, Melbourne.
- Huxley, A. (1977/1999) Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience, Park Street Press, Vermont.
- Krippiwr, S. (1977/2008) “Research in creativity and psychedelic drugs” in International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 25(4): 274-290. Available online via http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207147708415985 [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Berge, J. T. (1999/2011) “Breakdown or Breakthrough? A History of European Research into Drugs and Creativity” in The Journal of Creative Behavior, 33: 257–276. doi: 10.1002/j.2162-6057.1999.tb01406.x. Available online via http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.2162-6057.1999.tb01406.x/abstract [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Reaney, P. (2005) “Creative geniuses have more sex” on ABC: News in Science. Available online via http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/health/HealthRepublish_1519901.htm [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Kaufman, S. B. (2009) “Love, Lust, and Creativity” on Psychology Today. Available online via https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/200909/love-lust-and-creativity [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Donnelly, L. (2015) “Some like it hot: How coffee perks up sex life” on Independent.ie. Available online via http://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/some-like-it-hot-how-coffee-perks-up-sex-life-31244884.html [last accessed: 26 May 2015].
- Steinberg, H., Sykes, E. A., Moss, T., Lowery, S., LeBoutillier, N. and Dewey, A. (1997) “Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood” in British Journal of Sports Medicine, 31: 240-245. Available online via http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1332529/pdf/brjsmed00003-0076.pdf [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Colzato, L. S., Szapora, O. A., Pannekoek, J. N., and Hommel, B. (2013) “The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking” in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00824. Available online via http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00824/abstract [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Lim, J. R. (2014) “Parkinson’s Could Enhance Creativity” on LiveScience. Available online via http://www.livescience.com/46925-parkinsons-enhance-creativity.html [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Lancaster University (2012) “Watching Harry Potter films enhances creativity in children” in ScienceDaily. Available online via http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120320115140.htm [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Markman, A. (2011) “A Simple Trick to Boost Your Creativity” in Huffington Post: Healthy Living. Available online via http://www.huffingtonpost.com/art-markman-phd/increasing-creativity_b_849886.html [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Edge, S. (2014) “New book tells you how to succeed… at everything” on Express. Available online via http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/347170/New-book-tells-you-how-to-succeed-at-everything [last accessed: 22 May 2015].
- Gilbert, E. (2009) “Your elusive creative genius” on TED. Available online via http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius?language=en [last accessed: 15 June 2015].
- Epstein, R. (1999/2012) “Capturing Creativity” in Psychology Today. Available online via https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200910/capturing-creativity [last accessed: 15 June 2015].