During her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck thrilled a captive audience with her description of the shimmering aliveness from which a creative work is born: “The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably to an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living […] this energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing or whatever is its most natural medium of expression […] it is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell.”
This description of inspiration – an event (if we might describe it thus) both mental and physical – will be recognisable to all creative types who have ever been overcome by it. Yet discovering it has been, at best, an elusive hunt. Whether it is even possible to manufacture the conditions necessary to draw inspiration out from whichever haunt it keeps, so that it might spur the creative onto create the art they seek to make, remains a contentious debate. Is there a way to produce the inspiration needed – and also to keep hold of that inspiration long enough to express it adequately – to produce a great creative work? Or is there a mystic, divine-intervention element to inspiration and creativity?
It is the belief – or hope – that inspiration and creativity can be nurtured by the practices and processes we, as creatives, employ, which remains the unspoken assumption beneath all creative writing courses; in the subtext of all writing tips from writers; and behind the daily routines employed by creatives. They point to what might be described as the ritualization of creativity – or attempts to advise others as to what daily processes they may employ to invoke the muse.
There is something quasi-religious, half-ceremonial about such processes and routines. Writers can get quite pernickety about them. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached to a running scroll with sealing wax. James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat – and composed Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. Virginia Woolf spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray.
Yet does such ceremony – rooted in strange uneasy feelings of superstition – actually help the creative writer? Or is it down to sheer determination? Samuel Johnson, after all, said simply that “composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance”, and contended that, rather than need a particularly angled desk, “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”
Intriguingly, psychological analysis suggests these creative rituals may be both cognitively sound and creatively fruitful.
The Psychology of Writing
Cognitive psychologist, Ronald T Kellogg, illuminates the role of the daily routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity in his work The Psychology of Writing. In this volume, he explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments all effect how much time we spend trying to write – and also influence how much of that time is spent feeling bored, anxious, or bound up in actually writing or being otherwise creative. Kellogg writes:
“[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.”
Among many of Kellogg’s interesting findings relating to the impact of our writing habits and environments, is the attention paid to background noise. Here, we find that high-intensity noise (exceeding 95 decibels) disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks. The reason for this is that noise raises arousal levels, which helps us stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can distract and agitate us out of creative work when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. Scientific evidence to support therefore, our previous suggestion that when it comes to writing, we need silence.
Yet the degree to which we are affected by such environmental factors also concerns our natural disposition toward anxiety (or lack thereof). Kellogg notes that writers more afflicted with anxiety – an unfortunately rising epidemic in our 24/7, post-Fordist, hyper-commercialised, society – tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. And the degree to which one feels anxious similarly affects how much noise one can put up with. This is almost scaleable – so that on the one hand you have Proust – who wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds – and the other you have Allen Ginsberg, who was known for being able to write anywhere; from trains to planes to public parks and bustling streets.
Each writer, therefore, has a highly subjective requirement for what makes a daily creative routine effective in preserving the state of inspiration and creativity:
“The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.”
Forget the 9 to 5
Another key observation Kellogg makes regards the amount of time spent writing. Several studies indicate that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity. What is more, studies on circadian rhythms suggest that performance on intellectual tasks peak during morning hours, whereas perceptual motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening.
Intriguingly, these findings almost perfectly mirror Kurt Vonnegut’s daily routine. Perhaps therefore showing that certain creatives are naturally predisposed to work in a way that naturally complements their creative inclinations.
The dedicated workspace
As to the location and physical environment needed to nurture creativity, Kellogg notes that writers’ dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although in youth – “the apprenticeship phase of a writer’s career” – almost any environment is workable, perhaps a hybrid function of youth’s high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxuty of privacy is unaffordable.
Good news, then, for young writers currently facing (in the UK at least) the crippling effects of a conservative government seemingly hell set on forcing the young to bear the brunt of austerity measures, with lack of housing, huge debts and no jobs. Thank heavens for small mercies, eh?
But Kellogg points out that the key thing to remember, when it comes to these environments, that there is little here to do with superstitious ritualization — an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place — as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an “environment that cues the desired behavior”:
“This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness. Once the writer’s attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.
For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.”
Flexibility of human thought
Yet for all these routines, insights and analysis, Kellogg notes astutely at the end of his book that the multitude of different practices and processes used by writers suggests more about us as human beings than any set guidance to creating the ‘perfect routine’ for nourishing creative thought.
In his closing chapter, he says: “The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust’s cork-lined room to Sarraute’s Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.”
Despite all the available strategies for ‘optimising creativity’, then, one truth – the ‘Capital T-Truth’ remains: there is no ideal cork-lined study with the perfectly angled chair rotated to the acceptable degree of inspiration creation. No matter how perfectly you position your desk clock, or sharpen your pencil, you cannot guarantee that Booker Prize.
Ultimately, what actually counts is sitting down, clocking in the hours and showing up day in and day out, without fail, without romance, and writing; writing; reading; reading; editing; editing; and writing. More than superstition, it’s about effort. And more than luck; it’s about love.