That’s Genius: Staying Inspired this Year

Caithlin Ng 21 January 2017

It’s a new year, and new term. For those who fear they’ll lose any semblance of mental capacity recovered over Christmas a week in, we may be able to help. This week, we’re looking at the ways that writers, artists, and scientists in history have stayed inspired.

Write in a car

Gertrude Stein found that her productivity blossomed when running errands, in the privacy of her Model T Ford, while letting her mind wander and jotting down a few lines. Imagine the stillness within a parked car, with the chatter and tête-à-tête of busy Paris streets just outside, along with the periodic stopping and starting of the automobile matching the rhythm of her thoughts.

Daily commutes proved particularly effective too. Joseph Heller famously stated that the closing line of Catch-22 came to him on a bus. Woody Allen found his everyday New York subway rides the perfect background for his budding comedic genius, saying “I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes…fifty jokes a day for years.”

Read work you hate

Richard Siken, poet of Crush and War of the Foxes, advises: “When I read work I hate, I get motivated to make something in opposition to it.” Perhaps before you start your next essay, read one of your old ones.

Get into a strict routine

Haruki Murakami advocates a lifestyle of strict order. When writing a novel, he gets up every morning at 4 am, works for five or six hours, runs 10 kilometres or swims 1500 meters (or both), reads for the rest of the day, and then goes to bed promptly at 9 pm. The stringent routine rids him of distractions, such that, he says, “I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Put yourself under extreme physical stress. (Do not try this at home)

Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu has patented more than 3,300 inventions in the 74 years of his life, one of which was the floppy disk in 1952. Several of his greatest ideas hit him when he was close to drowning; he says: “To starve the brain of oxygen, you must dive deep and allow the water pressure to deprive the brain of blood. Zero-point-five seconds before death, I visualise an invention.” After which he jots his idea down on an underwater notepad and swims back to the surface. Maybe it’s time to give rowing another shot.

Write lying down or standing up

Truman Capote wrote lying down, as did Marcel Proust, Mark Twain, and Woody Allen. In a 1957 Paris Review interview with Pati Hill, Capote explains: “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. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”

Attempt polyphasic sleep. (Also do not try this at home.)

The list of polyphasic sleepers includes Dalí, da Vinci, Edison, Tesla, Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and even Bruce Lee.

Dalí used napping as a creativity technique. He would fall asleep sitting up, holding a metal key over a plate. When he started to drift off, the key would drop with a clatter and wake him up immediately. This allowed him to access the brief transitional moment between waking and sleep, which some believe makes us more susceptible to hallucinations.

Da Vinci also turned to irregular sleeping hours, but in the name of productivity – he took 15-20 minute naps on a cycle of every four hours, adding up to a total of just two hours per day, so that he could work 22 hours a day.

I’ve always been interested in the quirks of famous thinkers, as if they hold the key to invoke genius. Realistically though, I can adopt any number of these and still just scrape a 2.i – they don’t hold the secrets to a mysterious cognitive state. If anything, it’s clear that the path to great thinking is the acceptance of one’s own quirks .