Creativity and Your Environment

Photograph by Patrick Fore

Photograph by Patrick Fore

Last year, I came across a story about people who wrote while on their commute to and from work. They had full-time careers and spent all day working, but for some reason when they caught the commuter boat, they were compelled to write. One wrote about other worlds very far removed from the South Shore landscape; and the other captured scenes on the boat ride that morphed into the settings of mystery novels.

As a writer, I am very sensitive to my environment. (Clearly, the airplane is a case in point, I like to write while in motion.) On a regular day, if I write something, I have to revise it in another room, or at least at another table. If I can’t find the right words, or a piece isn’t coming together the way I’d imagined, I head to a coffee shop for some external stimuli. While writing my book, on numerous (very inconvenient!) occasions, I’d get an idea late at night. I’d have to climb out of my warm bed and into my cold office where I’d type away under a single glowing desk lamp. On these midnight jaunts, words came easily like I was possessed by a prolific writer of the past (or a visiting genius). When I dug into this more, I found that my process wasn’t entirely unusual. 

In an article,The Atlantic examined F. Scott Fitzgerald’s decade spent writing Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald was dealing with many external stresses—his wife’s schizophrenia, the loss of his father, and overuse of alcohol—that contributed to his grueling hiatus. However, the article, written by Cody Delistraty, also identified what impacts creatives positively. Studies show that your physical surroundings contribute a great deal to your progress, especially lighting and noise. “Darkness and dim lighting can encourage freedom of thought, which leads to a more prolific generation of ideas, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology,” writes the Atlantic. “Specifically, dim lighting downplays a room’s distractions, promoting focus on internal reflection and the work at hand.” (Perhaps the stereotypical image of a writer is not so far off after all.)

And, the chatter of a busy coffee shop? The noise level translates roughly between 50 and 70 decibels, which “slightly disrupts the mental process, which one study showed to help people engage in more abstract thinking during a word-association task.” Anything louder—traffic, televisions, or dishwashers—can be disruptive.

I had never really thought about my process. My regiment, I believed, had just evolved over time, and like a superstitious batter at the plate—reVelcroing his gloves and tapping the tip of the bat against his cleats—I became a servant to what worked in the past. (Of course, I still strike out from time to time.) Then I was talking to a friend and talented artist/musician. He was at our house one day to rehearse with my husband. I was heading out with a stack of papers when he arrived, and when he asked where I was going, I said to the library to revise. Then we got into a discussion about how a person’s environment can impact creativity. He thought about it, and then he remembered three large paintings he had produced in a warehouse. He had never worked in that space before, and he didn’t think much of it, but reflecting back on the idea, he realized, those pieces were quite different than anything he had painted before. (Another study has suggested that high ceilings can inspire abstract and creative thoughts.)

So, if you’re feeling stuck, make a few changes to your environment. Hop on a ferry or open your laptop or notepad in a dimly lit room, who knows what stories you might find there.

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weather felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.
— Ernest Hemingway
WritingKelly Chase