Stephen McGinty: Myth of genius put to bed

A daily bath was important to Winston Churchill, who dictated chapters to his secretary as he wallowed. Picture: PA
A daily bath was important to Winston Churchill, who dictated chapters to his secretary as he wallowed. Picture: PA
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MARCEL Proust liked to start each day with opium and a croissant before retiring to bed to write. I learned this curious fact while reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, who also informed me that the French author’s predilection for writing while under the covers was shared by Truman Capote and Patricia Highsmith.

This made me wonder if the literary output of the Glasgow office of The Scotsman could be radically improved if desks were replaced with a giant brass bedstead with a journalist positioned at each corner like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Bowls of cabbage soup could be served each mealtime.

Roald Dahl did not write in bed, but instead favoured an unheated wooden hut at the bottom of his garden, though in winter he did take to wrapping a blanket around his knees. George Bernard Shaw also had a writing hut, but one raised on a spindle so that it could be rotated to catch the sun.

A diligent review of creative minds and their daily rituals will see patterns emerge: a daily bath was important to Winston Churchill, who dictated chapters to his secretary as he wallowed. Flaubert’s bath was as hot as he could bear, while Benjamin Franklin favoured ‘air baths’ which is to say he preferred to work unencumbered by clothes. The most common ritual was a daily walk which was particularly popular with musicians, with Mahler, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky often working out compositional knots as their feet pounded the pavement. Immanuel Kant was so precise in his daily perambulation that his neighbours in Konigsberg could set their watch by his departure for his 3:30pm stroll. Caffeine was the most popular drug, with Beethoven using precisely 60 beans in each cup and Kierkegaard adding almost more sugar than water. Those who preferred something stronger included V S Pritchett who had his first cocktail at exactly 12 noon while W H Auden had the discipline to wait until 6:30pm before enjoying two vodka martinis.

I’ve always had a fascination for the working habits of artists, particularly authors but also film-makers, musicians and painters. It is as if by knowing what time they started work, when they finished and their choice of notebook and pen, I can take a step closer to understanding how they scaled their artistic peak. Lucien Freud appears to have worked from early morning to midnight every day with only a few hours off to engage in vigorous sex with his models and trips to the racetrack. The adrenaline thrill of gambling and the necessity to work hard to pay off his perpetual debts in paintings was the coal in his personal furnace. When resident in Manhattan, John Cheever dressed in his suit and tie, walked out the door of his apartment, took the lift to the basement, walked to a quiet cupboard, stripped to his underwear and then wrote all morning before dressing once again for lunch.

For the past week I’ve been reading about John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman and Raymond Carver in The Trip to Echo Springs: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing, a beautiful, moving, engaging travelogue in which the author follows each writer and their drinking habits around America.

Ever since I read The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writers (1989) by Tom Dardis, who also scrutinised the alcoholic consumption of Hemingway and Fitzgerald but opted for Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner, I’ve had an abiding interest in what made them drink. Hemingway, who 52 years ago this week killed himself with a shotgun, explained in a pps that: “I have drunk since I was 15 and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does? The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.”

Olivia Laing explores the personal anxieties and fears of each author and how in the beginning alcohol dampened them down before developing into an increasingly debilitating crutch only Carver and Cheever were ever able to give up. Carver believed his greatest personal accomplishment was not his short stories but finally putting the cork in the bottle. I’ve always questioned the romanticisation of the alcoholic author and thought how are they any different from the alcoholic butcher or carpenter.

An essay in the most recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly reminded me that the secret to the creative genius is not what time they went for their daily walk, where they wrote, painted or composed, not their choice of breakfast nor evening drink but what goes on in their head.

Nancy Andreasen completed a PhD in literature, writing a book on John Donne, before training as a psychiatrist at Iowa University where in the 1970s she completed a study of 27 authors connected with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop that revealed a connection between creativity and mental illness, including schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar disorders, anxiety and alcoholism. In recent years she has returned to the genesis of genius by conducting MRI scans and in-depth research into 13 ‘creative’ geniuses in the fields of film, literature, science, maths and suchlike and comparing the results with 13 control subjects.

The link between ‘genius’ and ‘insanity’ was first made by the Italian physician Cesare Lombarso who wrote The Man of Genius in 1891, however 20 years earlier Francis Galton wrote Hereditary Genius which studied musicians and writers such as the Bronte sisters to prove what he saw as a genetic link. In 1904 Havelock Ellis analysed all 66 volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography to write a ‘Study of British Genius’ in which he focused on anyone whose entries were longer than three pages then dispensed with those with “no high intellectual ability” and concluded that 8.2 per cent of his subjects suffered melancholy while 4.2 per cent were insane.

Yet a high IQ can also lead to happy marriages and high salaries according to Lewis M Terman’s Genetic studies of Genius. What is interesting about Andreasen’s study and article is that she points out that to be a creative ‘genius’ does not require an IQ off the charts but one of around 120. Instead what is required is a particular ability for ‘divergent thinking’ which means being able to give multiple responses to carefully phrased questions such as: “How many uses can you think of for a brick?” This ability for ‘divergent thinking’ allows scientists, artists, musicians and writers to better recognise connections and make associations that allow them to see things in an original way and leads to creative breakthroughs. Andreasen said that the evidence for this should be found in MRI scans, just as London taxi drivers have been found to have enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals in memory.

After devising a suitable study, she discovered that her creative geniuses which included George Lucas and Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist had more active ‘associative cortices’, found in a part of the brain known as the angular gyrus.

Sadly this discovery has not interested me almost as much as knowing where Truman Capote wrote the bulk of In Cold Blood or W H Auden’s favourite tipple. The fact that creative geniuses have brains that develop differently from ours, by a combination of nature or nurture or both, if true is as obvious as Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at a subject to get within drooling distance of genius. Another of Andreasen’s conclusions was that creative geniuses work exceptionally hard. Whether they are predisposed to unhappiness and that depression and anxiety is merely the other side of their lucky coin will also remain a matter of debate. There are countless others who write in bed and drink at noon, countless more with alcoholism and depression. We’re just not as interested in them.