Dim lighting and ambient noise may lead to more out-of-the-box ideas.
It took F. Scott Fitzgerald nearly a decade to finish Tender is the Night, his semi-autobiographical novel about the physical, financial, and moral decline of a man with nearly limitless potential. While working on the novel, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, moved between France, Switzerland, and the United States, eventually spending eighteen months at La Paix, an old country house north of Baltimore that he rented while Zelda was treated for schizophrenia at a nearby clinic. The Turnbull family owned the estate, and Andrew Turnbull, who was 11 at the time, later recounted Fitzgerald’s stay in his biography, Scott Fitzgerald.
While at La Paix, Fitzgerald worked in dark, disheveled rooms with a bottle of gin in a nearby drawer. He took short walks and came back to hand-write his ideas on notepads scattered on his desk. He also loved to sneak the Turnbulls’ homemade wine.
“Dazed and wan, he shuffled about the shut-in, unwholesome house in bathrobe and pajamas, pondering his next move,” Turnbull recalls in the book. “Returning to his study, he penciled [his thoughts] down in his rounded, decorous hand on yellow legal-sized paper. Interrupting him at work, I remember the illumination of his eye, the sensitive pull around the mouth, the wistful liquor-ridden thing about him.”
Part of the reason it took Fitzgerald so long to finish Tender is the Night was Zelda’s worsening condition. But you’d think that his haphazard, alcohol-fueled creative process wasn’t doing him any favors, either.
Yet recent research has shown that messy, dark, noisy, booze-filled environments like the one Fitzgerald cultivated at La Paix can, in fact, help stimulate creativity.
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. Specifically, dim lighting downplays a room’s distractions, promoting focus on internal reflection and the work at hand.
The next question is whether to keep that work on a tidy or a messy desk. While a writer in a time crunch might prefer a clean desk (reducing clutter can help people focus), one small study found that working amid disorder helped people come up with more creative ideas.
Kathleen D. Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management and the lead researcher of the study, writes, “Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order, and convention and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that.”
Evidence also supports the habits of people who eschew a desk altogether, instead opting to work in a coffee shop. A little bit of ambient noise (between 50 and 70 decibels—the average noise level of a coffee shop) slightly disrupts the mental process, which one study showed to help people engage in more abstract thinking during a word-association task. A high level of noise, however, around 80 decibels—the sound of a dishwasher or garbage disposal, for instance—becomes so disruptive to information processing that it becomes hard to think at all.
Like a few notable modern creatives, such as Donna Tartt, Quentin Tarantino, George R.R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman, Fitzgerald also wrote by hand, only moving to his typewriter for final drafts. Though few people actually do it anymore, writing by hand can help with idea generation, learning, and memorization.
Another tip: Get a little tipsy. Moderate intoxication—a blood alcohol content of about 0.075—improves problem solving and leads to what participants in the Consciousness and Cognition study referred to as “sudden insights,” which the sober participants reported significantly less often. That’s not a blanket license to get drunk on deadline, though. In a December 1934 letter to his Scribner editor, Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald wrote about the necessity to moderate his own drinking: “A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head.”
Fitzgerald completed Tender is the Night while at La Paix in the autumn of 1933 just before his 37th birthday. By that time, he had seen his wife fall deeper into mental illness, his father passed away, and he suffered a tubercular hemorrhage that left him bedridden and unable to work for weeks. Having seen his own star slowly fade after reaching his pinnacle of fame so early on with This Side of Paradise when he was only 23, with Tender is the Night, he strove to regain the faith of the public and his faith in himself.
He used his own feelings of professional failure for the tragic character of Dick Diver; he used his disappointment with his parents for Dick and Nicole’s failed relationship; he used his affair with Lois Moran for Dick’s affair with Rosemary Hoyt; and he used the stinging reality of his wife’s illness and the memory of her affair with Edouard Jozan for Nicole’s illness and affair with Tommy Barban.
In a letter dated November 9, 1938, Fitzgerald wrote to Andrew Turnbull’s sister, Frances, who was a sophomore at Radcliffe College, and had sent him one of her first attempts at writing fiction.
“You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner,” wrote Fitzgerald.
This is what Fitzgerald believed was the key to a meaningful creative project. Perhaps all these little “life hacks”—the lighting, the noise levels, the alcohol—can help, but your environment can’t sell your heart for you. As Fitzgerald concluded his letter to Frances, “[Writing] is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.”
© 2014 Cody C. Delistraty, as first published by The Atlantic.