Strange Eccentricities of Creative Geniuses

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There is much anecdotal evidence to indicate that creative people are more often eccentric or more often have odd personality features than the non-creative population. Famous visionaries often develop a reputation for having a few eccentricities. Following are a few of the strange habits from Problema de Logica and Madness of Psychiatry by Saxby Pridmore:

• Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author of children’s stories, carried a coil of rope for fear of being caught in a hotel room fire.

• When the wife of the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti died, as a token of his love, he placed his unpublished manuscripts beside her in her coffin. Seven years later he dug up the coffin, dusted off his papers and published them.

• Sir Walter Scott had a salt cellar which was made from the fourth cervical vertebra of Charles I.

• James Joyce kept a tiny pair of doll’s knickers in his pocket.

• Marcel Proust wrote most of his novels lying in bed.

• Composer Gioachino Rossini was completely bald and wore a wig. In exceptionally cold weather, however, he wore two or three wigs simultaneously.

• Beethoven had no interest in personal cleanliness and his friends had to take his dirty clothes away and wash them while he slept.

• Many great scientists as well as writers and artists have been eccentric. Sir Francis Galton, one of the most prolific scientists of all time regularly carried a brick wrapped in brown paper and tied with a piece of rope, so that he could stand on it to see over people’s heads when he was in a crowd.

• Alexander Graham Bell kept his windows permanently covered to keep out the harmful rays of the moon.

• Sir Joseph Banks was described by his biographer as “a wild and eccentric character,” who scared his neighbors.

• Nicola Tesla, who gave his name to the unit of magnetism was celibate and said, “I don’t think that you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men”.

• Henry Cavendish, a great chemist and physicist, was exceptionally shy and would only ever eat mutton. He communicated with his servants by letter, if he met one by accident, they were dismissed. He had a second staircase built in his house so that he could avoid them more easily.

• Greek orator Demosthenes would force himself to stay focused on composing his orations by shaving off half of his hair, making him look so ridiculous that he wouldn’t be tempted to procrastinate by leaving his home. Victor Hugo would do something similar, forcing himself to meet his daily writing goals by having his valet hide his clothes. Yup, the guy who wrote “Les Miserables” liked to work in the nude.

• Some writers need to go through the ritual of touching base with a favorite literary totem. For example, Somerset Maugham would read Voltaire’s “Candide” before starting work, while Willa Cather read the Bible.

• Author William Faulkner preferred to type with his toes instead of his fingers. He kept his shoes on his hands while he worked.

• Prior to writing, George Orwell would swim across the English Channel, have a croissant and a coffee on the French side, then swim back. He did this almost every day of his adult life. Except during the war years. Because it was too dangerous then.

• Before Ernst Hemingway sat down to write, he would go over his writing goals for the day with his six-toed cats. He refused to share such things with other, normal toed cats, which he considered to be poor listeners.

• The surrealist artist Salvador Dali had the habit of keeping the pens of fans who asked him for autographs, which just goes to show you’re never too rich and famous to not enjoy stealing from people less well off than you.

• J B S Haldane, one of the best known scientists of the twentieth century, at one time did not remove his boots for three weeks. General Haig said of him that he was “the bravest and dirtiest soldier in the army.”

• Dr Paul Erdos was one of the most gifted mathematicians of all time, writing 1500 scientific papers. He lived as a homeless derelict, shunning material possessions because, “property is nuisance.”

• Rudyard Kipling did not actually do any writing, but instead delegated the task to a team of ghostwriters. Kipling himself spent his days sitting on his front porch smoking clove cigarettes because he felt they made him look artsy.

• English novelist Mary Shelley kept a domesticated 23-foot-long boa constrictor in her writing studio. She would wrap the snake around her shoulders while she wrote. When the snake grew restless and began to squeeze, she allowed herself to stop writing for the day.

• Ezra Pound preferred to breathe through his nose. But when writing, he would breathe exclusively through his mouth.

• William Wadsworth liked to narrate his poems to his dog. If the dog got upset or barked at the sounds of his words, he would start working on the poem again.

• Franz Kafka really loved pineapple upside down cake. And so anytime he finished a story, he allowed himself to eat a whole pineapple upside down cake all by himself without sharing any with anyone else, not even a bite.

• Ben Franklin knew the benefits of working long hours, as well as being known among his peers as being a person who worked long hours. This work ethic was essential for growing his printing business. He also had a routine of asking himself questions during the day. Ben Franklin asked himself each morning (at 5 am), “What good shall I do today?” and every night before bed (around 10 pm), “What good have I done today?”

• Playwright Henrik Ibsen would work at a desk decorated with a portrait of arch-rival playwright August Strindberg.

• Mathematician Paul Erdös used the last 25 years of his life to devote 19 hour days to the pursuit of higher math. To stay alert, he amped himself up with 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin (along with strong espresso and caffeine tablets.) “A mathematician,” he said, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

• Artist Marcel Duchamp is associated with both surrealism and the dada movement. While he worked in a variety of styles, he’s most famous for his “readymade” art, which was basically a giant middle finger to the art world. Readymades are everyday objects that Duchamp came across and presented to the world as pieces of art. Duchamp made about twenty of these, but by far the most famous example is a work called “Fountain,” which is nothing more than a urinal he purchased. When it came time to display his “creation” at an art show, the board in charge of the exhibit had a fierce debate and eventually chose to hide the display from view, presumably in the washroom.

• Andy Warhol was an American painter who led the pop art movement. Much like Duchamp, he challenged notions of just what art was; among his most famous paintings is that of a Campbell’s soup can (which first sold for 1500 dollars). That’s right, somebody paid 1500 dollars for a picture of a soup label (something you can get for free). He mass produced his work, and to help him do so, he hired “Warhol Superstars,” which was a group of people who ranged from porno producers to drug addicts. Warhol’s Superstars tended to have drug filled orgies as they mass produced his art while he mostly sat and watched.

And lastly, my favorite:

King Otto, ruler of Bavaria from 1886 to 1913, shot a peasant every morning to start his day. Thankfully, his two advisors were kind-hearted: one gave the king a rifle filled with blanks, and the other dressed as a “peasant,” acting out death throes when he was “shot.”

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(Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)

2 Comments

  1. Lainey D'Agostino

    May 27, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    most entertaining and informative! All of your articles are mind-opening—keep them coming, thanks. Lainey

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