Creativity Lab: 3 Odd Habits of Writers Explained

Creativity Lab is our blog series that uses scientific studies to help find ways to make your writing life creatively enriching.


The kind of person who decides to sit down and channel the voices in their head and re-work these voices into coherent, dramatic stories is a different kind of person.

A writer — like any other artist — functions differently than the majority of society. Our work consists of creating and getting in touch with the part of our brain that others rarely use.

So what habits do we develop that set us apart? What does our creative brain drive us to do?

From the Lab: 3 Odd Habits of Writers Explained

Habit #1: Writers are insomniacs.

As it turns out, those who have difficulty sleeping may be more creative than those who sleep well according to a study published in the Creativity Research Journal by Dione Healey and Mark A. Runco.

Here are some important excerpts I want to share with you from that study:

Creative persons are often highly energetic. They frequently devote huge amounts of time and effort to their creative work. In fact, Hayes (1978) described a 10,000-hr prerequisite for expertise… Importantly, the factor most highly rated in conjunction with sleep problems by both insomniacs and good sleepers is an “overactive mind” (see Wicklow and Espie, 2000, for a review).

If creative problem solving were associated with insomnia, then highly creative people would be at risk of experiencing not only disturbed sleep but also the well-known effects of sleep deprivation. These include such effects as deficits in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex (Horne, 2001), development of depression and anxiety (Breslau, Roth, Rosenthal, & Andreski, 1997; Ford & Kamerow, 1989), and substance abuse (Weissman, Greenwald, Nino-Murcia, & Dement, 1997).

A Torrance creativity test was used to determine levels of creativity, and the study concluded that the hypothesis was supported by the results: the subjects who were more creative ended up having more sleep problems.

So what does this mean for us, as writers? Well, it explains those times we wake up in the middle of the night and scribble down a scene. But it also provides a possible explanation for why writers are so infamously linked with problems such as depression and substance abuse.

Habit #2: Writers abuse substances.

We’ve talked before about how there is a tenuous link between caffeine and an increase in creative brain function. And now that we know creative people have higher instances of insomnia, caffeine overconsumption makes sense!

But what about all of the other addictive substances out there? Is there a creative justification for using such illicit substances?

In the study Controlled Substance-related Beliefand Use: Relationships to Undergraduates’ Creative Personality Traits, 431 undergraduate students were tested for creativity through the popularized tool known as the T-Test. Here’s what was discovered:

“Results of correlational and t-test analyses suggest that creative personality is not significantly correlated with use of these three controlled substances, and that the relationships between personality scores and self-reported beliefs about alcohol are generally weak, with notable exceptions.”

So the use of substances seem to stem not from creative necessity, but from recreational usage or from a malfunctioning prefrontal cortex due to insomnia. The study goes on to say that there is no definitive proof that alcohol or other drugs exist in a causal relationship with creativity.

Habit #3: Writers live in their heads.

Writers seem to live in their heads, and  Dione Healey and Mark A. Runco suggest that this is because the nature of the craft of writing requires a kind of intense mental focus and aptitude.

Renzulli (1978), for instance, suggested that “task commitment” should be used as one indicator of giftedness, and Gruber (1993) described how prodigies sometimes experience “binges” in which they devote all of their time to some task or topic.

The creative personality has been defined by traits such as openness to experience and neuroticism, so it’s no wonder that writers live in their heads when task commitment and writing binges are part of how we work. Honing our mental focus is the only way to get to the level of output we need to satisfy our creative yearnings and complete large-scale projects.

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