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.
Other studies have shown that taking walks, or working in rooms with high ceilings, can promote divergent or abstract thinking.
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.”