The 7 vices of highly creative people

If you go through life free of bad habits, you won't live forever, but it will feel like it.

Published February 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It all starts one quiet afternoon at the brew-pub. I'm sitting
with my associate Bobby, enjoying a pint of the house ale, when
Stephen Covey (author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective
People") suddenly appears on the bar television. I can't quite
describe the level of annoyance that the bald business guru
brings to a room of gentle drinkers, trying to enjoy themselves
while the rest of the populace is at work, but a sudden wail
from a man in the far corner, similar to that of a small dog
yanked forcefully by the tail, alerts everyone that something is
terribly wrong. In a matter of moments all eyes are fixed in
distress upon the television.

Soon customers with clenched fists start to share horror stories
of managers who force-fed Covey's book to them. And of group
leaders who scurried around the office pasting up signs like:
"Synergy!" or "Be Proactive!" or "What would Covey do in your
situation?" Rage and desperation had finally forced our fellow
drinkers to leave their professions and find solace in the thick,
rich ales fermented by the pub's microbrewery.

Bobby and I are amazed. Having spent 10 years carving out lives
as professional grad students, we've been oblivious to the rising
tide of worker despair. I remember seeing a Covey infomercial
several months back; it seemed harmless enough. Watching
employees become automatons spouting Covey's catch phrases at
every opportunity was the funniest thing I had seen on television
in quite a while. But now, as the man in the corner begins
weeping, Bobby and I realize that larger issues are at hand.

Covey is no business guru, but rather the result of a world gone
awry -- the world of work made worthless. Gone are the large
expense accounts. Gone are the smoke breaks and three martini
lunches. Gone are the innocent office flirtations. Good lord, who
would want to work in an environment like that?

I slam my fist on the table. "We need a book about the 7
Vices of Highly Creative People before the whole country ends up
in a straitjacket!" Bobby agrees enthusiastically, grabs a
stack of napkins and begins writing. All the years we've spent
studying history and literature are finally paying off. It isn't
easy. But after six hours and five pitchers we finish the job.
The pub closes so we gather the napkins and head for a late-night
bar to celebrate. It isn't quite a book, but what the hell. We
have better things to do than write another damn self-help book.

Vice one: Be a

Winston Churchill, a great fan of the martini, once said that it
must always be remembered that he has taken more out of alcohol
than alcohol has taken out of him. For Churchill, like many other
great drinkers, alcohol was a tool used to feed creativity and
social discourse. For others, like Ernest Hemingway, alcohol was
a way to place the mind on a different plane after writing all
day at a desk. This is what old Papa had to say:

I have drunk since I was 15 and few things have
given me more pleasure. When you work all day with your head and
know you must again work the next day, what else can change your
ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?

Some people might say that this is to use alcohol as a crutch,
but that's always been the case. Mark Twain, who drank from
morning until night, would periodically abstain from drink and
smoke just to silence the critics who said he was a slave to his
vices. And on his feistier days, he would give them a severe
tongue-lashing. "You can't get to old age by another man's road!"
he'd scream. "My vices protect me but they would assassinate
you!" His critics would then shuffle away to their 12-step programs and the organizing of their sock

To be a drinker means, of course, to be social. Sure, it's all
right to drink by oneself on occasion. But because the highly
creative live so often in the private world of ideas, they also
need to mingle with their friends at a good party. That's why F.
Scott Fitzgerald threw his fantastic "Gatsbyesque" parties on
Long Island, inviting such other besotted artists as Gloria
Swanson, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker.
Remember, though, that when entertaining the highly creative some
ground rules need to be set. Fitzgerald's were posted at the
entrance to his home in Great Neck:

Visitors are requested not to break down doors in
search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and
hostess ... Weekend guests are respectfully notified that the
invitation to stay over Monday issued by the host-hostess during
the small hours of Sunday morning must not be taken seriously.

It's always good to think ahead.

Lastly, something should be said for the occasional weekend
bender, that is as long as your head is in the right place. If a
person is suppressing problems or going through severe emotional
distress, alcohol can bring out bad tendencies ... like singing
karaoke. But if you're secure with yourself, the occasional
bender can be a rather helpful mystical experience. As Henry
James once wrote, "Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says
no, while drunkenness expands, unites and says yes!"

Vice Two:
Begin with a Smoke

In today's climate, smoking
might be the most unpopular of all the vices. To say that the
furor over its ill effects has reached irrational levels is an
understatement. Let's accept the guidance of journalist
Fletcher Knebel, who keenly observed as far back as 1961 that
smoking is the leading cause of statistics. The fact is that most

people who smoke
don't die of lung cancer. But all people who
don't smoke do die of something. Marlene
Dietrich, who had her own special love of cigarettes, put it into
proper perspective:

People who quit smoking think that they have made a
pact with the devil and believe they will never die. In reality
they die from other illnesses: intestinal cancer, stomach cancer,
cancer of the pancreas. Cancer forever gropes around for further

So let's not place blame on the lowly cigarette for the
infirmities of the world. Yes, smoking has its risks. So does
getting out of bed in the morning. But a good smoke is often a
lovely affair worth pursuing.

Take the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buquel, an ardent lover of
tobacco and life's pleasures. He elevated cigarettes to the level
of poetry:

If alcohol is queen, then tobacco is her consort.
It's a fond companion for all occasions, a loyal friend through
fair weather and foul. People smoke to celebrate a happy moment
or hide a bitter regret. I love to touch the pack in my pocket,
open it, savor the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the
paper on my lips, the taste of tobacco on my tongue. I love to
watch the flame spurt up, love to watch it come closer and
closer, filling me with its warmth.

Makes you want to light one up right now, doesn't it?

Smoking has often been linked with creative
genius. For example, French philosopher Albert Camus is well
known to have savored his smokes though his lungs were withered
by tuberculosis. And who can imagine Albert Einstein without his
pipe, George Burns without his cigar or Jackson Pollock without a
cigarette dangling from his lips? Though a stimulant, smoking has
a relaxing influence and allows the mind to empty itself,
enabling new thoughts to enter. Following the wisps of smoke as
they leave one's mouth might actually be thought of as a creative
exercise or, at the very least, as Oscar Wilde once observed,
smoking a cigarette is "a perfect pleasure, because they are
exquisite and leave one unsatisfied."

Vice Three:
Put Gambling First

is at the heart of every worthwhile accomplishment in life.
Consequently, vice three is essential for the success of your
creativity. Instinctively, the highly creative person knows that
nothing matters except the throw of the dice. As the French say,
"There are two great pleasures in gambling: that of winning and
that of losing." Or, in the words of Mark Twain, "There are two
times in a man's life when he should [gamble]: when he can't
afford it and when he can." These are vital lessons.

The world is full of stories of highly creative people whose
success was based on the big gamble. A young Steven Spielberg
sneaks into a Hollywood film studio, sets up an office and
proceeds to act like an employee, thus beginning the most
lucrative directorial career in history. Thirty-year-old Henry
Miller moves to Paris with little money and no prospects,
determined to become the most talked-about American novelist of
his generation, and does. Hugh Hefner
boldly walks into the offices of John Baumgarth and acquires the
rights to reproduce the photograph of a nude Marilyn
a little known starlet, for his yet-to-be-published

Certainly, there are horrifying stories of those who gambled and
lost heavily, whose compulsive involvement in games of chance,
often played out in the arena of big business, nearly ruined them
and scores of others. But it's not until the end of life that we
truly know what we've won or lost. French philosopher Denis
Diderot summed it up eloquently:

The world is the house of the strong. I shall not
know until the end what I have lost or won in this place, in this
vast gambling den where I have spent more than 60 years,
dicebox in hand, shaking the dice.

Vice Four:
Think Oysters

The hysteria concerning eating habits has nearly reached the
grotesque levels granted smoking. Fat or non-fat? Cholesterol
free? Salt or no salt? Most eaters, as long as they exercise a
modicum of restraint, don't have to worry about dying from their
diet. And all those critics who have tried to convince us that
food is poison should be taken behind the shed and whipped with a
massive slice of uncooked bacon.

Let us bow to the wisdom of the marvelous chef Julia Child, now an octogenarian. When asked about so-called health foods
and non-fat products, she gnashed her teeth and stated
emphatically that she never would buy such crap, that they have
nothing to do with the enjoyment of life.

Make no mistake, the highly creative do enjoy life. Sure,
sometimes there is a suicide among the group, and many are
often prone to fits of depression. But when they finally decide
to stop wallowing in their suffering, they embrace life with
passion. And when it comes to food, they want to eat well, and
eat properly. In other words, foie gras, fresh asparagus and
filet mignon will always win out over a plate of french fries and
greasy burgers. At least it will for those who are truly creative
and whose imaginations permeate their lifestyles as well as their
art. Something that sadly can't be said of lesser creatives --
Rosie O'Donnell and Tom Arnold come to mind.

Certain foods are frequently associated with highly creative
people. None more so than the oyster. The inspiration of this
shellfish can be traced throughout the canon of English
literature. From Geoffrey Chaucer to George Bernard Shaw, it
reaches its zenith with a tribute by Saki, who wrote, "The oyster
is more beautiful than any religion, nothing in Buddhism or
Christianity matches its sympathetic unselfishness."

I'm not sure I would describe them in such exalted terms, but I
do know I have had more invigorating conversations with writers
and painters over a plate or two of fresh oysters than any other
food. The elegant bivalves inspire a level of discourse often
missing in our quick-meal culture -- yet one that any dining
experience should never be without. And for many people there is
the added pleasure of oysters being the next best thing to sex.
After all, we don't eat for the good of living but the enjoyment
of it.

Vice Five:
Seek Fashion First, Then seek to be Understood

In these days of dressing down and "casual Fridays," it's prudent
to remember that the highly creative have always known that
communication with words is secondary. When winning friends and
influencing people, the primary concern is your attire -- your
own peculiar fashion statement. It is through the impact of this
image that both friends and enemies will initially come to know
you. What is more gratifying than having everyone stop and stare,
wondering why they feel so drab and ineffectual, when you enter a
room? If you've got a stylish wardrobe, the battle to be
understood is merely a stroll in the park.

One of the inevitable consequences of dressing down is that
everyone today looks the
-- and those with designer logos like Hilfiger plastered
on their clothes look plain stupid. The highly creative always
choose their wardrobes with a more consistent flair. Whether it
be Picasso with his striped sailors' tops, which he imagined gave
him an eternally boyish edge; or Hugh Hefner with his classic
pipe and silk pajamas, which he believed gave him a kind of
worldly nonchalance (and could be stripped off quickly when
opportunity knocked); the creative spirit picks a style and
sticks with it.

Today there is a growing demand for comfort without any regard
for style that numbs the mind. Comfort is, at times, a worthwhile
consideration. But simply because your clothes aren't comfortable
doesn't mean you can't enjoy them. In the days of Mozart,
fashion was notoriously uncomfortable. Yet in a letter to his
sister he once gushed, "We put on our new clothes and were as
beautiful as angels." Sure, he sounds like a twit, but the
important point is that the beauty and style of Mozart's wardrobe
overshadowed any discomfort. And it is this attitude that
inspired our own Benjamin Franklin to proclaim, "We eat to please
ourselves, but dress to please others."

Vice Six: Sex

The sexual appetite and prowess of those possessed by creativity
can't be argued. Anecdotes abound regarding the bedroom antics of
famous writers, artists and actors. But why is it that sex yields
such power over these individuals?

Perhaps Omar Sharif summed it up best when he remarked, "Making
love? It's communion with a woman. The bed is our holy table.
There I find passion and purification." This sense of
purification is extremely important, because such an experience
is needed to begin the whole creative process anew, and is a
state difficult to achieve now that religious rituals have fallen
by the wayside.

The catharsis that comes from this experience often leads highly
creative people to pursue several lovers. And many are venomously
referred to as philandering Don Juans. But it isn't for lack of
affection that a Don Juan goes from woman to woman, as Camus
explained: "But rather because he loves them with equal
enthusiasm and each time with all himself, that he must repeat
this gift and this exploration. Why must one love rarely to love

Richard Burton's lovers would agree. They proclaimed it made no
difference if he were with another woman the following week
because when he was with them they were his whole world (try
finding a woman that understanding these days). But it's not
surprising that Burton found so many willing lovers. This is how
he described his lovemaking: "When you are with the only woman --
the only one you think there is for that moment -- you must love
her and know her body as you would think a great musician would
orchestrate a divine theme." (Today most men maneuver
themselves the way a line cook orchestrates a three-minute egg.)
Consequently, Burton felt that in many ways he was monogamous,
because when he was with one woman, he never thought of another.
Needless to say, the highly creative are highly creative at
rationalizing their behavior.

Lastly, something need be said with regard to the highly creative
who are lovers of the same sex. Writer and historian Gore Vidal is
quoted famously as stating, "There are no heterosexuals or
homosexuals, only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a
mixture of impulses." Maybe. But before the days of George
Michael and public toilet rendezvous, sex for those driven by a
desire for their own gender often took an even more mystical form
than heterosexual love. In the mind of American poet Walt
Whitman, sex encompassed:

all bodies, souls, meanings, proofs,
delicacies, results, promulgations, songs, commands, health,
pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk, all hopes,
benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, and
delights of the earth.

Heckuva list.

Vice Seven:
Abuse the Card

To nurture the previous six vices resources are needed. Because
most highly creative people never fully enter the work force, nor
make a salary sufficient to their needs, credit is a necessity.
Hunter S.
cut to the chase nicely when he declared that the
first and most important rule of a writer is: abuse your credit
for all it's worth. The highly creative travel an expensive road,
and the best way to stay between the yellow lines, or at the very
least keep food on your table, is to Abuse the Card. And the
larger the debt the better the bet. As the essayist Samuel
Johnson observed:

Small debts are like a small shot -- they are rattling
on every side and can barely be escaped without a wound. Great
debts are like a cannon, of loud noise but little danger.

Which must be the reason I feel so safe and secure when my card
authorizes another round of drinks for the table.

Don't fear if your creditors come closing in on you. When the
highly creative find themselves in financial straits, they skip
town. For example, in 1891 Mark Twain took a much-deserved
vacation in Europe, which lasted nine years, leaving his legion
of creditors to antagonize the less fortunate along the banks of
the Mississippi. Today, it is even easier to take a long,
literary holiday. And don't forget, bankruptcy is an option
always worth considering. In fact, some highly creative people
find utter destitution spiritually enriching. Novelist John Updike once wrote:

Bankruptcy is a sacred state, a condition beyond
conditions, as theologians might say, and attempts to investigate
it are necessarily obscene, like spiritualism. One only knows
that he has passed into it, and lives beyond us, in a condition
not ours.

Having nearly reached this "sacred state" several times already,
I can't say I would describe it in such lofty terms. I prefer the
more pragmatic view Shakespeare took: "He who dies pays all
debt." Or Oscar Wilde's strangely sentimental one, "It is only by
not paying one's bills that one can remain in the memory of the
commercial classes." For my part, I'm doing all that I can to be
remembered for a very long time.

In the end, everyone should remember that the highly creative
always have expectations of great things. Their accumulated debt
should thus be viewed only as an advance on their future
earnings. But it's not an easy life. One should never
underestimate the amount of distress caused by overzealous
creditors. Especially when they bear down on poor debt-ridden
artists, for these harassed souls are often the true visionaries
of our time, or any time. When approached yet again by one of his
many creditors, Lord Byron implored, "It is very iniquitous of
you to make me pay my debts. You have no idea the pain it gives
one." I feel his pain.


If anyone should still be left unconvinced on the benefits of
pursuing these vices, let us remember these sage words of Abraham
: "It has been my experience that those with no vices
have very few virtues."

Keep that one in mind during the next presidential election.

By D.A. Blyler

D. A. Blyler is the author of two collections of poetry, "Shared Solitude" and "Diary of a Seducer." He is also the author of "The Expatriates," a screenplay and "The Pillars on Horseback," a play. He lives in the Czech Republic.


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