6 Freakishly Effective Ways to Court the Muse

Some writers can just sit at their desks and bang the keys. Others need to get naked and climb a mulberry tree before they're sufficiently inspired. Right now, we're only interested in the latter.

1. Take Orders from a Dog

Sometimes the only thing standing between an artist and true greatness is the lack of a good pet. German composer Richard Wagner relied on his spaniel, Peps, to guide him through the creation of Tannhäuser, an epic opera about the struggle between sacred and profane love. Peps had his own stool next to Wagner's piano, and whenever Wagner was having difficulty with a passage, he'd take direction from his pooch. In the process, Peps would go berserk when something didn't agree with his ear, and Wagner would tweak the opera to please him.

2. Turn Hatred into Motivation

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen despised Swedish playwright August Strindberg, but he couldn't have written some of the greatest works of modern drama without him. The two traded jabs for well over a decade at the turn of the 20th century: Strindberg accuse Ibsen of copying his work, claiming that Ibsen's Hedda Gabler ripped off his Miss Julie; Ibsen countered that Strindberg was psychotic. And Ibsen may have had a point -Strindberg was given to catatonic spells and often lashed out with a knife at invisible enemies behind his back. Ibsen loathed Strindberg so fiercely that he hung a portrait of his nemesis over his desk, which he used as a particularly masochistic form of inspiration. Ibsen would tell visitors, "I cannot write a line without that madman standing and staring down at me with those crazy eyes."

3. Smell the Success

German writer Friedrich von Schiller composed the 1785 poem "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven later set to music in his Ninth Symphony. What inspired Schiller's passion for happiness? Rotten apples. The poet insisted that he needed the smell of putrefying fruit in the air to write, so he kept his desk drawer well stocked.  But here's the weird part: Schiller may not have been (completely) crazy. In 1985, researchers at Yale University found that the scent of spiced apples can lift a person's mood significantly and stave off panic attacks.

4. Play Dead

When poet Dame Edith Sitwell was a little girl growing up in Victorian England, her parents would lock her into an iron frame to straighten out her spine. Sitwell hated them for it, and she rarely spoke to her parents later in life, even as she became increasingly famous for her poems about the London Blitz during World War II. The countless hours that Sitwell spent locked inside of that iron frame may have had a peculiar effect on her mind. As an adult, to cultivate a state of tranquility, Sitwell would wake up every morning and lie down in a coffin. After a few hours, she'd feel calm enough to write.

5. Get a New Hairdo

Ancient Greek orator Demosthenes found early in his career that he had trouble staying on task while studying or writing -it was just too tempting to throw on some sandals and go to town! But Demothenes found a clever way to make himself work: When he felt wanderlust, he'd shave off half of his hair. Knowing that he looked far too ridiculous to leave the house Demosthenes would be able to concentrate on his writing for a couple months at a time -or at least until his hair grew back.

6. Lay Everything Bare

Clothes can be such a distraction. Victor Hugo, the celebrated French author of realist novels that would become sentimental musicals (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), conquered writer's block by shutting himself in a room, completely naked, with just a desk, a pen, and paper. He ordered servants not to give him clothing until he'd finished working.

To write his final novel, Ninety-Three, Hugo took his nudity outdoors. Every morning, he'd stand in the buff on his roof and pour a bucket of water over his head. Fully refreshed, he'd then go into a glass cage, which he called his "look out" and write standing at a podium, naked.


The article above, written by Ethan Trex and Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the September-October 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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