Don't we all have an image of the brilliant genius? The Vincent Van Gogh, locked away in a room, painting masterpieces furiously in order to work through all this issues? The Sylvia Plath, writing brilliantly of suicide just before ending her own life? But at some point, doesn't behavior take a step beyond the eccentric and into the insane? Is it creative...or is it just crazy?
There Are Quirks, and Then There Are Quirks
T.S. Eliot was a highly successful writer, best known as a critic, poet and playwright. He was somewhat less well-known as an incredible eccentric. Allegedly, Eliot lived above a publishing house but rented a room at another business. Here, he answered only to the name "the Captain" and once inside his room painted his face green so he would resemble a corpse.
It's not the behavior that disturbs me, though this is clearly not normal. It's the reaction to the behavior I find most upsetting. Because when this anecdote about Eliot is shared, it's often laughed away with the explanation "he was a genius" or something similar. Being brilliant at one's job does not give them leave to abandon all reason or semblance of normal human behavior. The trash collector who comes to gather up my rubbish may be the greatest trash collector ever conceived, and if he's out at the end of my driveway completely naked I will call the police. He will be arrested. And his brilliance at trash collecting will not avail him them.
So why are writers allowed to act completely crazy...and why is this forgiveness only extended to those who are highly successful at their craft?
Truman Capote, for example. He wrote laying down, and that's one thing. But he also wouldn't allow more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray. He put the spares in his pocket (in...his..pocket), wouldn't begin or end a writing project on Friday and, according to legend, would not board a plane with more than one nun on it. That's superstition in the extreme, and in most people such a thing would not be tolerated. In Truman Capote, it's trotted out as some sort of endearing tale. This does not make him seem endearing to me.
If Stephen King showed up at a place of business covered over in a sheet and asked everyone to turn out the lights so he can get a better sense of fear, everyone would do it without question. I'm only using that name as an example and not suggesting he would do such a thing, of course. The point is, if I show up somewhere in a sheet making ridiculous requests then it's likely I would go to jail -- even though I am also an author and I also need to understand the nature of fear in order to write.
Insane behavior is something that is tolerated in a rare few for reasons that don't seem to be clear to anyone, but it's not going to make you a better writer. In fact, writers are much more likely to learn from observing others rather than being the center of everyone's attention. Scaring readers isn't a good idea. Focus on the words, and you'll get to success without any extra eccentricities.