On DeGroff Way, a short block of ten houses in the historic Union Hill district at the edge of downtown Kansas City, several homeowners welcomed visitors to their yards during a recent garden tour. I talked with one of the creative gardeners about his choice of plants, his artistic landscaping, and the street of lovely hundred-year-old houses, all of which faced south in two tandem rows.
Nelson, the founder of The Kansas City Star newspaper, believed that houses should face south so his writers/residents could benefit from direct midday sunlight. Maybe early Star journalists such as Earnest Hemingway and William Allen White drank in the sunshine to enhance their creative geniuses. If this giant among Kansas City’s famous citizens, William Rockhill Nelson, the man who bequeathed the land and money to start our magnificent art gallery after helping to develop the city, believed that sunshine induces creativity, it’s worth considering.
Too much sun can cause a multitude of skin problems. On the other hand, the right balance can have lots of mood-lifting benefits. “Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. This is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. At night, darker lighting cues trigger the brain to make another hormone called melatonin. This hormone is responsible for helping a person feel sleepy and go to sleep.” [Sunlight and Serotonin, http://www.healthline.com/].
In a 2002 Creativity Research Journal study, the researchers found that teams of high school students who worked in direct sunlight… designed more innovative collages than those who worked in an inside space…. [Let the Sunshine In] “Research from Australia and from China shows that children who get out in the sun more have better eyesight.” [Dr. Micozzi's Insiders’ Cures]
Another research project “showed that light exposure actually enhances brain response. In 2006, researchers in Belgium and England exposed study participants to light and then performed tests on their thinking abilities. They used brain imaging to see exactly what areas of the brain responded to the light exposure. Results showed that even a brief exposure to light substantially increased alertness and thinking ability in participants.” [A Natural Boost: Sunlight and the Brain, 2008]
I do much of my writing at a computer in a south-facing room of my house where I can look out at the sun on the leaves or bare branches, can see when the mailman arrives, and can watch birds play. Sometimes, one side of my brain processes a neighbor walking her dog down the sidewalk while the other side formulates my next sentence. Perhaps I benefit from the sunlight coming through the second story window?
When I’m in the “zone” of dreaming up scenes, anyplace I happen to be works as my writing space—the passenger seat of our car, the kitchen table, a picnic table at a campsite, or an airport waiting area. I’m not the only one. Allison K Gibson, in a Huffington Post article, wrote about habits of famous authors. Emily St. John Mandel said, “I do most of my writing in my home office, at my unbelievably messy desk. It’s by far my favorite place to write—my cats and my music are there, and it’s a very peaceful room. Often, very often, I’ll find myself writing in the subway. I spend two hours a day on the F train, five days a week, and I always carry a notebook with me.” Believe me, I can relate to the “unbelievably messy desk” part.
Apparently, Mandel and I aren’t the only ones who write during trips. Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road, ran a bookstore in Maine. “…when he needed time to write, he would take a bus from "Boston to Cleveland maybe, and get off at night once in a while to write.” Said Alexander Chee, “Usually it’s trains where I get the most writing done—I wish I could get a residency from Amtrak on a sleeper car, or an office booth in a cafe car.”
It’s not clear how sunlight or the lack of it relates to people who write in cars, trains, and airplanes or in other busy places such as coffee houses or Paris cafés. Elizabeth Crane, author of the story collection, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, said that she writes at home, often on the couch with the T.V. on.
I also write in front of the television sometimes. I grew up in a small house where I shared a bedroom with my sister and had no place of my own to which I could retreat. I did my reading, writing, and arithmetic homework in the living room with the T.V. blaring. Background noise and activity don’t stop me now.
The living room of my youth was open to large windows on the front and back, to the north and south. I like the idea that sunshine aids creativity. "I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come," Toni Morrison told Elissa Schappell in a 1993 Paris Review interview. There’s another author citing sunlight as a force that invigorates or inspires.
In Poets and Writers’ Magazine, Alexandra Enders wrote about her own writing experience. “I was in the middle of a novel when, several years ago, my husband, the sculptor Peter Soriano, won a grant to live and work in Alexander Calder's house in the tiny town of Saché, France…. My novel was about an island in Maine, a novel in which landscape, and the character's attachment to it, played a big role, and the irony of working on that while feeling distinctly unattached to this place in the beautiful French countryside was not lost on me…. Meanwhile, in the days and weeks that followed, the French landscape outside and its lovely slow spring was seeping in, and in my novel the bright and forceful Maine summer was hurtling out, and there, on that simple pine table pushed up against the bare white wall, I found a way to contain it all.”
Enders’s French springtime “seeped in.” The sunshine slipped through the window. Could the arcs of my stories and the personalities of my fervent characters be influenced by the sunshine sparking on the leaves of the giant elm, oak, and maple trees outside my office window? Did Edgar Allen Poe visit dreary places in his mind while he wrote in the sunshine? It’s possible the early Star editors and journalists retired to dark back rooms and never sat on their sun-facing front porches to write. I believe, though, that my mood and productivity lifts when there’s a sunny day after periods of dreary overcast.
What about you? Where do you write? Where do you read? Where do you create? Do you think sunshine or its lack might have an impact on your mood, subject matter, or creativity?