All writers need to work is a pen and a piece of paper, or perhaps a laptop. That's what we might think -- but it's not actually that simple. Authors are more complicated than that. To get their thoughts flowing, they need coffee, tea, cigarettes, alcohol. The right location. And the right position. Some writers require the background noise of a café or the lulling rhythm of a train. Others demand complete silence. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau couldn't come up with ideas without taking a long walk. Just seeing a desk was enough to make him feel queasy -- and working while lying down would certainly never have occurred to him. German Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek also needs wide open spaces for inspiration, but finds them by looking out the window. In any case, both are the polar opposites of their artistic brethren who can only be creative when they lie down.
People who work lying down often don't like to admit it. They know that their preference can quickly get them labeled as lazy. Lying down is associated with tiredness, apathy, and a lack of drive, with doing nothing, with passivity and relaxation.
Does this mean that, with the exception of the odd siesta, we should only lie down at night? Not necessarily -- for some people, a horizontal posture seems to create the optimal conditions for creativity and focus.
Do artists need phases of passivity in order to make something truly new? There's plenty of evidence that this is the case. Lin Yutang further attested to the creative benefits of lying down when he wrote some 80 years ago, "A writer could get more ideas for his articles or his novel in this posture than by sitting doggedly before his desk morning and afternoon. For there, free from telephone calls and well-meaning visitors and the common trivialities of everyday life, he sees life through a glass or a beaded screen, as it were, and a halo of poetic fancy is cast around the world of realities and informs it with a magic beauty. There he sees life not in its rawness, but suddenly transformed into a picture more real than life itself."
Here are examples of famous writers who are known to have worked in bed:
In some of his letters, Marcel Proust reports that he wrote lying down in his famous brass bed, especially during his final years when illness forced him to complete Remembrance of Things Past while confined to his cork-lined bedroom.
Edith Sitwell who was reputed to have slept in a coffin from time to time, also enjoyed her bed. "All women should have a day a week in bed," she quipped. At the end of one particularly long day working in bed, she observed: "I am honestly so tired that all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open."
Edith Wharton, the author of The Age of Innocence and other novels, retreated to bed in order to escape rigid expectations about what women should wear. The freedom from her corset liberated her thoughts as well. She even celebrated her eightieth birthday in bed -- with a candle-covered cake that caught on fire.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Truman Capote outed himself in a surprising manner. "I am a completely horizontal author," he admitted. "I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance." His open confession makes Capote the exception that proves the rule when it comes to writers and their habits.
William Wordsworth reportedly preferred writing his poems in bed in the complete darkness, and would start over whenever he lost a sheet of paper because looking for it was too much trouble.
W.G. Sebald, who worked on The Rings of Saturn while plagued by back problems, was in a similarly unenviable position: He lay on his stomach across the bed, propped his forehead on a chair, and placed the manuscript on the floor to write. But beyond his work habits, the content of Sebald's work can also guide our thoughts in a direction fruitful for our considerations. He repeatedly took up the problem of what Italo Calvino called the "problem of universal gravitation," and describes trying to achieve a state of levitation, floating on his own without external support.
Slavoj Žižek has been seen to talk about philosophy from the comfort of his bed. If he was naked or just half-naked could not be substantiated.
Although Frida Kahlo was not a writer, one is reminded of her lengthy and involuntary stays in bed. So driven to work, she rigged ingenious set ups, which permitted her to paint while being nearly immobilized.
Berd Brunner is the author of the new book The Art of Lying Down: A Guide to Horizontal Living.