Daily Rituals

Does Masturbation Make You More or Less Creative?
Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 30 2013 8:15 AM

Daily Rituals

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John Cheever believed sex improved his writing—and his eyesight.

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One evening in 1930, as he was struggling to recapture the feverish spirit that had fueled his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe decided to give up on an uninspired hour of work and get undressed for bed. But, standing naked at his hotel room window, Wolfe found that his weariness had suddenly evaporated and that he was eager to write again. Returning to the table, he wrote until dawn with, he recalled, “amazing speed, ease, and sureness.”

Looking back, Wolfe tried to figure out what had prompted the sudden change—and realized that, at the window, he had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual (his “penis remained limp and unaroused,” he noted in a letter to his editor), fostered such a “good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamily exploring his “male configurations” until “the sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Wolfe wasn’t the only novelist to stick his hand down his pants while working—or to overshare about this habit with others. Flaubert renounced masturbation in 1844, when he was 22, but apparently the ban didn’t last long. Four years later, while struggling with the novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert wrote to a close friend, “There are moments when my head bursts with the bloody pains I’m taking over this. Out of sheer frustration I jerked off yesterday, feeling the same bleakness that drove me to masturbate at school, when I sat in detention.” If Flaubert was driven to masturbation by boredom and despair, Balzac used it to further intensify his coffee-fueled writing binges. According to a 2010 Harper’s article (subscription required), the novelist would “masturbate to the very edge of orgasm, but not over, and that state—agitated, excited to the point of near madness—was Balzac's sweet spot, in terms of composing. ”

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Balzac also didn’t let himself go beyond this “sweet spot” because he thought that each orgasm depleted his creative energy (a sentiment memorably paraphrased by Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall). D.H. Lawrence agreed with this notion, at least when it came to self-gratification. He wrote, “In masturbation there is nothing but loss. There is no reciprocity. There is merely the spending away of a certain force, and no return. The body remains, in a sense, a corpse, after the act of self-abuse. There is no change, only deadening. ”

Other writers took the exact opposite point of view. John Cheever, for instance, placed a high value on the salutary effects of erotic release. He thought that his constitution required at least “two or three orgasms a week,” and he believed that sexual stimulation improved his concentration and even his eyesight: “With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.”

The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon needed much more than two or three orgasms a week. His astonishing literary productivity—he published more than 400 books in his career—was matched, or even surpassed, by his sexual appetite. “Most people work every day and enjoy sex periodically,” Patrick Marnham writes. “Simenon had sex every day and every few months indulged in a frenzied orgy of work.” When living in Paris, Simenon frequently slept with four different women in the same day. He estimated that he bedded 10,000 women in his life. (His second wife disagreed, putting the total closer to 1,200.)

Simenon explained his sexual hunger as the result of “extreme curiosity” about the opposite sex, and said that these dalliances actually had a concrete benefit on his fiction: “Women have always been exceptional people for me whom I have vainly tried to understand. It has been a lifelong, ceaseless quest. And how could I have created dozens, perhaps hundreds, of female characters in my novels if I had not experienced those adventures which lasted for two hours or ten minutes?”

And what about female artists? Earlier in this series, I mentioned that George Sand used to slip out a sleeping lover’s bed to write in the middle of the night, but that is a pretty tenuous (and tame) example. My Daily Rituals research did not turn up many female artists who drew an explicit connection between their sex lives and their working habits—although whether this is because the connection isn’t there, or because women just aren’t as boastful about their erotic activities, is anyone’s guess.

Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.