Ian Curtis – the habits & traits of creative genius

Thirty-five years ago today, it was Monday, 19th May 1980 and the John Peel show started at 10pm on Radio 1. Sat in my bedroom, I was thinking to myself, hope he plays the new Joy Division single, Love will tear us apart. After the iconic Pickin the blues theme tune by Grinderswitch, which introduced the show, faded, the customary ten seconds of absolute silence before John’s deadpan voice.

A few seconds later, the shock news came onto the air. Bad news lads, monotoned Peel solemnly. Ian Curtis, of Joy Division, has died.

I didn’t know whether to feel sad, angry, shock or cheated or what. Joy Division had been my favourite band for the previous year, part of putting Manchester on the map. Their bleak, stark, atmospheric experimental sound had carved a place for them into the record collections of many in 1979, including my own. Living just outside Manchester, they were big news for me and my mates.

May 18th, 1980 Ian Curtis ended his life, aged 23. The driving force behind Joy Division’s dark vision, he hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. He had epilepsy and was depressed. Curtis was known for his strong, baritone voice, dance style and songwriting filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness and alienation.

It was not his first suicide attempt. Curtis ended his life before he could feel the range of his influence. As the singer/songwriter for Joy Division, he wallowed in his own deep despair, peering into the dark underbelly of human existence. He wrote stunning lyrics from the pictures in his head, until he saw no purpose in living.

Factory released Love Will Tear Us Apart in April, and as a piece of music it has stood out years, surely everyone recognises the song immediately the first throws of the incessant, hollow drumming with pace launches the humming, driving guitars in the intro, before Curtis comes in with the vocals?


So for me, an anniversary of the death of someone who at 17 was shaping my life, still resonates today with 95 digital tracks on my iPod and the Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still albums safely stored in the attic, and all their Peel Sessions performances saved too.

Joy Division’s appeal has far outlasted their tragically short life because, if they were miserable, they did miserable differently. Curtis’s baritone voice and lyrics about personal anxiety, pessimism and intensely dark memories, combined with his intense, wide-eyed stage presence was unique. Curtis was a creative genius, an innovator in the new wave of musicians at that time.

If I think about creativity and what innovation looks like, the same slideshow of images clicks across my mind: that photo of Einstein with his unkempt hair all over the place, Edison with his light bulb, and in Steve Jobs onstage in his black turtleneck jumper introducing the latest iThing device.

For all the innovators who have impacted our lives, it’s not just about that romantic Eureka! moment, it’s about the nitty-gritty work that comes after the idea in terms of getting it accepted and implemented. Curtis may have been a creative driving force, the catalyst that had the original spark, but successful innovation is frequently about the team too, being surrounded by likeminded people with complimentary talents.

Thinkers need doers to get things done, and idealists need number crunchers to tether them to reality. Then again, the risk-takers and the risk-averse must co-exist otherwise an organisation veers too far to one extreme or the other, and either jerks all over the place with the push-and-pull, or simply moves nowhere at all. An effective and productive culture of innovation is like a good homemade vegetable soup – it needs to have the right mix and balance of all the ingredients, otherwise it’s unbalanced – and downright mushy.

Everyone is born creative, everyone is given a box of crayons early on. Then when you hit puberty they take away the crayons and give you books, on algebra and calculus (which I liked better than crayons, but that’s a different story). Suddenly years later when get the creative bug, you want your crayons back.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. You don’t know where the itch came from. You don’t know if you’re any good or not, but you think you could be. Go ahead and make something. Make something really special, something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it.

If you’re creative, if you can think independently, if you can articulate passion, if you can overcome the fear of being wrong, then this is your time. Dust off your guitar, and sing in your own voice. Ian Curtis didn’t have the greatest singing voice or vocal range, but that didn’t stop him getting his lyrics out for the world to listen. While performing for Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanour, as well as a unique dancing style reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he experienced, sometimes even on stage.

On Saturday May 17th, Ian cancelled arrangements to meet friends and returned to his terraced home in Barton Street, Macclesfield. Wife Deborah was working behind the bar at a local disco. While she was out Ian watched Stroszek, a film by Werner Herzog.

Alone again in the house, Ian listened to Iggy Pop and wrote a long letter to his estranged wife. In the early hours of Sunday morning he hanged himself in the kitchen using the rope from a clothes airer. His body was found by Deborah when she returned later the same day.

It has been claimed that Ian had a morbid desire to emulate those of his heroes who had died young. The most likely reason was depression, but no-one can agree about whether he was depressed by his epilepsy, by the effects of the drugs he was taking to control it, by the break-up of his marriage, or by worries about the forthcoming American tour.

A few days after his death, Ian’s body was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium. Deborah Curtis had the words Love Will Tear Us Apart inscribed on Ian’s memorial stone.

Ian Curtis spent his short life as a genius, driven by anxiety, creativity and self-doubt. The way he created his music, despite being innovative, was methodical, he had a routine, was disciplined and ordered. He left several notebooks of his handwritten work, recorded in So This Is Permanence, reflecting a methodical approach to his art.

This disciplined approach surprised me, until a couple of years ago when I came across the book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of 161 painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers.

It hypothesised that for these geniuses, a routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. He noted several common elements in the lives of the geniuses that allowed them to pursue the luxury of a productivity-enhancing routine. Here are the highlights of structure, routine and habits that seem to enable a genius to do what they do:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork Before there was email, there were letters. It amazed me to see the amount of time each person allocated to answering letters. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: ‘You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.’ Arthur Miller said, ‘I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, do you see? I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.’

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: ‘There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.’ Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves.

This last habit, relative isolation, sounds much less appealing to me than some of the others, and yet I still find the routines of these thinkers strangely compelling, perhaps because they are so unattainable for me, so extreme. Even the very idea that you can organise your time as you like is out of reach for most of us.

Nancy Andreasen is a leading neuroscientist, holding a fascination in how the brain works. Andreasen studies what she calls ‘the science of genius’, trying to unpack the elements that make up the brightest creative minds. It’s not a high IQ that indicates creative genius, she’s found. In her research, Andreasen has explored the link between mental illness and creativity, finding a strong connection between the two.

In a 2014 study, Andreasen scanned the brains of 13 of the most famous scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers alive today. Her subjects included Pulitzer Prize winners, and six Nobel laureates – and filmmaker George Lucas. Andreasen delved into their family and personal histories, also studying the structural and functional characteristics of their brains using neuroimaging.

The study was challenging given how hard it is to pin down the creative process. “Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot—nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand,” she stated.

Andreasen had to find a way to study these creative minds at work. She hooked them up to an MRI scan and gave them different word association, picture association, and pattern recognition tasks. ‘The essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles’, she said. In her findings she has distilled some key patterns in the minds of creative geniuses. They include:

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others Think of all the creative geniuses who dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg. Andreasen found that her subjects were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information.

Because their thinking is different, they often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own.

Many creative people love both the arts and the sciences There’s a mentality out there that you have to choose between either the arts or the sciences in your studies and career, but Andreasen found that some of the greatest creative minds are polymaths, sharing a love for both.

Creative people persist against scepticism and rejection When you’re coming up with new unheard-of ideas, you’re pushing against the status quo. Rejection and scepticism are inevitable. It’s what you do in the face of those that matters most.

Andreasen found that creative geniuses are resilient when presented with such scepticism. They have to confront doubt and rejection, and yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. What this persistence might breed, however, is psychic pain, says Andreasen, which can manifest as depression or anxiety.

Creative geniuses have poor ideas too Creative people have lots of ideas, but that doesn’t mean all of them are worth pursuing. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all these connections actually exist. Still, a willingness to go after those ideas, to try them out, to resist the scepticism of others around you in order to find out if they are great, is essential.

We may never know precisely where creativity comes from, why some people use their creativity more than others or why some people are most creative during specific times in their lives. We may not learn how one person ends up with the right balance of brainpower, intelligence and creativity to become a genius.

To me, part of creativity is picking the little bubbles that come up to your conscious mind, and picking which one to let grow and which one to give access to more of your mind, and then have that translate into action.

It also seems you need to create the right conditions for your own creativity to flourish, as suggested by Currey. However, that of course is what a routine really is, the path we take through our day. Whether we break that trail ourselves or follow the path blazed by our constraints, perhaps what’s most important is that we keep walking. So don’t let a new dawn fade, I’m sure you’ll find some unknown pleasures in your creativity and make your mark.

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