Whenever I attend an author’s reading, or lecture, invariably, when the time comes for a Q&A with the audience, a lonely writer will stand up and ask “How do you write? Do you have a schedule? A routine?”, as if knowing a successful writer’s habits could give us an insight into creativity, or even brilliance.
Ink has been poured, books have been written on the subject and, recently, a volume by Mason Currey, titled “Daily Rituals” has been doing the media rounds. I have to admit, I was drawn to it by the breadth of subjects covered – in a voyeuristic manner, I found myself as intrigued by reading that Benjamin Franklin spent his mornings naked as I am by the sidebar of the Daily Mail (my bottomless pit of procrastination). So I read on. And I found out that Beethoven had a touch of OCD, and counted exactly 60 coffee beans before brewing his cup in the morning. That Hemingway always rose at dawn, Flaubert was partial to hot baths and Joyce Carol Oates, that overachiever, writes every day between and 8 and 1 and then again between 4 and 7. Mercifully the balance is restored by Gertrude Stein, who never wrote more than 30 minutes a day. “Over the years, it amounts to a lot of writing” she was fond of saying.
Is there anything to be learnt from any of this? Well, do not abuse coffee is the lesson drawn from Balzac, who consumed 50 cups a day and went on to die at 51 of heart failure.
Combing through his chosen subjects’s experiences, Mr. Currey is able to find some commonalities that point to success, such as rising early, sticking to a schedule and taking walks – or otherwise engage in activities that leave space to the imagination. Forcing oneself to sit at a desk relentlessly can be a creative mood killer.
It’s all very well and fun to study the habits of past and current geniuses but, when it comes to creativity, I am still convinced that Nike’s mantra of old is all that’s needed: Just do it. What Beethoven and Ms. Oates and Balzac and Alice Munroe and everyone else who sat down to start a creative endeavor have in common is that they just did it. Whenever they found time, whenever family life allowed it, wherever they were or in the same spot all the time; with coffee or without; fueled by alcohol or completely sober; for hours at a stretch or a few minutes at a time. They did it because they wanted to; or out of a sense of responsibility or because they could not not do it; as a higher calling or as a chore. But they did it. One word, one brush stroke, one note at a time. No divine inspiration – just a lot of sweat. Like in those Nike commercials.
But, Daily Mail aside, our days are filled with distractions and good reasons to procrastinate. Jane Austen or Flaubert didn’t have to deal with mobile phones (or telephones at all, for that matter), emails, tablets and general information overload, although Charles Dickens already recognized the potential for distraction in this note, sent to a friend, refusing an invitation:
‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day … Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”
In an interesting article on medium, Kevin Ashton makes the point that creativity is, in part, fueled by a simple word: No. sofagirl recently wrote of the plague of being asked to contribute writing material for free, thus devaluing the work of the wordsmith. But, while it’s (marginally) easier to say no to unpaid assignments, it can be hard to turn down a lunch invitation, a hike with a friend, a dinner, a movie. It’s only two hours, I have the whole day – I can hear my inner self saying. Plus the 30 minutes needed to get ready, the other 30 driving to a destination, the few things to be done around the house before I go, and then half a day has gone down the drain because I couldn’t say no to a harmless hike.
I have become better at saying no in general. Being available all the time does not make me a better person, just a more frustrated one. Because I partially work from home, people assume I can be the one to call upon in the middle of the day for an impromptu coffee or dating advice or recipe consultation. So I have resorted to blocking chunks of time devoted to blogging or otherwise writing. Phone calls go unanswered, e-mails go unchecked and, if absolutely stumped, the dogs can always be relied upon for a walk to get the juices flowing. 90% of the first paragraphs of each blog post have been hatched on a walk.
Tacked to the wall, right under Just do it now I have now added Just say no. Last week, on the same day, I resorted to it three times: the first time it felt good, the second guilt set in and I considered relenting. The third time, it felt downright liberating. Just one syllable and often the hardest to utter. NO. As a woman, in particular, I know I was conditioned to please but I can still be a good friend, wife and co-worker and shut the door in the face of requests that interfere with what I am trying to do. Actually, I know I can be a better friend, wife and co-worker if I am a satisfied one, if I have closed my laptop with a sigh of satisfaction rather than frustration.
So, repeat after me: No. And add a smile to soften the blow.
Thanks to Manu for pointing out the article on medium, which, incidentally, has become one of my favourite sites. It promotes long form writing in the face of 140 characters filled lives.
Images found in the public domain