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Taking the negative out of “no”

Posted in Life & Love, and Women's issues

no-fishing-signWhenever 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.

Benjamin Franklin believed "air baths" were conducive to healthy living
Benjamin Franklin believed “air baths” were conducive to healthy living

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.

The ad agency was inspired by the last words of a killer being put to death
The ad agency was inspired by the last words of a killer being put to death

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.

my answer is still noI 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

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  1. silvia

    My problem with self discipline roots back in the faraway past.
    For someone who used to study dance 8 hours per day discipline was my second name. I was a machine, nothing in the world could enterfere with my routine.
    COMMITMENT and NO THANKS were the words I used more often, my personal mantra.
    And you are 100% right, you simply do it. No second thought, no regrets and people who care about you love you just exactly the way you are.
    PS Yesterday it was sort of an emergency call…

    November 13, 2013
    • You can always call anytime, day or night. Exceptions are made for besties in need.

      November 13, 2013
  2. I see myself in a lot of this post. This week I walked with a new friend and had a coffee date with another. Though it was fun, I should be, want to be, need to be writing; I have so many words in my head, too many pieces started, a novel to revise, another to finish, ah, and then there’s work. Reading others’ writing.

    I must learn to say no. Not to others, but to myself; make better choices, make the time. Thank you for reminding me that it’s time to Just Do It.

    November 13, 2013
    • I found that trying to structure what seem like empty hours needing to be filled is a lot harder than it seems. At least, to do it productively. Hence my new “no” policy.

      November 13, 2013
  3. You’re talking to me there, aren’t you?
    I came to the same conclusion: saying NO is the key to have more time. I promise I will give a serious try at it. Ps. Of course I am one of those asking famous authors about their routine. Most of them had one, like fixed hours in the day dedicated to sole writing. Many added that they sort pf go underwater for entire weeks when they’re in the final stages of a book. And when they come up, they hope everybody will still be there:)

    November 12, 2013
    • I am talking to you and to me and to every other person who thinks they don’t have enough time to write, paint or compose. Yesterday, I was in a funk, unable to finish a piece I started and doing some virtual doodling. And then I got an e-mail from a doctor friend who is volunteering on the Uganda Congo border and detailing atrocities with both words and pictures. I felt idiotic for wasting time and worrying about meaningless crap. Resumed writing and finished the piece in a flash. Sometimes we need the proverbial kick in the ass (story about my doctor friend will follow as soon as she gets back, by the way).

      November 13, 2013

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