5 Nov 2013
It’s a red letter day when I get a book from the library that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. This one proved more inspiring than I’d anticipated, and it was great fun besides. The book is a compilation of the creative and working habits of all kinds of creative people: writers, artists, architects, composers, musicians, and more. Each person gets a little vignette, and you walk away from the book feeling like you’ve had tea with the greatest minds of the last two centuries, and beyond. There are lots of little gems peppered throughout, like this one: Beethoven ground his own coffee every morning, and he counted out exactly 60 beans each time, having calculated it as a perfect dose of caffeine. No wonder he was so brilliant.
The general trends were perhaps not surprising: about 40% got up early and worked all morning and into the early afternoon. About 40% slept all day and worked all night. About 10% said they had to wait for inspiration (and, interestingly enough, others said it was imperative not to wait for inspiration). About 10% said that each major project had its own rhythm.
I had been thinking a lot about routine already; perhaps we crave routine most when our lives are in the greatest state of upheaval (thankfully, my life is not; my house, however, still is). Of the two main types, I am not yet either. I haven’t stayed up all night since my all-in-one-go reading of The Grapes of Wrath in high school (timing the ending of it with sunrise, however, was a really special experience). I aspire to be the first type, and I have been in that camp at various points in my life. I am my happiest when I’m in a solid work routine. Grad school is not great at giving you one–either your class and teaching schedule changes every semester, or you are out floating in the ether with your dissertation, your time a vast ocean pressing upon you as you try to separate individual waves and influence the tides. I actively aspire to get up earlier–I love those early morning hours. I love how magic it is to be stirring when no one else is, and I love looking up at the clock and realizing that I’ve still got a healthy chunk of morning left, even though I’ve been up for hours. I don’t aspire to get less sleep (that seems to do bad things to me), so I am on a great getting-to-bed-earlier mission (tonight is, uh, not a stellar beginning).
Why have a routine in the first place? Well, the over-arching sentiment shared by all of the people interviewed was this: creative work is just really hard, and it is agonizingly difficult to begin each day, even if you’ve been at it for decades. William James, who struggled with this all of his life, thought that by automating our daily actions, we could take some of the sting out of that blank canvas or blank page. Sitting down to write would become as innocuous as brushing our teeth–it would just be something we did, as opposed to something that was a choice, something that we’d have to talk ourselves into. I love the idea of that, since starting has always been the hardest part for me.
Rituals, I think, are another matter entirely, even though they do appear in the title of the book. I love every single one of mine and will write about them soon. For now, though, I want to ask you: how do you work? What’s your daily routine? Are you a morning person or a night owl? Or have you been one and then successfully transformed into the other? (If so, details please!!) I can use all the wisdom you can toss my way.