After my little productivity crisis of the past few months, I've been working on jiggering with my daily routine. I'm especially interested in finding that balance between activities that support the spark of creativity while still making sure that I get things done. In this spirit, I was quite excited to find the Daily Routines blog, which looks at how "writers, artists and other interesting people organize their days."
What's interesting first off is how many of these people have a routine. On some level, you'd think that creative types might just let it all flow, but clearly most of them see a routine as a sort of ritual that's necessary to enter into the creative stream. Here's how Gerard Richter organizes his day, for example:
He sticks to a strict routine,
waking at 6:15 every morning. He makes breakfast for his family, takes
Ella to school at 7:20 and is in the studio by 8. At 1 o'clock, he
crosses the garden from the studio back to the house. The grass in the
garden is uncut. Richter proudly points this out, to show that even it
is a matter of his choosing, not by chance. At 1 o'clock, he eats lunch
in the dining room, alone. A housekeeper lays out the same meal for him
each day: yogurt, tomatoes, bread, olive oil and chamomile tea.
After lunch, Richter returns to his studio to work into the evening.
''I have always been structured,'' he explains. ''What has changed is
the proportions. Now it is eight hours of paperwork and one of
painting.'' He claims to waste time -- on the house, the garden --
although this is hard to believe. ''I go to the studio every day, but I
don't paint every day. I love playing with my architectural models. I
love making plans. I could spend my life arranging things. Weeks go by,
and I don't paint until finally I can't stand it any longer. I get fed
up. I almost don't want to talk about it, because I don't want to
become self-conscious about it, but perhaps I create these little
crises as a kind of a secret strategy to push myself. It is a danger to
wait around for an idea to occur to you. You have to find the idea.''
As he talks, I notice a single drop of paint on the floor beneath one
of his abstract pictures, the only thing out of place in the studio.
And this is the routine of an "abstract" painter!
Early rising seems to be a particular theme among many creatives. Richter is up at 6:15 a.m. and John Grisham (when he was first writing), was up by 5 a.m. Emily Dickinson rose at 6 a.m. and Charles Darwin by 7 a.m. Flaubert, on the other hand slept until 10 a.m., preferring to do his work at night.
The issue here, of course, is that all seem tuned in to their particular daily rhythms, knowing when they do their best thinking and when they don't. Gunter Grass says, for example, that he never writes at night because "it comes too easily."
Naps and walks (or some form of physical activity) are other common threads, providing that down-time for creativity to gestate. Walks in particular are also a way for these creatives to work through problems and get input from the outside world that feeds their creativity. From the post on musician Erik Satie:
Roger Shattuck, in conversations with John Cage in 1982, put forward
the interesting theory that "the source of Satie's sense of musical
beat--the possibility of variation within repetition, the effect of
boredom on the organism--may be this endless walking back and forth
across the same landscape day after day . . . the total observation of
a very limited and narrow environment." During his walks, Satie was
also observed stopping to jot down ideas by the light of the street
lamps he passed.
Food seems to be another big theme, especially for those who were working in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm not sure if this is a sign of those times or an actual requirement for their creativity. I tend to think the former, since creatives mentioned from more recent years seem more in tune with food as fuel, rather than food as ritual.
I also notice that most don't work an 8-hour day, not as a matter of routine, anyway. It's virtually impossible, I think, unless you're in one of those creative firestorms where you're pounding stuff out. But I've found that work like that is usually followed by a mental, emotional and physical collapse.
Amid all this general structure, there are some wonderful tidbits of activity that occur, like the one observed by artist Chris Ofili:
He arrives in his studio at 9 or 10 in the morning, he explained. He
sets aside a corner for watercolors and drawings "away from center
stage," meaning where he paints his big, collaged oil paintings. "I
consider that corner of the studio to be my comfort zone," he said.
First, he tears a large sheet of paper, always the same size, into
eight pieces, all about 6 by 9 inches. Then he loosens up with some
pencil marks, "nothing statements, which have no function."
"They're not a guide," he went on, they're just a way to say something
and nothing with a physical mark that is nothing except a start."
I also love this description of how Saul Bellow worked:
Most mornings we linger. Work will wait. We tour the "giardino" and
see which flowers have appeared. This June there is a white anemone of
which Saul is enormously proud (there's never been another before or
since--the moles seem to get at the bulbs). The giant red-orange
poppies are budding, the peonies will flower this year in time for
Saul's birthday, and there's one early bright purple cosmos blossom. We
admire a fat sassy snake curling among the wild columbines. "The whole
world is an ice cream cone to him," Saul laughs as he disappears into
Everything must be taken up nimbly, easily, or not at
all. You can't read Saul without being aware of the laughter running
beneath every word.
I will say, though, that some people had some rather extreme needs for priming the creative pump. From The New Yorker on Gertrude Stein:
Miss Stein has an outsize bathtub that was especially made for her.
A staircase had to be taken out to install it. After her bath she puts
on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to
write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country,
because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at
rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive
around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein
gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas
fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn't
seem to fit in with Miss Stein's mood, the ladies get into the car and
drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she
writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits
there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.
Cows and rocks aside, the common thread running underneath all of this is that each person
has this particular NEED to do the work of creativity. The rituals and
routines are there to facilitate a process that for each of them must
happen. Not that the routine doesn't become well . . . routine, at
least at times. But ultimately, each of them is using routine as a way
to create that fertile ground for creativity to flourish. And it's not about productivity. It's about finding the discipline to make the best use of a creative spark that may at heart be undisciplined. It's a tension of opposites that I find really fascinating.
Photos via Rae Z and 3rd Foundation