My dad used to say about my mother’s art schedule, “Now if Ruth would just get up in the morning and start painting, she’d really get something done.” Then he would go off to work. Yet despite the lack of a clear schedule, my mother completed hundreds of paintings during her lifetime.
I’ve always thought that if I had a regular writing schedule or clearer goals, I could get more done. Or maybe if I could find out how other writers do it, I could tap into some magic formula.
Mason Currey has turned “Daily Routines,” the blog he has been writing for the last six years, into Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Alfred A. Knopf), a most amazing collection of the routines of 161 composers, painters, architects, performers, writers, and other creative individuals.
So while I procrastinate, it’s enlightening to read how others managed to do what they do. The American composer, John Feldman, said that he had received the best advice from John Cage, who advised him to “write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas.” He also believed in practical things: the right pen and a good chair. Jane Austen wrote in her family sitting room, “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.” Gertrude Stein liked to write outdoors where she could look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. She was never able to write more than half an hour a day. “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day,” she said.
We learn all sorts of other interesting details from Currey’s collection. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong insomniac, always took Swiss Kriss, a potent herbal laxative before falling to sleep, lulled by music. Joseph Cornell constructed his boxes at night at the kitchen table. Patricia Highsmith was a chain smoker, who loved her vodka. According to one of her acquaintances she “only ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.” She was also inspired by snails. “They give me a sort of tranquility,” she said about the three hundred snails in her English garden.
As for me, I find it impossible to write in the office I created to write in. Right now I’m sitting at the kitchen counter, surrounded by newspapers and a few dirty dishes. My Kindle is open beside me as I read Currey’s book. But the best part: I’m listening to Willie Nelson. “No, you don’t know me,” he sings. “You ain’t missing me. I let my chance go by.” Only a few steps away in the cupboard is my stash of Hershey chocolate bars. And in a few minutes, I can stop writing and take Sam, our dog, and his cousin, Myles, for a walk. I’m always looking for reasons to take a break! And besides, Roger Miller is now singing “King of the Road”: “No phone, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes.” Is he trying to tell me something about his routine?
What’s your routine? Go for ten minutes. Or write about your ways to avoid writing. What about other artists you know? How do they work?