Ludwig van Beethoven poured water over his hands while humming scales. Jonathan Edwards pinned bits of paper to his clothing to remember ideas while horseback riding. Anthony Trollope paid a groom five extra pounds a year to bring him coffee each morning at 5:30.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a collection of dozens of vignettes about “writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, philosophers and scientists on how they create.” I found it impossible to put down. Just when I thought I discovered a pattern to these artists’ daily practices (early morning work and no day job, for example) new structures began to emerge (the night-time only artist and those who held other occupations).
As someone who has sometimes struggled to find a rhythm to my writing, I found this glimpse into others’ lives both inspiring and familiar. While there were differences in each daily ritual, some habits were repeated in most creative processes*:
Structure allowed Trollope to “tutor his mind” and write for three hours before going to work at the Post Office. Gustave Flaubert believed being “regular and orderly in your life [allows you to be] violent and original in your work.” In other words, when the structure is established, you are freed to focus on what counts.
Solitude and simplicity seem to function hand in hand. Time alone, free of distraction is necessary to create. This means a narrowing or stripping away of extraneous things gives a creative the space to work. Some artists deliberately would forgo social commitments or would choose a hermit-like existence. Others would make room for community but keep those hours separate from the work. “What you need to do is clear all distraction,” Anne Rice says. “That’s the bottom line.”
I was surprised how many artists engaged in daily exercise — calisthenics, swimming, and the like — long, long before this was considered the ideal. Walking long distances was by far the exercise of choice, serving as both a break from the work and sometimes a new way to view it. Those walks I take with the dog when I’m feeling stuck? I’m in good company.
This book has inspired me to think again about how I might best keep my days simple and distraction free. In the midst of my daily solitude it has made me feel a part of something bigger than myself. I’m carrying the creative torch like those before me and those who will come after — important work indeed!
Does ritual play into your creative process?
*I’m focusing on the positive here. Many artists relied on various vices to (supposedly) bring out their best work. A few, like George Sand, felt “the work of the imagination is exciting enough…Whether you are secluded in your study or performing on the planks of a stage, you must be in total possession of yourself.”
If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you know my friend J. Anderson Coats says a lot of things that resonate with me. She’s the one who gave me my favorite piece of writing advice and came up with that great cow-through-a-colander writing metaphor.
During a recent email exchange with my Class of 2k12 friends, Jillian shared this:
A writing career is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re not on a schedule. There is no schedule.
That first part, I’ve probably heard it a thousand times. But the second part? It felt like a revelation. It’s true that when you’re on deadline you most certainly have a schedule, but otherwise, the writing life is wide open.
So you know what?
- If there’s no schedule, someone else isn’t going to beat you to the punch. What you’re working on now will not somehow be replaced by someone else’s (faster) efforts.
- The market isn’t in charge of your story. You are.
- For you published folks, you will not be forgotten if you somehow don’t get to keep some “regular” publishing schedule. Yes, your readers might age out, as they say, but there are always new readers to take their place and earlier books to introduce readers to the new ones, whenever they happen to be published.
- Unless you’re contractually committed, you can write whatever you want whenever you want.
- And there’s what author/illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw (my niece’s former Girl Scout leader!) posted on Facebook a few days ago:
Repeated themes I heard at the writer-illustrator conference in LA: Slow down. Take time to do your best work. When you think it’s done, set it aside to assess again later. Build on what you borrow. Be courageous — do work you find important, no matter what others say. LIVE so you’ll have a rich portfolio of experiences to draw and write from. What gets your next book published isn’t luck, desperation, a magic shortcut, or networking with stars; it’s your hard work, your being ready to jump at sudden opportunities, and your connections with friends. #SCBWI14
Here’s to approaching your writing with freedom in the days ahead!