On Daily Routines and Creativity

28 Jul

By Rhea H. Boyden

Water

Several readers have asked me recently what my daily routines are, and where I get ideas for my articles and essays. I have been mulling these two questions over for weeks, and I have finally decided, on the hottest night of the summer, to sit down and write an article discussing both of these topics.(I can either write this article or lie comatose and miserable in the heat and I have decided to push myself to write despite the discomfort).

I am fascinated with the lives and daily routines of famous writers and I love reading the mundane details of how they map out their days, in the hopes that I can draw some inspiration from it all. In fact, reading something about the daily routines of famous writers is part of my daily routine, and it has been for months. I extract a huge amount of inspiration for my own writing in learning with joy that I, a novice writer, share many of the same routines as famous and accomplished writers.

Firstly, I do not waste any of my day watching television. I do not own a T.V. and I never have. In his memoir ‘On Writing’ Stephen King says that if you want to be a good writer then you must kill your television. I fully agree with him. I spend a lot of my free time reading, and the only videos I really watch are TED talks (inspirational videos of lectures, TED standing for technology, entertainment and design). I really only watch these when I am too exhausted to read, but want to keep the ideas flowing into my brain. Some people would argue that I should watch T.V. in order that I may better critique mainstream culture in my writing. I find it a waste of time, and honestly I am bombarded by enough mainstream culture through the advertising I see on my daily commute and by generally just keeping my eyes open to what is happening in the big city around me.

As most accomplished writers will tell you; if you wish to write well, you must also read a lot. And do I read a lot? Well, I read as much as I can. I also teach full time, so I do not have the leisure time to lie around reading, day in and day out. What I consciously do is try and use everything I have read in my writing. The truth is, when I am reading, I do not always know what of my reading will be useful in my articles and essays. The biggest joy is when something I have read just happens to be useful and fits nicely into a topic I choose to write about. Seeing the relevance of something in a flash of insight surely is the part of the writing process that is most fun.

Arthur Koestler Statue Budapest

Arthur Koestler Statue- Budapest (Creative Commons)

In his book ‘The Act of Creation’, Hungarian-British Journalist and author Arthur Koestler explains his fascinating ‘theory of bisociation’. He says that the creative act is being able to link the unlinkable, and create new ideas out of disparate ones that previously had nothing to do with each other. This is what the creative mind experiences in a rush of insight; the magic of making two or more seemingly disparate ideas fuse with new energy. I know myself that the best moments of writing are when I see connections between seemingly unrelated objects, so I completely relate to Koestler’s theory.

American Art director, designer and author George Lois says that he never actually creates anything, he merely discovers the ideas that simply needed uncovering. He says that you must create a personal microculture in order to discover ideas. You simply need a broad range of interests. He says: ‘If you understand how to think, if you have a background in graphic art, if you are a sports fan and you are literate, if you are interested in politics and you love opera, ballet is ok, too. If you understand people, if you understand language. If you put that all together in about ten minutes, the idea is there.’[sic]. I find Lois hugely inspiring, as he is right, of course. One must foster a whole range of interests to help develop new ideas. He calls all of this ‘the combinatorial nature of creativity’.

So what are my main interests and what topics do I draw my inspiration from? The book I keep in my bed is my huge volume of poetry which is nearly 2,000 pages long. I like to read poetry at night before I drift into dreamland. I usually just browse, but I love making notes and seeing what poetry may be relevant to the more concrete ideas that I am playing with and if any of it will fit into what I am writing or help me get into that magical state of composition. I love reading poetry, but I have never written a classical rhyming poem myself, ever. I have written a lot of prose poetry that is very important for me as a form of emotional release, but it never follows any studied form. I never sit down and say ‘ok, now I am going to write a poem in iambic pentameter or in syncopated rhyming couplets.’ I simply just write what flows out of me in a rush of emotional release. I never plan it, it just happens. That is the beauty of poetry for me. If I have strong feelings for a man, or I am upset about something, or I simply feel a strong pressure behind my eyes it comes out in strange prose poetry generally in third person form. It’s always me, really, but I feel a need to distance myself from it, to make it seem less egotistical. My articles and essays contain the word ‘I’ enough in them, that my prose poetry really never contains the word ‘I’. Generally I just take the form of some forlorn Goddess or subject in a classical painting or a historical figure I have seen and try and see the world through her eyes. I have learned to always keep a notebook and a pen in my bed with me, for it is at night, when I am lying awake obsessing that my best ideas hit me. Various writers have said that their best ideas hit them at night in bed. This seems to be a widespread phenomenon.

DFW

David Foster Wallace

(Hammer Musuem, LA, 2006 Creative Commons)

Apart from poetry I read a lot of humourous autobiography by various authors, historical fiction, a range of magazines covering topics on modern cultural commentary, dating, gender relations, art, theatre, food and so forth. I am also pretty much obsessed with the work of American cultural critic David Foster Wallace and I have probably bored my readers to death by consistently quoting him, but I will apologise in advance as I am not about to stop quoting him. I have only scratched the surface of what he has written and I intend to keep on reading him. I love his dark humour, and discerning eye. His impressive command of the English language forces me to spend my time writing down words from his novels, essays and articles and looking them up. Looking up words in the dictionary constitutes part of my daily routine. It may sound boring, but I love looking up words. It brings me great pleasure.

Another topic I have recently taken an ever increasing interest in is climate change and global warming. I am starting to really see and realize that this is seriously the single biggest impending disaster that the human race has to face. It is a tragedy beyond imagination and there is no way to turn the clock back on the gazillions of gigatons of carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere coupled with no political will or power to stop it at all. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about climate change. I try not to let it depress me too much, but it is on my mind. I am writing this essay in the middle of a heatwave. I really don’t like excessively hot weather, but I have to keep on reading and writing. What else am I supposed to do? This is what I do, come floods or hurricanes. I feel powerless and impotent in the whole climate change battle, as do millions of others. I do the little things I can to reduce my carbon footprint. I may not own an energy sucking flat screen T.V., but I still fly a gazillion miles around the globe to visit my family and friends in far flung destinations. My three homes are Ireland, Germany and the U.S. I fly a lot, I always have. It probably isn’t going to change if I want to spend time with the people I love. I don’t own a car. Should I feel good about that?  Does it make any difference?

Back to creativity and routines. Many writers insist that a regular routine is key to creativity. Writer Gretchen Rubin says that if you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly and I fully agree with her. I usually write an article every weekend and read and take my notes during the week between teaching and while commuting. It simply is part of my routine. A lot of my life is quite routine and not amazingly exciting, but I like it like that. I had enough years of madness and Berlin parties that I am now literally in love with my routine of reading and writing. It suits me at this phase of my life. Rubin, who also is a huge proponent of Arthur Koestler’s theory of bisociation, says the following: ‘You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish. Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas. One of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project.’

Several people have asked me why I have not taken a holiday this summer. The truth is, I don’t really need a holiday at the moment. I don’t want to become too far removed from the ideas that I am currently working on. I have been on a roll with writing since I first got published a year ago, and I just stick at it and keep on working, seven days a week. I am sure to burn out and get depressed and experience writer’s block and all those delightful things at some point, but as far as I see it, at the moment I keep the ball rolling by sticking to a pretty rigid routine. I don’t dare stray too far from it.

In her book ‘The Artist’s Way’ American artist and writer -and teacher, playwright, poet, composer, filmmaker, what hasn’t she done?- Julia Cameron talks about the importance of regularly going on an  ‘artist’s date’ to get inspiration. She says it is important, once a week, to go somewhere alone- to an exhibit, a play or a walk in the woods, perhaps, to help you process ideas and gain more. I am fortunate that I write opera, art show and theatre previews for a magazine so I can request press passes to events if I like. Often after seeing a play or a show, for example, I will come home and write a whole article with great enthusiasm. The show provides the missing puzzle piece or the back bone of an article or essay that I am working on. Exhibits too, always inspire me hugely to think about and analyse what is happening in modern culture. I especially like modern art exhibits. I can usually write forever after coming back from an exhibit. It is usually crazy disparate notes or bizarre prose poetry trying to make sense of what I saw, but I always know it will come in useful in some context.

park woods

There is a beautiful park north of Berlin near a company I work at. I work at this company twice a week and so I take the time to go for a twenty minute contemplative walk in this park, alone once a week. As a city dweller I naturally cherish these peaceful stolen moments alone and away from the noise of the city. I always feel wonderfully refreshed when I exit this park. It is one of my special places to exist and an important part of my routine. I also go swimming and running regularly. I get lots of ideas while exercising and it is of course very important to get a good workout when one spends as much time as I do sitting around at home reading and writing.

I sometimes wish that I could teach less and spend more time at home reading and writing, but then I realize that getting up early every weekday morning, walking briskly to the underground, going to work and interacting with my students is an extremely important part of my routine and it has been for well over a decade now. That is what I do first and foremost; I am a freelance English teacher in companies. Writing comes after it. I need the social contact and it is my job. When I do suddenly have 5 days off teaching, such as now in the height of summer, I realize that I really could not just spend my entire time at home writing. I would go mad with loneliness and would likely waste a lot of time obsessing and procrastinating. I need the teaching to get me out and into contact with the world. My students are very dear to me.

Don Delillo

Don deLillo in New York City 2011 (Flickr)

So how much time do I allocate in my daily routine for procrastinating and obsessing? Well, I definitely waste some time with it for sure, but I have tried to change my attitude towards it. I try and view it as a vital part of the whole creative process as indeed many other writers do. In an interview in The Paris Review, writer Don De Lillo said the following: ‘A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.’ I laugh at this because I so heartily relate to it. Even the most productive artists and writers have problems staying focused at times. If we view this squandering of time more as an important incubation time for ideas then we can learn to enjoy our downtime more and not feel guilty for wasting time. If I don’t end up writing my weekly essay or article I feel guilty sometimes, but I then console myself by reminding myself that the ideas are simply not ripe enough yet to use. Good ideas and good articles take time to mature. I have been preparing to write this essay for weeks and feeling guilty about not having written it yet. I try and take it easy on myself though and remind myself that the ideas needed time to sift through my subconscious mind before I was able to sit down and strike. Writer Natalie Goldberg calls this incubation time for ideas ‘composting’. She uses the beautiful metaphor of a bright red tulip shooting out of the rich compost when it is ready, when describing how she had been trying to write a poem about her father’s death, and nothing was working, when suddenly after a few weeks all her ideas fused and a long poem flowed out of her on the subject. She simply was not ready to write the poem before this. It hadn’t matured in her mind enough yet. I really needn’t feel guilty spending a couple weeks mulling an idea over, for as we can see many of the world’s great ideas took years, even decades to formulate. It took Tim Berners Lee a good decade for the full vision of the world wide web to formulate in his mind, and he had no idea that what was he was going to end up creating when he set out to work on it. In a very real sense, we quite often have no idea where we are headed until get there. I feel this with writing all the time. I have some vague vision of what an article will be about, but I never really know what I am going to write about until I sit down to write. It is an act of discovery and in the words of writer Isabel Allende: ‘Writing brings order to the chaos of life.’

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

One big part of my daily routine is a big dose of Facebook. I can’t live without it. I do sign out when I am writing an article, but Facebook is my connection to the world, my way of exchanging ideas with my friends, access to articles and music that inspire me, and  it is a tool for sharing my articles with my readers. Without feedback from my readers, after all, I am nothing. It is thanks to feedback that I had the courage and confidence to attempt to get published and the continuing positive feedback inspires me to keep on writing. I need an audience and I take to heart what people say. I am not so self-assured that I just write for my own sake and give a hoot what readers think. I literally cannot exist without the connection to my readers. It makes life worth living for me. I love answering reader mail and I love discussing my articles with people. British playwright and actor Harold Pinter said in an interview in The Paris Review that he does not care much at all what the audience’s reaction is to his plays, he only cares what he thinks of the actors’ interpretation of his words. I find this very hard to relate to. How can you not care about an audience’s reaction?

In his TED talk on where good ideas come from, writer Steven Johnson says that ‘chance favours the connected mind.’ He goes on to talk about how important connectivity to others is in fostering new ideas. He asks whether all this hyperconnectivity to the internet is actually making it harder for us to concentrate and think deeper thoughts. How many of us sign out of Facebook and all the online magazines that we have open all day and actually read a book? He says that signing out and reading a book is very important, but being connected is equally important. Sure, we are a bit distracted and it takes discipline not to waste too much time online in unproductive ways, but the internet is, in a sense, a modern coffee house where ideas can mingle. He says in the coffee houses of the enlightenment wonderful new ideas were born. The British, he reminds us, replaced the depressant alcohol, (which they drank in great quantities as it was safer than water) with the stimulants tea and coffee and the great ideas of the enlightenment were born. Caffeine is more conducive to creativity. And while many writers write drunk, a great many do not. I have written some crazy stories while drunk, but I have now not taken a sip of alcohol in nearly a year and a half and coffee and black tea are definitely a big part of my daily routine. I am productive and happy because I am one hundred percent sober, of this I am certain. Drinking again would ruin my creative life. And yet, I am glad that I drank and partied for years. It was a great life. I met lots of people, had a lot of fun and really experienced and lived life to the full. If I hadn’t really and truly gotten it out of my system, I doubt I would now be able to spend so much time happily in solitude reading and writing.

We definitely need extreme experiences and to live life to the full to help fuel creativity. Steve Jobs called doing LSD ‘one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.’ He also said that he wished Bill Gates the best, truly he did, but that he thought that he would have benefitted greatly from spending time at an Ashram in India or taking LSD. I happen to agree with him. I am a little suspicious of teetotalers. If you have never drunk at all how have you had any really wild experiences. Most (recovering) alcoholics I have met are fascinating people who have had many wild adventures. My stories would be pretty dull without my decade of really living it up. In the words of writer Anais Nin: ‘something is always born of excess; great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions and great instabilities.’ To me, these feelings are all part of the terror of alcoholism. If a creative person can leave the drugs and alcohol behind them they have the potential to be incredibly prolific. In my daily readings on the lives and daily habits of famous writers, this topic comes up again and again: the day they finally quit drinking and drugging and got down to the real business of writing sober.

I have definitely taken to heart what George Lois advises about building a ‘personal microculture’. I have recently pushed myself to read and take an interest in subjects I hated at school. And while it is too late for me to ever excel at mathematics and science, I can at least try and scratch the surface on some issues to give me a deeper understanding of a whole range of subjects. It all helps my writing in the end. I always lacked confidence in my own abilities, especially in mathematics and science, but also in my ability to write and tell a story that would keep people interested. Now, that I am published and have people who follow my work, however, my confidence in my abilities is rising. And this is all thanks to the connectedness afforded by Facebook. I mentioned earlier that I like to read poetry. I have recently been reading the work of John Keats. Keats is an interesting poet because he too, in the beginning, lacked confidence in his ability and had a lot of self doubt, and yet he produced so much wonderful poetry to such a high standard. He opens his sonnet ‘To Homer’ with the following lines: ‘standing aloof in giant ignorance, of these I hear and of the Cyclades.’ In these lines he is admitting that he could not read Homer’s Greek, but yet he still wants to succeed and write despite this ignorance. To me this is hugely inspiring.

John Keats

John Keats by William Hilton

When I first had the idea for this essay a good friend of mine asked me what this essay was going to be a about and I joked: ‘Oh, I will be exploring what the poetry of John Keats has to do with the second law of thermodynamics.’ Of course, this essay is not about that, but it is a good question to pose. Can I link the unlinkable and find a connection between the two, as Koestler posits? I am sure I can if I think long enough. The link, of course, is that the second law of thermodynamics is the most important law of physics for understanding the passage of time and that I, like Keats, have no real deeper understanding of the laws of physics, but that I won’t let that stop me trying to at least scratch the surface and try and gain more of an understanding of things that have alluded me until now. I have, like Keats, a voracious need for material for writing and yes, I do want to be able to at least see the second law of thermodynamics from a purely poetic standpoint. Because it is poetry and it is beautiful. It deals with the passage and ravages of time, as do many of Keats and other famous poets’ sonnets. That’s the connection. I have managed to write this essay in the blazing heat and my phone has been ringing and various friends have been saying how crazy I am for sitting inside on the hottest day of the year writing an essay. So, it is now time to make an iced coffee and head to the park and rejoin the world. Only by reconnecting will I refuel and get more ideas for writing. It’s a magical journey and I never know where it leads me. But, for now, it all has to stay sweetly within the confines of my daily routines. These routines are good for me, as many a writer concurs.

 

 

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