For reasons I cannot fully explain I continue to be obsessed with finding out what kind of daily routines interesting people have. Therefore imagine my delight as I ran to Daily Rituals – Women at Work this weekend. It’s a compilation of habits of 143 female authors and artists by Mason Currey, whose first book on the habits of great minds concentrated on men, and he wanted to make amends with the second book dedicated to women.
My work does not allow me to fully be the master of my calendar and I live in a busy-culture. With busy-culture I mean the kind of culture where people ask “Are you busy?” instead of “how are you?“, and you’re expected to reply by assessing your busyness on the scale of “yes, very” to “it’s fucking killing me”. You must be busy, otherwise there’s something very seriously wrong with you or – and this is the worst – you are not very important. The busier you say you are, the better you are allowed to feel about yourself.
I’m interested in habits and routines because I believe they must be the key to creating more space for thinking. Hands up everyone who has taken part in an office brainstorming session where people are seated in a meeting room with a numbingly meaningless consultant-speak slideshow on the background and those who are not jumping up and down, excusing themselves for “having to take this call” are checking their social media feeds on their phones?
Our brains are required to produce creative ideas in the most absurd of circumstances.
While (successful) creatives might have the autonomy to decide on their daily comings and goings, I thought I could still get some transferable inspiration. Herewith some of my favourites:
– Coco Chanel’s team would spray a mist of Chanel No. 5 near the entrance of the rue Cambon offices every day so that Coco could walk through the cloud of her own signature scent when she came to work. There was an alert from the Ritz when Mademoiselle was on her way so that the perfume-spritzer could get ready.
– Elsa Schiaparelli was famously punctual to the minute. She rose every morning at eight, had a glass of water with lemon and a cup of tea, read the papers and tended to her private correspondence. Oh, and gave the menus of the day to the cook.
– Songwriter Carole King found that the key to not having a writer’s block was not to worry about it. Ever. “If you are sitting down to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back and do something else. Then you come back and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back.”
– Writer Susan Sontag believed it would be the best to write every day, but she barely managed this herself, usually writing in “intense, obsessional stretches”, often motivated by “an egregiously neglected deadline that she finally couldn’t ignore any longer. She seemed to need the pressure to build to an almost intolerable level before she could finally begin to write”.
– Virginia Woolf valued privacy and “space to spread her mind out in”. This meant problematic relations with real people. ”The truth is, I like it when people actually come; but I love when they go”. Woolf’s friends remembered her as an inattentive and borderline rude host, to which she responded “I wake filled with a tremulous yet steady rapture, carry my pitcher full of lucid and deep water across the garden, and am forced to spill it all by – someone coming.”
– In the acknowledgement section of her novel NW writer Zadie Smith thanked two pieces of Internet-blocking software called Freedom and Self Control for “creating the time”. Smith does not use any social media.
– Artist Tamara de Lempicka strived to have a regular routine for the sake of her daughter. After she had put the child to sleep, Lempicka hit the Parisian nightlife in search of her preferred drugs: pellets of hashish dissolved in sloe-gin fizzes, or hits of cocaine sniffed from a miniature silver teaspoon – together with anonymous sexual encounters. She claimed “it is an artist’s duty to try everything.” Returning home, she would paint nonstop for hours. To calm her nerves for sleep, she turned to herbal supplement valerian. No matter what, she made sure to be up in time to have breakfast with her daughter, regardless how little sleep she’d gotten.
– The French novelist, playwright and screenwriter Francoise Sagan did not want to fall into habits: “The material problems of day-to-day living bore me silly. As soon as someone asks me what we should have for dinner I become flustered and then sink into gloom.”
As various as their approaches to their creative processes were, there’s the one thing they all have in common, and Sagan put it very simply: “I had a strong desire to write. I simply started it.”
There’s another excellent book about writing by Stephen King, and his message is very much the same as Sagan’s. In his book he discusses his writing routines at length, but what I loved best was his reasoning why writing retreats are not all that:
It is the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl,
not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.
From On Writing by Stephen King.