Writerly Routines

As I’ve alluded to in a past post, routine can be central to writers, or creative people in general. In an era that values efficiency and innovation–where so many want to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs–anything that encourages these traits gains an immediate capital.

[image from dorkboycomics]
[image from dorkboycomics]

For one, it can ease the strain required to enter the creative mode. As some research shows–so eloquently elucidated by John Cleese–one needs a space in time and place to innovate. Stuck with daily stresses, the creative mind can stagnate by worrying over the necessary pitfalls and backtracks required for the creative process. A set hour and a closed door pushes that stress outside.

Making set time also forces one revisit similar issues for an extended period. This helps to inspire seemingly sudden insights that actually occur through long-term reflection, the “slow hunch” as writer Steven Johnson puts it. Doing something everyday keeps one foot in the creative enterprise as the rest of the day unfolds. One never knows what may trigger the insight–a new task, an observation, or help from a colleague–but if one is miles away from an issue, they may never notice.

And at the most basic level, a routine keeps one disciplined by encouraging habits. In a reductive sense, a productive routine is nothing but a series of productive habits, i.e. of heavily ingrained actions that one does with little to no thought. If authors write everyday at 6:00 a.m., it becomes habitual. They keep writing then, regardless of other circumstances, just as one may brush one’s teeth before bed.

That said, breaking a routine can also be affective. While some thinkers, like Kant, were heavily routine and disciplined, others thrived on ambiguity and sprawling, uncertain days. Sometimes travel can be a handy catalyst, too. With it, one breaks from the daily perspectives and concerns of the routine. As one of my friend’s puts it, “Journey outward, journey inward.”

With these thoughts in mind, I found this graphic today about the daily routine of writers interesting. Remembering these excerpts about the routine of writers or this graphic based on sleep and literary productivity, both from Brain Pickings, I wondered about the mythos surrounding routine and creative people–writers in this case. Is it as effective as our fetish seems to think it is? If we start waking at 5 a.m., smoking a pipe, and writing with a cup of weak black tea for breakfast will we suddenly start pouring out the cryptic, philosophical gold of Kant’s Critiques? And what about the heart-numbing routine of most full-time workers? Clearly, their routine isn’t set to spur the next American classic.

So, a routine isn’t as straightforward as one would hope.

At the very least, these graphics and testimonies seem to show how varied routines can be. Not everyone is a Kant or a Murakami. Not everyone is a Byron or a Styron–or a Balzac. It also highlights power of habit and meaningful leisure activity. Moreover, the power of superstition may have a benefit, making us think some creative magic occurs as we align our craft with our own personal scheduling.

Such things have all seemed accurate through my own stints writing novels, extended essays, or memoirs.

But, most of all, I think these routines reveal something more central: discipline and affirmation. As Camus wrote, writing requires a “daily fidelity.” Or as one of my own writing professors told me, “write more; read more.” Such advice hits to the heart of the creative enterprise: like most things, it comes down to focus, experience, and work. Kant could have woken up at five, but if he didn’t read widely, think vigorously, and put pen–or quill–to paper, we’d have no Critique of Pure Reason. Routines emerge from the passion and faithfulness of those who hold them.

This is something I must continually remind myself, and if anything, a routine helps with this “daily fidelity.” Now, I just have to get better at maintaining it. What do you think?

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