Solitude, routine & art

On the last day of December 2013, I wrote a post called The Art of Tidying Up, in which I briefly touched on the subject of regularity and order in an artist’s life. Since then, I have been giving a lot of thought to ways of improving not just the efficiency of work but also one’s emotional well-being. I often come across this romantic idea of artists working “whenever the inspiration strikes,” while the rest of the time they socialize with their arty friends in arty places, attend extravagant parties etc. But I also know how difficult it is to sustain a career and one’s sanity with no boss and rigorous boundaries, and how many artists suffer from various mental conditions. I recently read artist Oliver Michael Robertson’s moving and honest account of living with a bi-polar syndrome, which is not uncommon among creative types. Not to mention hundreds of websites dedicated to famous artists and writers who committed suicide as a result of depression. I am not going to speculate on the probability of the theory that links creativity with mental disorders, but I have a strong belief that the lifestyle people lead very much affects the work they do and their emotional health.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

I have always immensely enjoyed reading about the daily life of creative people, and I often found it more fascinating than the work itself. Therefore I was particularly happy to stumble on the Daily Routines blog, written by Mason Currey, which after two years became the Daily Rituals book, published by Knopf. It presents the routines and working habits of 161 creative minds, i.e. novelists, poets, playwrights, composers, painters, philosophers, and scientists. What is interesting is that apart from the occasional odd habits such as measuring the exact number of coffee beans (Beethoven), applying a variety of stimulants and sedatives at particular times of the day (W. H. Auden), or taking precisely timed naps (Bergman), there are obvious patterns in the daily lives of successful people.

MChabocka Ingmar Bergman drawing

Ingmar Bergman said that movie-making is “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film,”  while Gertrude Stein stressed the importance of being systematic: “If you write a half-hour a day, it makes a lot of writing year by year.”  Of course, some people are able to instantly get into their work and do a big chunk of it in a relatively short space of time, while others need to actually chain themselves to a chair for the day to make sure they get something out if it, hence the Bergman and Stein examples. But the main thing is to work systematically. And, actually, most people are like Bergman in that they need a long span of focused work to create worthy things. In the last chapter of Tim Harford’s book Adapt, which is about embracing the idea of failure, there is a great passage describing the daily regime of Twyla Tharp, a cerebral choreographer: “She rises at 5.30am to work out, improvising alone or (…) with a young dancer; ‘scratching’, looking for ideas. She films three hours of improvisation and is pleased enough if she can find thirty seconds that she can use.

A daily routine is something that I have been shaping up for a while now, though it has never been set in stone since the different projects that I work on (painting, writing, animation etc.) have different demands, and require alterations to an existing routine. Having been working for myself for several years now (if one doesn’t count odd part-time jobs and residencies), I have experimented with enough different work cycles, patterns and approaches to give me an idea of what works best for me. There was for example a time when I would work in a trance until 2-3am, after which I would spend an extra half an hour cleaning the oven or mopping the floor just to get my thoughts off the project and wind down enough to get sleepy. The mornings were awful though, and I would then struggle until the afternoon, half-asleep, headachy and grumpy. Another time I would get up at 6am and go straight to my desk but found myself exhausted later on. Still, I enjoyed the idea of getting up early and it was a matter of finding out just how early is optimal for me.

I decided it would be 7am. And so, inspired by Steve Pavlina’s blog post on becoming an early riser (which I can’t recommend enough especially if you’re addicted to snoozing and keep getting up an hour or two hours later after your desirable time), this January I trained myself to get up at 7am every day. I work until 8.30am (though I normally choose light-weight tasks) after which I exercise, have breakfast, get dressed etc. and from 10am I’m back at my desk, table or easel. I work until 7pm with an hour lunch break, and occasionally I do some more work after supper but I try not to.

W. H. Auden, who lived by a very strict timetable throughout his life, said that “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” In a beautiful introduction to his book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey says that “in the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage for a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all), as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.” It is a popular misconception that regularity kills creativity for it is actually the opposite. Very few people can cope with the state of perpetual chaos and, if they’re serious about their work, not get irritated with their own sloppiness and procrastination. Even Francis Bacon, notoriously associated with chaos and wild life because of his cluttered studio and fondness of drinking and gambling, was in Michael Peppiatt’s words, “a creature of habit.” In an article on the Guardian website, which quotes from Currey’s book, we can read that William James, one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century, argued that by making several  aspects of our daily life automatic and habitual we can

“free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Subsequent findings about “cognitive bandwidth” and the limitations of willpower have largely substantiated James’s hunch: if you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work. Don’t consider afresh each morning whether to work on your novel for 45 minutes before the day begins; once you’ve resolved that that’s just what you do, it’ll be far more likely to happen.

MChabocka C. S. Lewis drawing

Another aspect is solitude, something that becomes increasingly difficult for people to embrace today. Currey quotes C. S. Lewis who in his autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy (1955) wrote: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.” Today, nearly seventy years later, the same could be applied to emails, posts, messages and tweets – the everyday distraction number one for creative people. I know very few people who don’t have a Facebook account, and most of those who have one, are completely obsessed with liking, commenting, and sharing all day long.

The truth is that despite the benefits (staying in touch with people, especially those who live abroad, or getting updates on events etc.), Facebook is a massive time and energy-waster. But for a lot of people, lack of contact with others and various types of stimuli is unbearable. In a very interesting blog post on solitude writer Joe Fassler quotes from Dorthe Nors’ book Karate Chop:

Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you (…) you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

MChabocka Dorthe Nors drawing

Nors stresses the importance of  being able to sit alone and push through the loneliness, the boredom, the anger etc. “That’s the hard part,” she says, “pushing through the bad.” Facebook and email are an easy way out of the painful zone, but one that is destructive to the work. However, despite knowing this, like most people I am not very good at controlling the time I spend on Facebook. And because I value my time more than meaningless online interactions and the buzz one gets from “sharing” stuff, I recently decided that I need radical solutions. Inspired by Pavlina’s another great article, I therefore took a 30 day break from my personal account on Facebook (I kept my fan-page) to evaluate the benefits. Well, it was fantastic. I got all the work done that I wanted with very little distraction and felt like there was no unnecessary stuff occupying my head. Though I admit it, it did feel lonely at times. But I pushed through the loneliness and felt rewarded in the end. I also found out that while there are things I am able to work on with moderate distractions, if, like this year, I’m working on a surreal and dark graphic novel, I absolutely have to submerge myself in it without poking my head out every 30mins or so. Last week, I very reluctantly returned to Facebook only because of the upcoming exhibition (it is amazing how many people prefer to RSVP to Facebook invites rather than emails), but I plan to deactivate the account again in May.

Finally, I will repeat after Dorthe Nors (we’re both fans of Bergman’s autobiographical book Laterna Magica) that it’s not pain, illegal substances, love affairs etc. that make a great writer but discipline and time spent alone. Even if, like Twyla Tharp, I only get a few good lines done in a day, the fact that I spent the time experimenting, thinking, making mistakes and correcting them as opposed to clicking on cat photos, is already satisfying.

MChabocka Twyla Tharp drawing