Every artist will at some stage feel a block, and go seeking guidance. I myself am guilty of having spent far too many hours reading about creativity as opposed to actually creating stuff, so I know the risks involved when you go looking for advice (the risk being spending too much time chin-stroking and not enough time making). To those seeking guidance: I feel your pain, and I would like to spare you some time.
There is an overwhelming quantity of writing about how to find and sustain inspiration. Books on the subject can be found in almost every section from self-help to business, to biographies and psychology. From the viewpoint of their respective disciplines, the authors try to address the daunting questions that arise while maintaining a creative practice. How do you make meaningful work while also earning a living? Does hardship make us work better? Is the opposite true – that getting down to work actually necessitates a basic level of comfort? When time is tight – must you make sacrifices, and if so what – income, social life or a clean house? If it is possible to have it all, how do you organise your time so that you can pay the rent, keep in touch with friends, clean the house, and do what you love?
Developing a better understanding of the creative process is clearly a widespread (not to mention lucrative) concern. With such a huge amount of information available, it’s hard to know what to trust. Even the researchers, TED-talkers, ‘gurus’ and authors who are the supposed voices of authority in their fields would have to admit that the creative process is a highly subjective matter and “whatever works – works”. Unfortunately vague sentiments like this aren’t much use to those who are actually experiencing a block. Those who wake up one to discover that they don’t have a single idea worth writing down. Those who, try as they might, have never quite been able recover from a particularly brutal crit. Those who can’t remember the buzz they first experienced when they first picked up a camera and are secretly terrified that they won’t ever feel that way again.
In 2007, Mason Currey was sitting in the office of the architecture magazine he wrote for, suffering from a block. It was during a particularly restless afternoon of online procrastination that he started the Daily Routines blog, which was eventually reconfigured into the book ‘Daily Rituals’. The blog is simply a collection of the day-to-day routines of 150 great minds, including Ingmar Bergman, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frederico Fellini, Slyvia Plath, David Lynch, Marcel Proust, Twlya Thwarp and Marina Abromovic, etc.
Whenever writing about revered figures in any field, their successes can often overshadow the context of their private lives. The sheer randomness of events which lead them to create the masterpieces of which they are famed can be very easily overlooked. It’s an easier and more saleable to go for the age-old artist-genius story. What sets ‘Daily Rituals’ apart is that it isn’t about the masterpieces – it’s about the circumstances in which the work happens. Put the work itself to one side for a second, and it’s possible to glimpse at the artist as a creature of habit. By focusing on the mundane details of his subjects lives – Currey give us a novel angle on the creative process.
Marina Abromovic undergoes a militant routine to prepare for her performances but lives a loose and unstructured lifestyle when she isn’t working. Some work by day, others by night. Some desire solitude others can make progress by sharing their ideas. F.Scott Fitzgerald could only write in gin-fuelled bursts and insisted that alchohol was an essential part of the process. The book presents an expanded, and much more thoroughly researched versions of the blog, drawing from biographies, obituaries, interviews, letters and dairy entries of his subjects which make up a summary of each individuals routine (or lack there of).
For some, a vigorous routine is perfect. Edward Gibbon was a dedicated historian who persevered with his studies even when he was recruited for military action. He could often be found reading up on theological debate in his tent, recalling ancient history while on the march, always awake at the crack of dawn to get on with his research before the day’s maneuvers began. The adverse conditions didn’t faze him in the slightest. VS Pritchett said of Gibbon: “Sooner or later the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never loose a minute. It is very depressing”. Yet, for every cheerfully industrious type like Gibbon, there exists the opposite. Franz Kafka was an extremely talented writer who produced astoundingly vivid and influential stories while living a civilian life. Working lengthy hours in claustrophobic conditions with a highly-strung home-life, he seemed to live most of his life in a state of perpetual horror at these surroundings. This undoubtedly contributed to his nightmarish tales, but his torturous blocks are well documented. As he waited for inspiration to strike, he suffered from agonizing anxiety and self-doubt.
If the case studies in ‘Daily Rituals’ are anything to go by then Gibbon and Kafka are some of the most extreme examples. It’s encouraging to note that most people in the book fall somewhere in the middle-ground between these two. Most of Currey’s subjects make time for their passions as often as they in spite of the obstacles in their way. Yet they are never 100% confident in their approach. Even during the good days, they are superstitiously looking for anything that might upset the delicate working conditions that they thrive in.
It just goes to show that whatever works, works. No-one can answer the question of how to work better in a way which is meaningful to everyone. As Currey puts it – this can only be resolved “on an individual level through shakey personal compromises”. Or, as Kafka puts it (speaking from his tiny office where he is scolded and terrorized by his colleagues and family) – “time is short, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers”.
No one said a good working routine is easy to achieve, and if you are in a block and seeking guidance then this might all be getting a little depressing. My advice to you is this: if you go looking to the greats for advice, then bear in mind that they too are reliant on the circumstances of their day to day life in order get on with their work. Put their masterpieces to one side, and it’s possible to glimpse a person’s life’s work as the consequence of thousands of tiny day-to-day decisions. You too can choose to see your life’s work as the miraculous realisation of grand creative vision. Or, you can see it as the product of 89790 cups of coffee, 90015 cups of tea, 299930 early starts, 299981 glasses of water, 279 u-turns, 800 false starts, 400 tearful conversations, 399 hours of networking and 337 hours of online procrastination (approximate figures – do not hold me to these). Whatever helps you to ‘wriggle through.’