Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

On Morning and Evening Routines

I have this routine I do in the morning now. I wake up, and after bumbling around in a bit of a fog, I settle down and I stretch my neck. (Specifically, for all you bodywork types, I stretch my scalenes, which are the ropelike muscles on the side of the poor apparatus that has the burden of holding your thick, heavy skull up.) Then I meditate for a few moments (often doing my cheat-y meditations) and then do a bit of cheat-y yoga, too. And then I make a cup of something caffeinated and then settle down to write, whether it’s on my personal creative work or my job assignments.

The writing is the work, of course, but leading up to it is important. The routine is what launches me into the writing; it’s like a nice little platform or foundation for the day. Interestingly enough, the most important part of the routine are the neck stretches, not the meditation or the caffeine. (Those things are definitely nice, though!) I can truncate or skip the beverage or the Yoda mindfulness stuff, but if I skip the neck stretches, all hell breaks loose in terms of my day’s output. It’s a weird, pedestrian yet quasi-mystical thing, this morning routine.

It sounds very high-minded when I write it down, but honestly it is actually super-practical: the stretches and yoga are to counteract the beginnings of carpal tunnel I began experiencing late last year. (A lot of hand/wrist pain is related to very tight scalenes and sunken chest muscles, apparently.) A massage therapist I went to suggested to stretch out my super-tight neck muscles morning and evening — and yes, it makes a difference for my particular body. I started doing the neck stuff, and then just plastered on other things that felt nice, experimenting with the order, etc. And lo and behold — morning routine! And I didn’t even make a resolution to find one! Score!

But I’ve always had a fascination with people’s routines for the morning and evening. There’s something so personal and intimate about how people begin and wind down their days and evenings to me — something beautifully ordinary and yet very idiosyncratic. I love hearing how people deal with the practicalities of food, eating, caffeine and exercise while still trying to incorporate their creative and intellectual passions into their lives.

There’s something both humbling and inspiring about hearing how legit creative geniuses start their day, and there’s no predicting who does what in the morning. James Joyce apparently would get up at 10 but stay in bed, breakfasting and occasionally talking with his tailor, until 11 or so. Then he would get up, shave and then play the piano before he got down to the business of creating modernist prose. (This makes me feel better when I try to wake early to work on my novel and suddenly instead decide that clearing out my magazine piles and restringing my guitar are a better use of my time.)

Others are intimidatingly productive. Ben Franklin was a famously busy polymath, but found an hour every morning nevertheless to read while naked, a practice he called “air baths.” Le Corbusier started early with 6am gymnastics and painting, while Haruki Murakami gets up at 4am, writes for 5-6 hours, then goes running in the afternoon. Twyla Tharp mentions in her book The Creative Habit that she takes a cab to the gym hella early every morning to work out with a trainer to start her day. The important part of the routine isn’t the workout, it’s the cab, she specifies, which I loved.

Interestingly enough, there isn’t as much info out there on evening routines as there is for mornings — maybe because evenings feel more intimate, I’m not sure. I’m trying to find the evening equivalent of my morning routine, but surprisingly, that’s proved more elusive, and I haven’t quite settled on anything yet. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t quite figured out what the purpose of the nighttime routine is. If morning routines are to create idylls of quiet and focus, or perhaps momentum and energy — depending on who you are and what you need — then what are evenings for? To wind down? Empty your mind? Relax? Set yourself up for the next day? (For me, it should probably involve squelching the impulse to squeeze more out of the day.)

I haven’t figured out what I particularly need from my nighttime routine yet. But it’s cool. Hopefully it’ll happen as organically as the morning routine did. If there’s anything I’ve learned, routines that bookend your day are a unique extension of the person practicing them — and you can’t top-down force uniqueness, of course…it’s an inside-out thing.

On Auditioning New Beliefs

Beliefs are funny things to me. When I was younger, beliefs were like flags on the moon, poles in the sand, ways to stake out your self in the world: I believe this, therefore I am. You can believe in God; you can believe in karma; you can believe in divine retribution, feminism, positive thinking, social justice, attachment parenting, crystal healing, astrology, creationism. Sometimes you inherit beliefs; sometimes you come to adopt them. But they form part of your identity.

As I get older, though, I find part of the process of growing up and (hopefully) wiser is unearthing the beliefs you didn’t even realize you have, those unconscious yet deeply rooted mental assumptions that help you interpret the world. A lot of these hidden beliefs — at least in my experience — satellite themselves around areas like sex, love and money — you know, those chthonic, shadowy areas where compulsions and contradictions lodge themselves. Which, of course, makes them even more fascinating to me, these areas being so taboo and shrouded in a kind of dark silence in our culture. The areas hold beliefs like: Men will hurt me. I can’t trust women. If they really get to know me, they’ll think I’m a fraud. Being rich makes me a terrible person. I don’t deserve this money, this happiness, this stability. I can’t trust anyone. People let me down. People suck. Happiness is an illusion, or for chumps.

Often these are beliefs we would never voice or agree with consciously, but when you look at the pattern of behavior — especially behavior or decisions you can’t understand with yourself, and you have to craft the most convoluted explanations to justify them to yourself and your friends — you realize these unconscious beliefs are what’s guiding your behavior.

It takes a lot of work to even see these beliefs, much less root them out and then change them. You could say it’s the work of a lifetime, really, and I’m sure people spend hours of reflection and therapy to do it, especially when you’re working with really intense areas of life and psyche. I think part of the process of getting wiser is realizing these kind of beliefs are more elastic and pliable than you think — though softening them can be brutally hard work.

But beliefs and assumptions underlie less loaded areas of life, and it’s a little more fun to play with them here. Like beliefs about something like fashion: I can’t wear pink; I’m not a prints person; black is for goths; older women can’t wear skirts above the knee; only neutrals can be chic. It’s sort of fun to challenge these periodically, and a pleasure to experiment with expanding your own boundaries — and it’s why half of my underwear drawer is crazy pink-based patterns, which is not something people would often guess about me. But there you go!

Lately I have been thinking over certain assumptions I’ve made about writing in particular, like what a “successful” writing session should look like, or how to write a novel. Some of these are borne by personal experience or given to me by instruction or education, like the idea that “real writers” write everyday, or write in the morning, or write for 2-3 hour blocks of uninterrupted yet caffeinated time. But of course people change and grow all the time, and shouldn’t we test these beliefs every now and then? And even if these beliefs are “true,” wouldn’t your conviction in them be stronger by testing them out again?

So I’ve been experimenting with new things in terms of writing that go against my ingrained beliefs on the craft. The first step: look at my behavior and try to root out what beliefs were motivating them. Like, some days I would scrap writing for myself altogether because I didn’t have a “quality block” of time for it…which only made me feel guilty deep down for skipping the day. Sure, a block would be ideal, w=but who often leads an ideal life, day in and day out? So I decided to challenge that recently, and audition the belief that “20 minutes is enough.” The result is, well, more writing and less guilt.

Another writing belief of mine to challenge a novel had to be drafted in a certain way. People assume novels are written chronically, and for the most part, I’ve been taught to write that way, even in draft form. But lately I’ve been working on just major scenes and turning points first, and it feels more fun and energetic. Words are flowing, characters are developing, worlds are building, and the result is just a lot more pleasure, not to mention a lot less time sitting there staring at the screen, wondering how I was going to get myself to the next interesting part.

And finally, I’m challenging my own internal notion that my creativity/writing energy is limited. I labored under the idea that there was only so much I could write a day, and if I wrote too much and too widely, I’d burn out. This belief affected me in that it created weird resentments and guilts: I’d feel angsty because I had to write so much for my job and couldn’t focus on my fiction. Or I’d feel weird about blogging when I felt like I should work on my novel, or vice versa.

Of course, there are only so many hours. But time, though related, is different from energy. But what if I played around with the idea that there’s more than enough energy for the novelizing, blogging and work-related writing. So I decided to fuck it all and write everything when I felt like it, and just pretend like I would never burn out as a writer.

I do find that writing begats more writing — especially if I don’t limit it to just a block of 2-3 hours of supposed quality time and feel good about writing in snatches here and there. Quality creative time isn’t related to duration, but the ability to focus and imagine vividly and clearly, so 20 minutes of clear focus is better than an hour of unfocused time. And part of creating that unimpeded focused yet keen mindset is, ironically, removing the weirdly outdated, subconscious emotional and mental noise that unchallenged beliefs and assumptions give you.

Deep down, I think that’s when you know a belief — no matter where in life — is no longer serving you — when it’s blocking you with guilt, unhappiness, resentment and fear. That’s when you know it’s time to play around with something else better. I can do that with writing or fashion fairly easily — and of course, it’s the work of a lifetime in other areas of life. But worth it, I think, because who doesn’t want to be free of guilt, resentment and other emotional headless horsemen?

Static and Silence

So, I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block. It’s hard to get back into the blogging mindset once you’ve not done it for awhile. Where do you begin? Do you simply recap what’s been going on and why you’ve been silent? Does it really matter? Is that the sound of crickets chirping and my own voice echoing in the empty canyons? Hello? Bonjour?

Blogger’s block is different from the typical writer’s block. I’ve actually never suffered from writer’s block, knock on wood — I write for a living, so I’ve learned you can’t be precious and perfectionist, at first you just have to let go and do it. But blogging is a different beast. Blogging has no end, no final shape it resolves towards. It is an ongoing commitment to a kind of public thinking and expressing. It’s easy to burn out with it. But in this case, it wasn’t burnout — it was just life being its crazy, misshapen self, and me hunkering down in survival mode, just trying to get through bouts of depression, shock, expansion, transition.

Compound it with the fact that I’m not an “in media res” kind of writer. I really admire people who can blog and write their way through huge life crises and transitions: I myself, I realize, cannot. I can’t commit anything to words on a screen or paper for public consumption until I’ve gotten a bead on the experience, eked out some wisdom and insight and shape and contour from it. And, of course, when it comes to Major Life Stuff, there are other people and their privacy involved. I guess I’ll never be a super-confessional writer in that way, at least not until I know the ending of the story. Until the story ends, in fact.

So, let’s just say the past summer has been highly eventful. There are times when you make life happen; there are also times when life happens to you. As much as we want to believe and act as if we are mistresses and masters of our own destinies and authors of our stories — sometimes life really does take unexpected turns. Life, death, birth, rebirth, “cycle of existence” kind of shit on a real-life and metaphorical level: that was my summer of 2014. And many of its twists were huge surprises, or out of my control. But that happens; that’s life. I suppose it’s what the Buddhists mean when they say life is suffering. We suffer in part because all our best-laid plans blow up in our faces, and we realize, no, not everything is under our control.

And in the middle of it all, I stopped writing — I stopped writing in my journal, online, to friends via e-mail. I only had enough writing juju for my job, and well, I need my job to live, eat and survive, so it took priority. I didn’t possess the kind of inside-and-out perspective writing sometimes requires. I couldn’t narrate my own experience; I could only somehow try to make my way through it as best as I could without the aid of words and thought, my once trusty allies. This summer, I realized, was the longest I’ve ever gone without writing for myself. This summer was also the farthest away I’ve ever felt from myself, if that makes sense. I couldn’t even take a picture for Instagram. Creativity was always one of the gifts I’ve relied on in life to anchor a sense of identity, continuity and harmony — and it seemed to leave me.

Don’t worry — everything is good and fine, but it’s taken awhile to adjust to everything: new life circumstances, situations, expanding identities. I laugh at my intentions for this year that I set on New Year’s: I wanted a really quiet, calm, peaceful kind of year after a few years of not-so-quietness. Ha! At this point, I will settle for equanimity in the face of everything. Hopefully, though, I’m getting my writing legs back — like sea legs, but a bit more psychically necessary.

I know this is cryptic. I don’t mean to be mysterious — half the struggle is trying to figure out just what to say, and what exactly feels good to speak upon where I can offer some semblance of insight. Once I get going again and figure out what’s comfortable and okay for me to reveal and write about, hopefully things will become more clear. But for now, it’s time to stop wondering if this is good enough or just enough, and hit Publish and call it a night.

Nick Cave on Writing + Routines

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Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I’m in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.

– Nick Cave

I’ve always been fascinated by songwriters and how they work. Of all the writing crafts, making songs seems most like bottling lightning, requiring all kinds of courting of the muses. But it’s intriguing to know when musicians treat it like a trade or a daily routine, like some normal thing like brushing teeth or working out. I’m especially intrigued by rock stars as sort of everyday journeyman types, because the whole rock ‘n roll archetype is so Dionysian, so soaked in alcohol, sex and late nights. It’s antithetical to the everyday “get it done” stoicism of the working person, right?

And yet here is Nick Cave going to the office everyday to work like a regular 9-to-5 bloke! There’s something really humble and endearing about it, but beyond the up-ending of the whole rock-star inspiration model, it’s good to know that his longevity and growth as an artist have come with a very deliberate ethos of hard work and discipline. Which of course sounds so Puritan, and yet if it pays off, then how can you argue?

Of course, there’s something about his work that reflects a very deliberate, crafted quality, right down to his literary lyrics. His music hasn’t had that “Wow, we came up with this craaaaazzzzzy shit while banging around in a rehearsal room” quality since perhaps the Birthday Party or early Bad Seeds — or, okay, the Grinderman stuff, but I wasn’t super-fond of that so I kind of blocked it from my mind. You can argue whether or not his music’s the better or worse for it, but I love that he keeps going, making weird shit and being as dark and perverse as ever. I’ve sort of more and more interested now in how artists, and particularly musicians, retain their sense of artistry long after the energy of youth wears off, and so it’s weird and lovely to know that Nick treats it like a trade or craft that he kind of just does, like it’s no big deal, no black magic…just hard work and getting it done.

And I love the Cave approach because it’s a great lesson to learn as a productive artist: you can’t just sit around and wait for the muse to hit you with a shot of inspiration. You have to just sit down and do it, and even if nothing comes, maybe something will the next day, or the day after. I’m not really someone who is all “I MUST WRITE EVERYDAY” but I do try to do something to keep the wheels greased, whether it’s making notes, stabbing an attempt at a paragraph or outlining. I don’t have an office, but I do write something everyday, even if it’s not the things I feel I should be writing.

It’s a lot more humbling in a way to work this way, because I don’t just write when I feel all genius and inspired — I learn that I write shit and shit is a normal part of the process, and i don’t feel “blocked” when it happens. Shit happens to all writers. But you just go on and do something, and do something, and do something again…and then you pass through the shit phase into something that helps you remember why you love to write or create in the first place. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. And sticking to it. And sticking to it.