Back a few years ago, I quit my job, a speaking role on television. It was a great job and I worked with great people, but I had started scribbling stories, and I thought I might be able to make a living at what I had discovered was my passion. So I quit.
When I was doing that television job, I had a routine. I worked at the station from 3:00pm until midnight. So every morning I would rise, eat a bite of breakfast, and go to my computer. It worked. I found that if I could manage an hour or two of quiet, focused work every morning, the pages of my scribbling piled up and before long, I had a story.
Without a regular job to go to five days a week, I had a great deal of extra time. I thought, “Gee, I can do all of those things that I didn’t have time to do when I had a regular job!” And for the first year, I tried. It was an embarrassment of riches. I dashed here and there, willy and nilly. And at the end of that first year I realized that I had made myself a bit nuts. My routine had collapsed. I was so busy doing all the other stuff, I wasn’t doing what I quit my job to do. Since then, I’ve worked hard to re-establish my routine.
I thought about all that the other day when I read about Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Currey believes that having a routine is crucial to any kind of creativity, and he gives some good examples:
There is my favorite artist, Georgia O’Keefe. She would rise every day at dawn and take a brisk stroll. She always carried a sturdy walking stick because there were rattlesnakes in her New Mexico neighborhood. I suppose keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes will do wonders to keep you focused while you stride along. After the walk and a bit of breakfast, she would head to her studio. She didn’t let the other details of her life get in the way of her painting. She managed it all with an unwavering routine.
It would be hard to imagine a more successful classical composer than Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His routine was similar to O’Keefe’s. He rose early, ate breakfast, and went to his creative work. He would take his lunch, then a walk, and finally another session with his music.
For those two successful creators, and many others, routine is key. And it’s interesting to me that O’Keefe and Tchaikovsky included a daily walk. Ideas can sneak up on us when we least expect them, often when we’re engaged in some relatively mindless activity such as putting one foot in front of the other, being quiet, enjoying the outdoors.
I think kids benefit from routine. Our household lives are often chaotic, with young and old dashing in and out, the home just a momentary waystation enroute to the next activity. But parents find that when they establish routines, and get the young folks to settle into them, things get calmer for everybody. Okay, darlings: you can count on this thing happening at this time every day. Kids don’t do well with uncertainty, and routine works against that.
We grownups would benefit from more routine. What are the things that are really important in our lives? And how can we arrange the rest so that we can get at the important stuff? Routine helps separate wheat from chaff.
I’ve heard it said that successful writers, at heart, are incredibly dull people because they want to do the same thing at the same time every day. But that’s the way the work gets done. A good writer arranges life so that creative time is carved out of the day and it’s sacrosanct. If having a routine makes you dull, maybe we should all be a little more dull.
William Faulkner once said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ’Ode On A Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” It was a crude way of putting it, but Faulkner had his priorities straight. He didn’t let old ladies or anything else get in the way of his writing. And I’ll bet money he had a good routine.