I used to lust after quirky artist routines. Maya Angelou would write in hotel rooms from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. with nothing but a dictionary, a Bible, and a bottle of Sherry. Patricia Highsmith would avoid anything that smacked of discipline, writing in bed with cigarettes, coffee, and doughnuts. Chuck Close loved to listen to juicy political scandals on the news while he painted to distract him from being anxious.
I love both the weirdness of the routines and the fact that these artists need them. They are deliciously flawed humans. In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a book a friend recently gave me, I learned that Flaubert didn’t sit down to write until 10 p.m. after eating several leisurely meals with his family, taking strolls, and chatting with his mother. W.H. Auden adhered to a military schedule but needed amphetamines to stay awake and sedatives to fall asleep. Miro’ chased away depression by following a strict schedule that included working from 7 a.m. to 12, Swedish gymnastics at noon, and lunch at 1 followed by coffee and exactly 3 cigarettes.
All these machinations to coax one’s creativity make me feel more normal. I always wanted to be someone who laid words on paper as if being dictated by God, but as Anne Lamott pointed out, “One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.”
During the pandemic when society collapsed, I wrote anywhere, but now I only seem to be able to write in the similar darkness of the early morning. At 11:30, I eat the same inexplicable lunch every day — 2 rice cakes with cheese melted on top and 1 with peanut butter and jelly. From 12:30 to 2:30, I read and nap before the children come home from school. I usually can’t do any more writing for the rest of the day, except if I’m lucky, maybe some journaling.
You must have an eccentric schedule too or writers block or artist’s anxiety. Maybe you can only work at night like Steve Reich, maybe you thrive in chaos like Francis Bacon. Maybe you need to work on a computer not connected to the internet like Francine Prose, who said, “When the writing is going well, I can work all day. When it’s not, I spend a lot of time gardening and standing in front of the refrigerator.”
Chopin would receive music in a flash of insight, but would lose it and spend days weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, and rewriting bars a hundred times. Gertrude Stein needed to gaze at cows and rocks while writing, but usually was never able to write more than a half an hour a day.
Try writing a summary of your creative habits — or your rebellion against habits. Pretend you’re being included a book of artists and their rituals, and write in the third person. Do you feel more dignified in your oddness? Is it possible that your problems are also solutions?
I see our idiosyncrasies not as shortcomings anymore, but as the specific and magical ways we eke out a few lines or notes. Whatever you do, there is order in your madness. You are part of a long line of artists who are doing their wacky best to create.