A Routine Post

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My previous post discussed Twyla Tharp’s practice of “scratching” for creative material and how it supports the Process. But a part of her philosophy I can’t follow is her advice to “Maintain the White Hot Pitch.” For Tharp, “Scratching is not about control or repose. It’s about unleashing furious…energy and watching it bounce off everything.” Of course she is a legendary Creative Full-Timer, and her work is her whole day, her whole self. My life as a CPT, not to mention my nervous system, doesn’t work that way. I need “control and repose” to have a healthy and creative life. My nature is not full-time fierce, I’m afraid, and I also like to watch several detective series. Oh, and I have two jobs. After reading her book, I pondered this contrast.

I wanted to explore more artists’ habits and found Mason Currey’s 2013 book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, an enjoyable, all-you-can-eat buffet that includes many types of creatives across centuries. His spirited introduction states “my focus…was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought…But one’s daily routine is also…a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources…” Ah, Gentle Cuz. He also quotes the writer V. S. Pritchett on how “great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.” Can I rest my head in VSP’s lap and hold Currey’s hand?

But as it turns out, there are the strugglers, the time-wasters, and the differently-calibrated out there: William James, Franz Kafka, Samuel Johnson, and Gertrude Stein, who gave creatives the Best Quotation Ever, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Hey, these people still produced, right? Currey offers plenty of evidence that there’s “infinite variation” in how to make Art happen. Of course, there is always that difference between Those who Actually Do Not Do Anything but their Art, and Those who Have To Do Things other than Art. Era, material resources, gender, choice, and other human things do factor into routine and ritual possibilities.

Some of that infinite variation follows in a breathless jumble:

Poet W.H. Auden lived adamantly by the clock, his daily routine down to the minute. All day, every day. But he took amphetamines every day, too, to maintain it, and stood behind that choice.

Anthony Trollope, whose novels are long, hit the desk at 5:30 every morning and would “allow myself no mercy,” writing for three hours, two hundred fifty words every fifteen minutes. And then stopped work. For the day. He had his mother to inspire him: in his youth she cared for an ill husband and six kids, had to write for money, and hit the desk at 4:00am every day. (And there’s Ginger, as they say, doing everything Fred does, backwards, in heels.)

Author Thomas Mann closed himself in his study at 9:00am, at which point the door did not open and the whole family fell silent until noon. Joan Miro’s day included five morning hours of painting, rigorous exercise, lunch, exactly three cigarettes and a five-minute nap, before he began painting again at 3:00. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, walked, drank coffee, and wrote. He had more than fifty different cups and saucers.

Gertrude Stein wrote about half an hour a day, sometimes outdoors, and firmly believed that thirty minutes of real work every day adds up. (Are we listening, CPTs?) Novelist Francine Prose once said the world “will pay me to do anything BUT write.” The price of fame. She secludes herself in the country when she can, where she finds she is either working productively or “standing in front of the refrigerator.”

TS Eliot had a job at a bank and later at a publisher. Although poet Ezra Pound set up a scheme to crowd source his comrade in the 1920s, Eliot kept the day job. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Wallace Stevens worked in insurance. Lucille Clifton wrote poems at the kitchen table in a house full of children. WB Yeats made sure he wrote his poetry two hours a day, and read, and engaged in outdoor leisure, but he claimed never to have “done more than five or six good lines in a day.” Of the articles he wrote for money, he said, “One has to give something of one’s self to the devil that one may live.”  Brrrrrr.

Maya Angelou favored writing in a hotel room during the work day, 7:00-2:00, with “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry.” Whee. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote mornings and sometimes afternoons, unless he wanted to watch a sunbeam move across the floor for the second half of the day. Whee again: see Stein quotation above about doing nothing. Hawthorne also held his share of day jobs, so give him a break. Georgia O’Keeffe had painting days and “other things one imagines one has to do” days for everyday and social stuff, all rushed through to “get at the painting again.” Nature writer Edward Abbey had a quiet shack for bouts of work and then long, gloomy vacations between books. He hated to write under pressure, but it was the only thing that made him write.

Novelist Bernard Malamud thought there was “too much drivel” about rituals. “You write by sitting down and writing…you suit…your nature,” he said, concluding, “The real mystery to crack is you.” So I’m working on the mystery of Me, and working on a post about that work. And feeling empathy for Franz Kafka, who wrote “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through…” What are YOUR rituals/routines/wriggles in your CPT Life? What makes them work, or not? Inquiring blogger wants to know!

 

 

 

An Itch to Scratch

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Does the same person ever “wow” and also frustrate your Creative Self? When I want to chew on the sore tooth of How Creative I Have Not Been, I think of 18th-century novelist Samuel Richardson. I love him: he’s one of the first novelists in the English language, and he’s epic and awkward, complex and beautiful, and tender and humorless, and he wrote, among other things, three versions of the 1500-page Clarissa. Now, SR had a day job as a printer and a large family and household. 1500 pages. Three versions. Without. A. Keyboard. I can just hear the dip-and-scratch-and-dip-and-scratch of…what, a sharpened feather?! And what have we accomplished this week, O CPTs?

Recently I found another Inspiration who is a little overwhelming, the genius dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, who wrote The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. Fascinating woman. Fabulous book. She is a CFT enough for three lives; it is her whole life. I can’t copy her all-consuming habits of art, and I’ll write about that in another post, but I’d like to quote her on the Creative Process:

Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity…I have a habitual routine to keep me going. I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing…digging through everything to find something…Scratching takes many shapes. A fashion designer is scratching when he visits vintage clothing stores…An architect is scratching when he walks through an art quarry…You can scratch through books…It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…” and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.

She starts with some basic useful statements, ends up talking to the gods, and showers sparks of creative Possibility on busy CPTs, reminding us the everyday, ordinary world is flammable, so set it on fire like the sacred gift it is. So far, I have blog-scratched the Community Gardens in my local park, Facebook, and my home, scratched all over the Boston Public Library, and scratched my friends. I just scratched my friend’s cat. I’m scratching Samuel Beckett, children’s books, a former professor, a hamster, and much of the eighteenth century. In my poetry, I see I have scratched everything from tree bark, to a documentary on Roman catacombs, to film noir, to a parking lot, to Lizzie Borden. And then I “wow” myself a little, and my world “wows” me, no matter how frustratingly Uncreative they can both seem some days. I make these silly lists, my attempt to express how dazzling and interconnected I find the world, but the truth is, the blog-scratching is helping the poetry. Being aware that I’m always scratching for the blog is lifting my writing up in all kinds of ways. A layer of rust and doubt crusted the poems lately, but I find it can be scratched off. So the blog scratches the poetry’s back, and the poetry, I’m sure, will scratch the blog’s in ways I don’t know yet. Who could ask for more as a CPT than to have one Creative Path support another? Thanks, Twyla.

 

Bohemian, Inside and Out

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This piece originally appeared as a Guest Post at Cynthia Staples’s inspiring Words & Images Blog. Check it out at wordsandimagesbycynthia.com!

 

“Oh, you see one tree, you’ve seen them all,” a woman once said to my grandmother, who had just remarked on a tree she found beautiful. Gram repeated the comment throughout my childhood as “the saddest thing I ever heard anyone say.” I think so, too, and I’m thankful for the gift of knowing why.

We took walks when I was a little girl, and even not so little, in our neighborhoods and on the beach. Often Gram would stop to look at something commonplace, such as weeds in a patch by the side of the road. Isn’t it amazing, she would say, how Nature creates so many shapes of leaves in just this one place? Eventually I reached the age of impatience with what grown-ups noticed that wasn’t rare blue beach glass or a good climbing tree. But even when I felt impatient, I knew I could see what she was talking about. I don’t know if Gram believed in God, certainly not in a kindly God, but she did deeply believe in Nature, wonderful and endlessly giving. If you looked at it that way. And I do, and I have to, despite all the other ways my eyes still need to open. Her view was one of my starting places, creatively and spiritually.

Recently a latent love for bohemian style has sprouted in me, thanks in part to author and blogger Justina Blakeney. I stay up too late turning pages of her new book and feeling out of breath. Justina defines bohemian style as the product of “a creative life and an active engagement in the search for alternative ideals of beauty…Our worldly collections are as eclectic as we are…Decorating is about feeling free, having fun, rejecting traditional notions about what goes with what…and getting a little bit wild.” [I’m quoting from her introduction to The New Bohemians: Cool & Collected Homes. UNputdownable.] Even my 1906 copy of Putnam’s Handbook of Etiquette warns New York High Society about the habits of “Bohemia”, over there in Greenwich Village, beyond “the borders of wise convention”, definitely over the edge and unacceptably wild.

Her book was in my mind recently on a walk through the Fens, one jewel in the Emerald Necklace of green spaces that loops through Boston. It has a wide area of community gardens, where dozens of people fulfill their own visions with flowers, trees, bushes, berries, vegetables, bamboo, grasses, and leafy plants. It is a wonderful place to open my grandmother’s eyes, to see the shades and shapes Nature creates in just one corner of a park, sometimes helped along by a little human artistry: a painted gate, a statue, a purple disco ball. On this walk, my looking as I was taught to look revealed Nature, to my joy, as The First and Ultimate Bohemian. Everything goes with everything, so feel free and always be a little bit wild.

I challenged myself to photograph the gardens in December, without most of the flowers to help, and still found colors and forms running madly, beautifully together, eye-catching contrasts of silhouette, especially as I lost the light, and small places full of texture and depth. Thanks, Gram.

And thanks, Cynthia!