I doodled this checklist after seeing a Goethe quote that pops up from time to time: “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” Sounds good to me!
Funny thing is, Goethe never spoke or wrote it as actual advice — it’s a line of dialogue by Serlo, a theater manager, in his novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship:
[Serlo] was wont to say: “Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason,” he would add, “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
Serlo’s advice is about appreciating, not creating, which is one reason why I like it so much — appreciating (input) is the first step towards creating (output), and too often today we emphasize output over input.
Goethe himself doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would make a checklist for his input, and especially not his output. The entry in Daily Rituals tells us that towards the end of his life he wrote in the morning, “when I am feeling revived and strengthened by sleep and not yet harassed by the absurd trivialities of every day life,” but he felt that he couldn’t get much done if he wasn’t feeling inspired, or was in an unproductive mood: “My advice therefore is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”
This is quite different than the common advice you hear from writers today (myself included!) who admonish us to write a little bit every day no matter what, although, there are some wonderful modern writers, like Marilynne Robinson, who are “incapable of discipline”:
I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me.
(“That work ethic thing”! She’s so great.)
Productivity and creativity often get confused — anybody who has done creative work knows that good ideas often come when one is least productive. Everybody does it differently: some writers need inspiration before they sit down, and some writers need to sit down for the inspiration.
What seems universally true is that we could all use a little song, a good poem, and a fine picture in our daily routine. (Speaking a few good words seems entirely optional.)