A snippet from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal, which we will return to later:
All of my comfort lately has been found in my work. Cutting and pasting and typing and drawing and cutting and blogging and reading. Feeling grateful for what art can do. How you can disappear into a tiny room and make your own world. How you sit down with a blank page and fill it with your hands and at the end there’s something in the world that wasn’t there before. That simple, basic thing.
I am also grateful that I have a repeatable process of making and sharing work. Every day has been the same for the past three years: I write in my diary, and (almost) every day, I post something to this blog. Something private, and something public. And then every week, I send out a newsletter, and eventually enough days stack up that I can put out another book.
I have written about this process many times on this blog but it bears repeating, because repetition is its subject. And come to think of it, all of the books in my trilogy have this subject as their basic spine that supports them: that it is the daily work that accumulates over time into something substantial. (Someone asked me to distill all of my books into one piece of advice, and, off the top of my head, I said: “Try sitting down in the same place at the same time for the same amount of time every day and see what happens.”)
There’s a really beautiful entry in Anne Truitt’s Daybook (January 24, 1975) where she’s grappling with the idea of “industry” in art. “To work is simply not enough,” she writes, “But we have to act as if it were.” She says artists can control the throttle of how hard they work.
Their development is open-ended. As the pressure of their work demands more and more of them, they can stretch to meet it. They can be open to themselves, and as brave as they can be to see who they are, what their work is teaching them. This is never easy. Every step forward is a new clearing through a thicket of reluctance and habit and natural indolence. And all the while they are at the mercy of events. They may have a crippling accident, or may find themselves yanked into a lifelong responsibility such as the necessity to support themselves and their families. Or a war may wipe out the cultural context on which they depend. Even the most fortunate have to adjust the demands of a personal obsession to the demands of daily life.
Truitt then lists how often she had to make these “tricky” adjustments, navigating her marriage and the raising of her three children in mid-20th century America.
I had formed the habit of working in my studio almost every single day. Rain or shine, eager or dragging my feet, I just plain forced myself to work. This habitual discipline came up under me to support my revved-up schedule. I simply got up every morning and worked straight through the day in one way or another, either in my household or in my studio… If there were fifteen minutes between shopping and carpool, I used them. If I had an hour, or two hours, I rejoiced, but didn’t even waste time feeling happy, just worked.”
How did she do it? With “a stubborn feeling… that you just had to keep on going no matter what, and in the face of not knowing what the results would be.”
As a kind of compliment to the hordes of people abandoning or rethinking their blogs, yesterday my friend Heather Havrilesky tweeted about the Substack newsletter service, and how it can be a place where writers can grow and experiment and supplement their income when the world goes off the rails and the regular gigs aren’t there.
(“Finding a way to experiment while slowly building an audience is invaluable,” she wrote, basically summarizing the gist of Show Your Work! “You don’t have to become the embodiment of self-promoting cyborg shill to make a living. You just have to repeat yourself a little — which, as a writer, is admittedly repellant. But people don’t know who the fuck you are or what you’re doing most of the time. Accept it. It’s gross and it’s also just *necessary* to remind people what you do.”)
That word “regular” is interesting: yesterday I posted a zine about bowels and waste and digestion. An artist needs to stay “regular,” to keep the system going, to keep from the mental constipation that comes from not writing. To have something to write for, something we are accountable to, whether it be a blog or a column or a newsletter, is a great help.
I love my weekly newsletter, but it’s not enough of a deadline to keep me regular. I need daily work. Little daily deadlines.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was really good at writing about days. He even wrote a poem called “Days”:
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, or sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
He had high hopes for his days. The stakes of the day were high. “He came early to the knowledge that every day is the Day of Creation as well as the Day of Judgment,” writes his biographer, Robert Richardson, in the book, First We Read, Then We Write. You can tell he felt failure a lot, and he had worked through a system for being okay with a day that didn’t feel good. (Larkin: “Where can we live but days?”)
Emerson wrote that you work, each day, off the days you already have behind you:
A man must do the work with the faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. That which you have done long ago, helps you now. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done, is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in barren days, in days of depression and calamity.
Most importantly, I think, is what Emerson wrote about not knowing the value of days until later. “We do not know today whether we are busy or idle,” he wrote. “In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.”