It’s not easy to sit down every morning with next-to-nothing and try to make something appear. But we do it because doing it beats not doing it.
It’s not easy to sit down every morning with next-to-nothing and try to make something appear. But we do it because doing it beats not doing it.
Madeleine Dore interviewed me for her site Extraordinary Routines:
With his daily life currently in flux while on a two month tour for his latest book, Keep Going, writer and artist Austin Kleon has been thinking about how to create a portable version of his routine.
“I think routine is so important, especially when you’re getting started creatively, but for me right now, I almost need checkboxes and rituals more than I need routine.”
Currently, the daily checkboxes include writing in his diary, publishing a blog post, taking a walk, and reading a book.
Such a sequence has been influenced by the ‘the two Davids’ – Henry David Thoreau and David Sedaris, who essentially share the same approach to the writing process. That is, spending a large majority of their day walking. “Thoreau took these insanely long four to eight hour walks and then he would come back and write about them. Sedaris will wake up in the morning and will write in his diary for a couple of hours about the day before. Then he walks and picks up trash on the street for seven or eight hours a day.”
This repeatable process of collecting ideas, recording them in a diary, and then turning findings into public lectures and books is something Austin has duplicated in his own way. “I always keep a pocket notebook on me, and then I diary in the morning, and then create a blog post, and those blog posts will become talks, which then become books. You don’t have to worry about what to write about, you just write every day and things begin to develop.”
Whether in the form of checkboxes or a routine, this process makes the morning hours crucial to his creativity. “The most important thing for me to do is to write my diary and to write a blog post. If I have done that, then the day in some ways is a success.”
Read the rest of our interview here.
Part of what I discovered, particularly about being a novelist, is writing a novel works best if you can do the same day over and over again. The closer you can come to Groundhog Day, you just repeat that day. You set up a day that works for yourself.
Want to be an artist? Watch Groundhog Day.
I made this list when my oldest was only 3. He’s 6 now.
Before I closed his bedroom door last night, I said, “Happy reading!”
“Happy… whatever it is you do after I go to bed,” he said.
“Goodnight!” I said, smiling and tiptoeing away…
This schedule went viral on Twitter with the caption: “Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing routine is the ideal writing routine.”
It’s a lovely, lovely thing, but it should be pointed out that it was an “ideal” routine for her, too, as she says in the 1988 interview it’s excerpted from. (Left out: “I go to bed at 10:00 p.m. If I’m at the beach there would be one ore two long walks on the beach in that day. This is a perfect day for me.”)
I’m sure that life got in the way a lot for her, just like it does for all of us. In fact, I was just thinking about her take on interruptions the other day when a mother wrote to me about the crush of having young kids and trying to work. I sent her this quote:
“Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades…”
I love how her schedule doesn’t exclude mundane ordinary things like housework or dinner. “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again,” she said. “This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”
I also love how much time is set aside for reading. (Stephen King says he writes all morning and reads all afternoon.) It’s too easy when you’re writing full time to feel like you should stuff every single minute with writing, even when you know reading is a huge part of your job.
“Don’t feel guilty if you spend the first 90 minutes of your day drinking coffee and reading blogs,” Nate Silver once advised young journalists. “It’s your job. Your ratio of reading to writing should be high.”
Even after you achieve great things, that guilt might still linger. Here’s director Paul Thomas Anderson:
I still have trouble reading a book during the day because it somehow feels indulging… You know, like oh, my – this is so naughty. I’m actually reading at 10 o’clock in the morning. I think it’s just your upbringing – something about like you got to go to work, and you’ve got to – and move on. And still even – this is how I make my living. I still feel guilty. 10 o’clock, I mean – and it’s – but I’ve sunken into the pleasure of it – to think, my God, I’ve got my life in a way where I can read a book in the middle of the day.
I love that last sentence so much. I’ve always thought a great question for sorting out your life is: “What do you want your days to look like?”
A sampling of one of Leonardo’s to-do Lists:
Raymond Carver loved to quote Isak Dinesen, who said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.
“Someday,” he wrote, “I’ll put that on a three-by-five-card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.”
I stole his idea for my bliss station:
EVERY DAY, WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT DESPAIR.
His widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, said these words were a “quiet banner of determination” that flew over the last decade of his life.
They are now my banner, and they can also be yours, if you like.
Carver, when asked about the impact he thought his work would have on people, was extremely skeptical about the possibility that his stories and poems would profoundly change the world or save anything in it. Of his art, he said:
It doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.
That “steady glow, however dim” reminds me of the gospel song we used to sing in Sunday School: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” It also reminds me of Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (If you don’t have your own light, you can reflect someone else’s — just don’t be Human Vantablack.)
I, too, am skeptical that my work will actually make any kind of lasting impact. To believe such a thing, when one considers the span of cosmic time, seems downright delusional. And, frankly, I no longer need my work to change anything — I just know I need to do it.
I often think of my favorite line from Groundhog Day:
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
How you answer that question is your art.
The chances are good that if you’ve recently graduated, you’re broke and living with your parents. (Cheer up: you’re in the majority.)
Here are 5 things you can do right now that will make your life better and won’t cost you much:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
This is especially important if you’re unemployed. A structureless life is a depressing life. Our days work better when they have a reliable shape. Grab a copy of Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals (if you can’t afford it, see #2 on this list) and read about the daily routines of famous artists, scientists, and creative people. Take inspiration from them. Cobble together your own daily routine and stick to it. As tempting as it is to sleep in, train yourself to get up early and do the thing that’s most important to you. (When you do something small every day, the days add up.) And at the end of the day, take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice to his own daughter:
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library… I discovered that the library is the real school.
School can burn you out on reading because you’ve been stuck reading a ton of books you didn’t choose for yourself. Now’s the time to jump in and fall in love again, by reading the stuff you actually want to read. (“Read at whim!”)
A lot of young people complain they don’t have money for books — get your butt to the library! If they don’t have the books you want, ask the librarian how you can request them.(You can start by looking for my books.) When you get to the library, you might find that they also have free, fast wi-fi, access to online eBooks and databases, and a rad DVD collection. Unlike Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, you can hang out there all day without buying anything and not feel bad about it. They also have a lot of resources for people looking for work. Go up to a librarian and ask them to show you around. You’ll make their day.
I set out to dispel daily depression. Every afternoon I get low-spirited, and one day I discovered the walk…. I set myself a destination, and then things happen in the street.
Walking is tremendous exercise for the body, the mind, and the spirit. Many of the great thinkers have built walking into their daily routines, for example, Dickens used to take epic, twelve-mile strolls around London and work out his writing. Hit the bricks. Find somebody with a dog who needs walked. Again, it doesn’t cost anything, and you never know what you’re going to see. (Maybe a “We’re Hiring” sign?)
Please, America, cook your own food. Heating is not cooking. Heating heats. Cooking transforms. It matters. And it’s not hard.
If you can cook for yourself, you can eat better and save a ton of money. Pick up some simple cookbooks when you’re at the library (try Bittman’s How To Cook Everything) and look up some YouTube videos. If you’re lucky enough to have a relative who’s decent in the kitchen, cooking is a nice way to spend time together, and cooking for them is a good way to pitch in for your free rent. For tools, start with a sharp knife and a cast iron skillet and go from there. (Tip: The easiest dinner in the world is roast chicken and potatoes.)
The point… is not to record what you already know about what happened to you in the last 24 hours. Instead, it’s an invitation to the back of your mind to come forward and reveal to you the perishable images about the day you didn’t notice you noticed at all.
Especially when you’re down-on-your-luck or just in between phases of your life, writing in a notebook can be the easiest way to feel like you’re accomplishing something.
Set a timer for 15 minutes and fill as many pages as you can, or, if you have plenty of time, do Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” exercise, and fill 3 pages every morning before you start your day. (And yes, you have to do it by hand.)
You might think you know what you’re thinking, but seeing your thoughts down on the page tells you what’s really going on inside your head.
A journal is also a great place to write down all the bad ideas, bad thoughts, and bad feelings you shouldn’t tweet.
Carry your journal around with you and write in it all the time: make notes in between job interviews, doodle while you’re watching Netflix, daydream about what you want out of life, etc. Any old notebook and pen will do, but if you have $10 or a generous parent, you can grab the journal I made.
Never throw out your journals — keep them, pull them out in ten years, and you won’t believe how far you’ve come.
* * *
Update: Here are 5 more pieces of advice for graduates…
It takes time to do anything worthwhile, but thankfully, we don’t need it all in one chunk. So this year, forget about the year as a whole. Forget about months and forget about weeks.
Focus on days.
The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.
There’s a reason many recovering alcoholics adopt “one day at a time” as their way of being. Here’s Richard Walker in Twenty-Four Hours A Day:
Anyone can fight the battles of just one day. It is only when you and I add the battles of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives us mad. It is the remorse or bitterness for something that happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.
Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a calendar method that helps him stick to his daily joke writing. He suggests that you get a wall calendar that shows you the whole year. Then, you break your work into daily chunks. Each day, when you’re finished with your work, make a big fat X in the day’s box. Every day, instead of just getting work done, your goal is to just fill a box. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
Every day, no matter what, I make a poem and post it online. Most days they’re mediocre, some days they’re great, and some days they’re awful. (Jerry Garcia: “You go diving for pearls every night but sometimes you end up with clams.”) But it doesn’t matter to me whether the day’s poem was good or not, what matters is that it got done. I did the work. I didn’t break the chain. If I have a shitty day, I go to sleep and know that tomorrow I get to take another whack at it.
The past couple of months, I haven’t worried too much about keeping a calendar, because I’ve got myself pretty well trained. But there’s always the temptation to skip a day, so when I moved into a new studio space last week, one of the first things I did was hang (a modified version) of one of these workplace safety scoreboard signs on the wall. We’ll see how long of a streak I can go on.
Anyways, if you make a New Year’s resolution, make it this: something small, every day.
Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done.
Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for the work?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies. You find it in the cracks between the big stuff—your commute, your lunch break, the few hours after your kids go to bed. You might have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show, you might have to miss an hour of sleep, but you can find the time to work if you look for it.
What I usually recommend: get up early. Get up early and work for a couple hours on the thing you really care about. When you’re done, go about your day: go to school, go to your job, make your family breakfast, whatever. Your teacher or your boss or your kids can’t take your work away from you, because you already did it. And you know you’ll get to do it tomorrow morning, as long as you make it through today.
Do the work every day. Fill the boxes on your calendar. Don’t break the chain.
And should you start to despair at your progress, always keep in mind the words of Harvey Pekar: “Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up.”
Happy New Year.
This site participates in the Amazon Affiliates program, the proceeds of which keep it free for anyone to read.