The Daily Routines of Aspiring Novelists
One warm summer evening, some years ago, I sat sipping cocktails with friends when we got to talking about our next billion dollar idea. The conversation was thoughtful and passionate. The ideas were flying. Apps. Games. Mobile. Social. Disruptive technologies that redefine life as we know it. We were onto something.
And then, out of the blue, this:
“Hey do you think you can shotgun a beer by inverting the can and pouring it down your throat?” says one brother-in-law to another.
“Pay me $20 and I’ll try.”
10 minutes later a group of grown men are standing with their heads tilted back pouring full cans of beer into their wide open mouths. Unfortunately, they’re too unsteady on their feet and can’t swallow the beverage fast enough, which means they’re essentially pouring cans beer directly on their faces.
So much for the billion dollar idea.
It’s kind of funny how screwy the mind can be. One second we’re dreaming the big dream and the next we’re back to our silly antics. I think about this every time I sit down to write. I fantasize about how amazing it would be to write this great book all the while thinking about how little I want to write the words.
Most mornings, I would rather pour beer on my face.
Dreams are Good, Change is Not
It’s a weird dichotomy. On one hand, we have this strong human desire to fulfill our potential, or to “self actualize” in psychology speak. On the other hand, we hate change. We like routine and safe and comfortable and out of this need for predictability we form these habits (physical, mental, emotional) that most of the time we don’t even realize we have.
So here we are, going through life wanting X (where X is whatever it is we aspire to have) but having to overcome Y (our habits), constantly caught between these two forces that pull us in opposite directions. Willpower might work in the short term, but over time, our habits always prevail.
Just think about all of those times you made New Years resolutions with all the resolve in the world only to give up after a couple of weeks.
Y wins. Every. Single. Time.
The only solution, then, is to change Y. Break the bad habits and form new ones – better ones, ones that serve us.
The Rituals of Famous Artists
I turned to the lives of the great writers, poets and artists hoping for some insight into the working habits of these great minds.
I read about Ernest Hemingway who would wake up each morning at sunrise to write, no matter how late he had stayed up or how much alcohol he had consumed the night before (they say he never got hungover).
And the poet W.H. Auden who would would start his day off with amphetamines, work, and then finish the day with several strong martinis followed by wine with dinner (lots of it) and then, a few sedatives to help him sleep.
There’s Marcel Proust who was a recluse and would work at night, in his bedroom, lying horizontally on his bed with his head propped up by a few pillows.
I read about dozens of others who, no matter how unhealthy, bizarre or unconventional their methods were, always made time to work every day, whether they wanted to or not, because they knew that making good art required consistency. This commitment to showing up every day, year after year, not out of willpower but out of habit, allowed them to develop their skills, push their limits, master their craft and create the works we know and love today.
There is no ideal rotation of the chair or perfect position of the desk clock… What counts, ultimately, is putting your backside in the chair… and clocking in the hours, psychoemotional rain or shine. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success. – Maria Popova from BrainPickings.org
Rituals at Home
I wake up at 5:30 every morning to write. There are no exceptions, no excuses.
Is it hard waking up that early? You bet. It takes all of the strength and energy I have to get up at that hour, only to have to sit and churn out horrible writing (I mean truly, bad writing).
In fact, it leaves me so mentally drained that I’ve gained a solid 7 pounds because I have nothing left in the way of dietary discipline. Sometimes I wonder if the pursuit of one goal has to come at the expense of another. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Auden, Joyce – those men were creative geniuses, but boy did they wreck their bodies.
Or, maybe it’s as simple as systematically building good habits, one at a time, so that they stack on top of each other such that, over time, we are equipped to pursue and achieve all of the things we dream of doing.
Until one day we find ourselves sipping cocktails on a warm summer evening – stress-free, chiseled, billions in the bank (obviously), discussing our latest adventures and philanthropic efforts with our equally self actualized friends, when the conversation dies down. We’re all thinking the same thing. What now? What else could possibly be left?
Finally, someone says:
“Hey do you think you can shotgun a beer by inverting the can and pouring it down your throat?”