Creative professionals often talk about how you can’t wait for inspiration, and this is true. You have to work even when you don’t have inspiration if you really want to complete a project.
And what of the times when you do have inspiration, but you can’t devote that time to your creative project?
I mentioned a few weeks back that ten o’clock is when I am most productive. It’s when I reliably get a rush of ideas coupled with the energy to write them down—key ingredients for that magical state called flow. Sadly, because I work what our society has designated “full time,” I spend day after day of ten o’clocks stuck in a cubicle, being paid to focus on something else as ideas gush out from between my ears and pool into puddles all over my desk.
“Carry a notebook!” is one tip that you’ll often hear, and I do that. At ten o’clock, though, it’s easier to open up an email to myself and take 15 minutes or so to sketch out my ideas, if only so they’ll leave me alone and I can return to what I’m supposed to be doing. But even apart from my professional obligation, this is my personal gold, and I’m desperate to catch as much of it as I can before it gets away, in the hopes that I can work with it later.
Unfortunately, by the time I get home, the gold has long since stopped flowing. I’m often exhausted and reluctant to stare at a computer screen any longer, though I sometimes try. As I write this on September 13 at 9 p.m. sharp, I’m actually piecing together some notes that I jotted down some days ago, but I’m pretty tired, and it’s not really clicking. Meanwhile, my email inbox is overflowing with seeds of post material that I have the desire but not the energy to weave and polish in the evenings.
This forces me recognize that I’ll never succeed in my goal of being a functioning creative writer if I can’t regain control of my ten o’clocks on more than just one to two days a week.
For me, that is a terrifying thought.
While studying Russian a while back, I came across a reading in the New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown that talked about the daily life of composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Here, I typed it out in Russian, because Russian is fun:
Он вставал в восьмом часу утра, до девяти занимался английском языком и читал. В половине десятого приступал к работе. Работал Петр Ильич до часу дня. Час обедал, а затем ровно два часа гулял. Гулял обязательно один, так как во время прогулок почти всегда сочинял музыку. С пяти до семи Петр Ильич снова работал. После работы гулял или играл на фортепьяно. В восемь часов подавался ужин. После ужина Чаиковский проводил время гостями, а если гостей не было, читал. В одиннадцать шел в свою комнату, писал письма и перед сном снова читал.
For those not quite so pumped about code-switching, here’s how Tchaikovsky spent his days:
He got up at eight, and until ten, he studied English and read. At half past ten, he got started with his work, and continued until 1 p.m. That’s when he ate lunch, and then took a two hour walk. He necessarily walked alone, because he almost always composed music while he was walking. From five to seven, Pyotr Ilich (i.e., Tchaikovsky) worked some more. After work, he walked or played the piano. At eight o’clock, dinner was served. After dinner, Tchaikovsky spent time with guests, or if there were no guests, read. At eleven he went to his room, wrote letters, and before sleep, he read.
Wow. This would be pretty much my dream daily routine, and it’s close to what I do when I have a full weekend day to myself: get up earlyish, read; start working when ideas start rolling in (reaching peak velocity at about 9:50, almost like clockwork); then write until hunger interferes, usually at about one. Next comes physical activity, generally swimming, at which point ideas start replenishing themselves. (Max is actually making me a waterproof notebook for this very purpose. Isn’t Max great? Yes, he is.) Then more working on the project of the day. After that, I don’t mind doing something different, which usually means cooking, though bonus points if someone else is making dinner. And then social time in the evening, or back to the bookies and relaxing (which actually usually means doing dishes and other chores). Evenings, alas, simply aren’t naturally productive for me. While one has to work around that sometimes, the fact that other times are conducive to magic productivity adds a layer of frustration.
This made me wonder how similar the schedule of other people with a innate, powerful creative impulse would be to this pattern, if only those people had such control over their time.
Then, several months after reading of Tchaikovsky’s schedule, I stumbled across an article on the Huffington Post about the behaviors and habits of creative people. While the whole thing was easy to relate to, one part relates directly to the topic at hand:
[Highly creative people] work the hours that work for them.
Many great artists have said that they do their best work either very early in the morning or late at night. Vladimir Nabokov started writing immediately after he woke up at 6 or 7 a.m., and Frank Lloyd Wright made a practice of waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. and working for several hours before heading back to bed. No matter when it is, individuals with high creative output will often figure out what time it is that their minds start firing up, and structure their days accordingly.
Ah, so this is a noted phenomenon. I’m not nuts! Or at least, I fit a nut profile. Hooray!
Side note: perhaps some of you think that we “creative” people (oh geez, that’s such a culturally loaded word; I mean it as neutrally as possible) are just “trying to be weird,” but we generally don’t have to try. So it’s actually nice to see that we are, in fact, not wholly “original.” Solidarity forvever!
So, creative friends, I pose the question: what is to be done? For those of you who get that it’s not hyperbole when I say I really must do this, as fervently as I must eat (and eating gets pushed aside as long as my blood sugar holds out), what do you do about it? We can’t all be as fortunate as Tchaikovsky. Some creative types are able to make a living selling their idea puddles, but many of us have to work 9-5, or if we’re not doing so, we spend our time looking for an opportunity to spend our time working 9-5. Others are parents. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have kids; the question of time weighs into that calculus, though I’ve heard of parents who somehow, with supreme determination, make their creative lives work.
This is part of why I question the 40 hour week overall, but until we succeed in altering the established paradigm, those of us who have this extra need in life—the need to create—have to make do. Even a little more time, or a little more freedom to arrange our schedules would help.
Personally, though it’s a bit scary to step out of the prescribed career track (especially for anything other than child-rearing demands), I’m thinking about asking my boss if I could arrange an alternative work schedule for at least a couple days a week. In my dream world, rather than getting a raise, I’d prefer to keep my current salary and have them slowly shave off hours. That, of course, is not what employers prefer, as we accumulate more and more expertise in our 9-to-5 existence and become more valuable in the office.
So it seems that, as all people really driven to create already know, there will be a trade-off somewhere. How have you managed that? How do you make space for creative projects? Have you been able to change the world around you to any small or great effect?
In the meantime, I’ll let you know how my efforts to exert control over my daily routine pan out.