Books, Writing

Muck Raking

I am reading pornography. It is filled with cinematic zooms, a voyeuristic eye that scopes out the most intimate of movements, sensations, declarations. No reaching hand or roving eye escapes its notice. It’s not quite as T&A as you might think though. It’s literary productivity porn. I give you Mason Currey’s excellent collection, Daily Rituals.

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Who wakes early (Hemingway), who wakes really early (Murakami), and who never gets up at all (Proust). Who walks (Darwin), who dopes (Sartre), and who suffers for their art (pretty much everybody). It’s probably safe to say we’re all fascinated by how great artists work, the hope that in the details of the routine, in understanding the process, we might understand the work, or even hope to emulate it. The true pleasure of this book, though, is not in celebration of the output, but indulging the notion that your literary, artistic or musical greats might too be encumbered by the practice of everyday life. Combating noisy neighbours, allocating time to correspondence, making midnight phone calls, taking multiple daily walks, and smoking even more cigars are the stuff that great art is made of. Well that, and a few original and well-executed genius ideas.

One of my favourite parts, an idea that could account entirely for my interest in this collection, is the psychologist and philosopher William James’ insight about the importance of routine and habituation to a satisfying life:

“The more the of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” (p.81)

Are we overly obsessed with habit? Myriad recent publications focus on ideas about “life-hacking”: breaking habits, making habits, understanding habits, the psychology of scripted behaviours, beating procrastination, how to improve our willpower, how we rely too much on willpower… Is it, like the notion of “organisation”, list-making, time management, a trip to Officeworks before a deadline, just a placebo that gives us the sensation of accomplishment without requiring us to do anything of substance other than planning to do something of substance? Probably, we should be more concerned with the work. But then, aren’t these minute instants, the “how” of the work, the time we take our tea and how we take it, the matter our lives are made of? Speaking of tea, what of the Japanese tea ceremony, routine actions deployed in a mindful manner for a higher purpose, the arrival of the mind in the moment?

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. How to establish a routine, write more, be regular with my work and my ideas. Here be the weekly deadline, the impetus to think, and formulate full and grammatically correct sentences. I arrived at the idea after reading an old interview with Ann Patchett (having just finished reading one of her books, State of Wonder, the perfect novel for a week off work with a chest infection). Patchett described one of the most valuable lessons of her creative writing class:

“‘[Allan Gurganus’] lesson was how to work,’ she says. ‘We had to write a story a week, and a revision didn’t count. He said think of yourself as a pipe with a lot of muck in it and you have to get it out. The only way you can find out what you’re good at is to have written a ton of work. In the same way that if I was learning the cello I would understand that I had to practice hour after hour.'”

My pipes are full of gunk. My brain seems unable to form a thought into a coherent sentence, a paragraph, an essay because of all the muck (I think its technical name is the detritus of hours spent watching youtube videos of small mammals). So, this blog, a weekly ritual (comprised of smaller rituals of daily writing [i.e., daily hand-wringing and procrastination]), exists to sweep the chimney, so to speak.

Now, if only, like Proust, I could sleep until 4 pm and then have Celeste bring me a croissant.

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