The pro-creative ritual

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Dear Artist,

In 1726, at the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin outlined in detail a thirteen-week plan to achieve what he called “moral perfection.” Each week the schedule tackled a specific virtue — cleanliness, moderation, industry, tranquillity, temperance, etc. Franklin tracked his own progress in a little book. “What good shall I do this day?” read a morning chart. The precision of his scheme usually brought results, though areas where he struggled included keeping his papers tidy and his love of beer.

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W. H. Auden
photo by Mark B. Anstendig
Auden’s request was to be captured exactly as he was and to make it accurate, clear, and sharp.

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” wrote Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden in 1958. Auden believed that a strict schedule was essential to creativity — a way of metering the muse into regular, controlled doses. “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

Choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her 2003 book The Creative Habit, describes each day as the same: waking, consuming the same breakfast of three hard-boiled egg whites and a cup of coffee, putting on workout clothes and legwarmers, walking out of her Manhattan apartment, hailing a taxi and asking the driver to take her to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where she works out for two hours. “The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym,” she says. “The ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go, I have completed the ritual.”

“Being creative,” says Tharp, “is an everyday thing, a job with its own routines. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish a routine. The most productive ones get started early in the morning when phones aren’t ringing and their minds are rested and not polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal–1500 words or stay at their desk until noon–but the real secret is that they do this every day. After a while it becomes a habit.

“This is no different for a painter finding his way to the easel or a medical researcher returning to the laboratory. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration (perhaps more). And it is available to everyone. If creativity is a habit, then the best creativity is the result of good work habits. They are the nuts and bolts of dreaming.”

When reflecting on her own lifelong routine, Tharp is pragmatic. “It’s actively anti-social,” she says. “On the other hand, it is pro-creative.”

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a page of Benjamin Franklin’s 1726 schedule

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews
Not to be born is the best for man
The second best is a formal order
The dance’s pattern, dance while you can.
Dance, dance, for the figure is easy
The tune is catching and will not stop
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.” (W. H. Auden)

“Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.” (Benjamin Franklin )

Esoterica: For Auden, ritual meant rising at 6, making coffee, taking a pass at the crossword and beginning work. After lunch, he went back to his writing desk. Cocktails began at 6:30 sharp — vodka martinis, then dinner with wine, friends and conversation, then into bed by 11 o’clock. Brooklyn writer Mason Currey, in his 2013 book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, compiles the routines of 161 artists. “You owe it to all of us,” wrote W. H. Auden, “to get on with what you’re good at.”

 

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Headland

acrylic on canvas by John F. Burk, Maryland, USA



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