Most writers need routines. But we also need inspiration. And those two items couldn’t appear more antithetical. Being “routinely inspired” or “inspired by routine” seems about as logical as being “programmed for spontaneity.” The two don’t mesh. So how does a writer craft a routine that cultivates inspiration?
Some would say you can’t.
Henry Van Dyke wrote, “As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge.” Isn’t that what artists are about: uncovering “new dimensions of the soul”? However, Van Dyke suggests that when routine “dictate[s] the pattern of living,” inspiration suffers. Formulas and systems may work for accountants, but artists require elasticity. You never know when the muse will strike. So the last thing you want to do is force her into “your schedule.”
But we need schedules. So isn’t it possible to make one that accommodates muses?
Kathryn Lindskoog seems to think so. In her wonderful book, Creative Writing, For People Who Can’t Not Write, she catalogs a plethora of peculiar ways that authors have sought inspiration.
If creativity is partly a matter of having the right brain waves going in the right part of the brain, what can a person do physically to enhance creativity? Many writers and thinkers have come up with ideas of their own. Bosset wrapped his head in furs, Schiller wrote with his feet in ice water and smelled rotten apples, Prouse lined his room with cork and kept the windows shut tight, Turgenev kept his feet in a bucket of hot water, Swinburne isolated himself, Oswald Sitwel wrote best in hotel bedrooms, Thackery wrote best inside the busy Athenaeum Club in London, Voltaire dictated while sitting in bed, Descartes and Rossini created flat in bed, Victor Hugo composed on top of a bus, Samuel Johnson thought best in a moving carriage, Trollope wrote in a train, Thackery and Sothey could get ideas only when holding a pen, Balzac drank poisonous quantities of black coffee, Tennyson got his best ideas in spring and summer, and Einstein got his best ideas while shaving. Woody Allen prefers to write on a bed, with no noise or music to distract him. Agatha Christie said that the best time for planning a book is when you’re doing the dishes.
If this collection of oddballs reveals anything it’s that inspiration has no blueprint. It’s as varied as the people who receive it. Which may be the key to how it is received. Whether it’s “doing the dishes,” submerging your feet “in ice water,” or drinking “poisonous amounts of black coffee,” you must find the routine unique to your creative muse. Some like listening to loud music; others want complete silence. Some like sitting in a mall, others prefer being locked in a study. The point is not “what works,” but ‘what works for you“?
I had a pastor friend tell me about the time he was confronted by a church member regarding his use of sermon notes. “If the Holy Spirit had really inspired you,” they objected, “you would not require notes.” To which my friend responded, “But the Holy Spirit inspires me when I write my notes.”
If inspiration is like lightening, then it strikes randomly, unpredictably. However, this should not prevent us from sending up kites whenever possible. Whether it’s A.M. or P.M., indoors or outdoors, seat-of-the pants writing or strict plotting — get that kite in the air! Like good ol’ Ben Franklin, you never know when that string will become a fiery conductor of your next “big idea.”
Sure, routines can become ruts. Your challenge is to maintain a writing routine without quenching that creative spark.
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Question: What routines have you found that uniquely inspire you? And how can you tell whether your writing routine has become a rut?