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I’m not a routine person. The idea of them depresses me—thinking about committing to one thing usually makes me feel like doing something else before I even begin. But this summer has been different. Our first child is due in September and for me, it feels like the strictest deadline I’ve ever had in my life. It’s not a deadline for any single project, just an overall, looming, your-life-as-you-know-it-will-be-over and there-will-be-wonderful-things-but-much-less-writing kind of deadline.
So, I’ve been teaching myself how to be a creative robot over the last few months. My husband is a fisherman and we spend part of the summer in Alaska where there are 20 hours of light a day and enough rain that you could write until you tapped your fingers down to nubs on the keys. Sometimes, though, there’s too much time here, and what I’ve realized I need are small chunks of time to create something that’s big enough to be worth reading.
In Aimee Bender’s essay, “A Contract of One’s Own” (guilty pleasure…I read it in The Oprah Magazine), she writes about her need for the right space in order to get the writing done. For her, that ended up being a small, dark closet where she could write for just two hours a day. For me, I don’t need the proverbial room of one’s own. I just need the time.
At the coffee shop here where I get my work done, you get a little receipt with 90 minutes of wireless time on it. You can get as many little receipts as you need, but you have to keep re-upping (and reordering lattes). So I reversed the system: I’ve been giving myself 90 minutes of non-wireless time. I write down the time when I can stop writing and I write just until that point, like the good little robot I am becoming. Two hours is too long for me, one hour isn’t enough. But 90 minutes is enough to bang out 1,000 tangled words on a good day, or at least know that I met my time-based quota on the bad ones.
This is no revelation, of course. I’m probably pretty behind the game in finding my time frame. But then I read this in Bender’s essay:
“If I start modifying the rules [of writing for two hours a day], the whole system begins to erode, and with erosion comes the fast return of dread and guilt. The integrity of the system itself is actually more important to me than the daily content, because content will return, and it mostly needs a reliable container in which to put itself.”
When I read that, I realized why it makes sense to have routines. It’s not just to get the work done; it’s to give the work a place to live.
Last year, I went to a retreat centered around the Jungian philosophy of containers for the self. Jung believed that there are two halves of life—during the first half, people (whether they know it or not) are trying to set up their “containers.” These containers might be careers, homes, belief systems, forms of art. For each person, their life container looks different. The second half of life is the time that we strive to fill these containers; it’s a time of finding, investigating, and saving the content that makes our lives make sense. There’s no magic checkpoint or age for transitioning into the second phase of life. I believe terminally ill children may very well spend the majority of their lives in the second-half phase. Others spend their entire lives in the first-half phase.
I think that writing must go through this two-phase process, as well. The container, like Bender points out, might be our routines or our systems—the comfortable, stable places into which we pour our words. It is on this normalized, knowable ground that the imagination is more comfortable setting foot and producing.
It’s like the sockeye salmon up here: they will practically transverse the entire Pacific Ocean in a year, but the place they’re most productive is within the confines of the place they know best: the tiny, still-water realm in the river where they were born. That’s where they return every July, bruising a bright red as they journey from salt water to fresh, sacrificing their silver skin (and, in the end, their lives) to lay all their eggs. Only by way of routine does their species survive.
Spawning season is a wonder to behold this time of year. It is organized and timed to the point of looking choreographed. I love how the sockeye are nearly maroon by the time they reach the river source, how they all come coursing up the current at the same time, how they can sling themselves upstream over waterfalls and fat logs of fallen deadwood to find that dark room at the bottom of the river where they just do what they are made to do and that is create. I doubt that they fear they won’t have eggs to lay, they just have to release them in the right, confined place. Like Bender says, the content will come, it’s the integrity of the system that ensures the content will thrive.
If salmon laid their eggs elsewhere or even a few weeks too early, the whole ecological dance would fall apart. Salmon fry wouldn’t survive if not nested in a place already mapped out for them by hundreds of thousands of years of timely repetition. Bears wouldn’t pluck the fish from the rivers on their way up; they’d come to town growling and hungry instead. Pretty much what I’m saying is without routine, we’d get eaten by bears and my husband would lose his business and I’d never write again.
I have found, lately, that my own writing is thriving much better in its 90-minute nest than it does when I have a whole day ahead of me to think about what I didn’t write. And maybe it’s a routine I’ll be able to manage shortly after I’ve come home to do a little spawning myself.
What routines do you use to keep the content coming?