On Routine: Courting Our Creativity

There’s this romanticized image of being liberated of routine and living an impetuous life in such a way that creativity and freedom finally buck horns. But I feel this gives a very tainted view of routine, or creativity for that matter. Many fear routine for they believe it leads to plateau or stagnation. This is far from the truth.

I’m a big advocate for routine, and I’d argue the inverse of our fear is largely the truth—that our lack of routine is more often the catalyst for stagnation. Routine doesn’t have to jeopardize creativity or constrain freedom, in fact, I’ve found that routine when utilized correctly strengthens individual creativity and grants more freedom.

The issue is often rooted at structure, most believe structure inhibits creativity (by boxing it in). However, the truth is that creativity requires structure because creativity does not exist in a vacuum. Creativity is entirely situational and is dependent on substance, meaning it needs a space to exist and requires a medium or form to be brought into fruition. Those who rebel against the idea that creativity requires structure leave it up to chance for their ideas to align with both a space and a medium. In doing so, you’re essentially playing the lottery as you wait for luck to favor you. Even if you believe creativity doesn’t require structure, all your creative experiences are the result of happened structure. Rather than leaving things to chance, you can regularly provide structure to house creative spirit and allow it to flourish.

“Discipline is very important. I think we’re creative all day long. We have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page. Because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting, or just gets tired.” — Mary Oliver

In an interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, Mary Oliver described how she seemingly always gave second class work to her employers because she’d already given her primary focus to her writing in the morning between the hours of 5 to 9. It’s important to note that her routine for writing came long before she won the National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize. It was her routine of writing every morning that allowed her to become acquainted with her creativity. Mary views creativity as a part of us, but much like a friend, we must make the time to meet.

There’s a sense of relentlessness about the creative process in which we will fail many times before landing upon something that works, and it seems the best way to embody this ritual is through that of routine. In the same interview, Mary Oliver states, “I have very rarely, maybe four or five times in my life, I’ve written a poem that I never changed. And I don’t know where it came from. But it does happen. But it happens among hundreds of poems that you’ve struggled over.” While we’re all hoping to turn over the right card, the odds are always against us, and the only way to better those odds are to continually turn over cards.

Routine in comparison to pure relentlessness is much more approachable and sustainable. While we can continually turn over cards or slash through ideas, we must find a way to court our creative selves. This is what I enjoy most about Mary’s perspective towards routine and our creativity, it’s that she believes creativity requires courtship. With any relationship in our lives, it is up to us to keep in regular contact and interaction.

We can all admit that a friendship in which you always do the same thing can quickly grow stale especially if done routinely. As Mary would have it, our routine instead is meant to build a relationship of trust. Rather than developing a friendship built on doing the exact same thing, our routine enables us to form a foundation of trust in which risk and play take place.

In her 1994 Poetry Handbook, she beautifully describes the love affair between ourselves and our creativity within:

“If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself — soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Relationships, much like creativity, do not exist in a vacuum, and instead require both a space and medium. We must address and recognize the relationship which exists between us and our creativity otherwise we will drift apart.

Many times we are ambitious with our creativity, but when results fall short of our expectations we are disappointed. Often times our disappointment and failure to meet our own expectations stems from the fact that we’ve taken things too fast or were too sporadic in our relationship with creativity. If you aren’t regularly making the time to meet, the trust won’t be there.

We work our best when we’re confident in what we are doing. Hesitation causes us to hold back, and skepticism causes us to work with caution. But confidence gives our work conviction, and that’s exactly what we’re building when we develop a routine and are courting our creative selves.

When I first began writing, I struggled. I felt the creativity wasn’t there. I had no confidence in what I was doing, and everything was falling short of my expectations. It was with routine that I became acquainted with that part of my creativity. It was with the act of showing up everyday, that my creativity trusted me enough to step out of the shadows and reveal itself.

We often attach a negative connotation to routine because we are looking at it from the wrong perspective—we’re asking the wrong questions. Routine for many means monotony, but when we view it as the persistent act of showing up, it then embodies the foundation of trust. Most importantly, we must learn to see our creativity as a friend and not a commodity because when we address our creativity as a friend, we warm up to it, poke fun, experiment, and adventure rather than use it as a resource of exploitation.

If you have a distaste for the term routine, think of it as courtship. Make the time and consistently show up, and your relationship with creativity will soon blossom.