Curious Customs

In art school, me and my fellow students were told to always take a different route to school. My brain jumped with joy at the mention of this vital survival tip. Because: YES! You never know if someone is out to get you, so you mustn’t make it easy for them. Never leave at the same time and use the reflection in the windows to see what is happening behind you. Make sure you own several disguises – the ‘innocent schoolboy’ is still my favorite. And make sure you have a tranquilizer-pen on your person at all time. Use in emergencies only. These tips were given to you by a highly imaginative person and 007-wannabe.

But back to school: The real reason my teachers encouraged us to never use the same road twice, was because they wanted to encourage us to get rid of our routines. The idea was that this physical exercise would open up our minds to think creatively. Habits, they thought, are the opposite of creativity and make our brains lazy.

The idea was sympathetic. But the more biographies I read, the more I’ve come to realize that the most famous creative people on earth are quite stuck in their ways. Some of them have routines that are almost ritualistic in nature. Most of the daily custom, are rituals to get started for work. Other habits are an attempt to stave-off creative blocks. Let me give you a few examples:

An Actual Top 10! Well… 8.

1. Noises were the bane of Simon Vestdijk’s existence. In order to be able to work, every morning the Dutch novelist would put in ear plugs and then turn on his trusty Nilfisk vacuum cleaner to drive out all other sounds, so he could finally have some peace. Well… relatively speaking.

2. Beethoven started the day by personally counting the coffee beans that would make his cup of coffee. There had to be sixty. Not fifty-nine. Not sixty-one. Sixty was the magic number, or else the day would be ruined.

3. Maya Angelou also had a particular problem. In one of her interviews she stated: “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” To remedy this, she’d spend her working ours in a a small and sparsely decorated hotel room she paid for months in advance. The only things she took with her were her writing tools, a bible, a bottle of sherry and a deck of cards. The perfect writing atmosphere!

4. Balthus on the other hand, used to spend his mornings by meditating in front of an unfinished canvas for hours, while smoking. He once said that: “Smoking doubles my faculty for concentration. Allowing me to be entirely within a canvas.” And here we thought that there were no benefits to cigarettes!

5. Edvard Grieg, composer, once received a little frog figurine from a child in the audience. Since that day, the frog would go with him everywhere he went, safely tucked away in his coat pocket. No matter if he was conducting, composing, or performing… whenever Grieg had to go on stage, he’d rub the little frog’s head for luck. Apparently it worked.

6. Charles Dickens was very particular about his sleeping arrangement. His own bed was facing northwards. And whenever he was away from home, he would rearrange the furniture of hotel rooms or friends’ guest rooms to make sure the bed he would sleep in that night would also be facing north. He claimed that sleeping in this direction unlocked his creativity.

7. Picasso had a hard time throwing things away. Especially if things were related to him. Old clothes, fingernail clippings, or hair trimmings… he kept it all. Getting rid of it, he feared, would mean he’d lose part of his ‘essence’.

8. Theodor Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, had a unique method of dealing with writer’s block. Whenever he got stuck, he would open a secret closet containing his hat collection of hundreds, sit on the floor and put on one of those hats, until the creative juices would start flowing again.

Contrary to what my teachers believed, I think our brains need routine to function. Many successful creative people have rigid lifestyles (although often unconventional). I don’t think it’s the (superstitious) meaning we place on our rituals that give power to them. It’s the repetition.
If we start working at the same time each day, we slowly carve a ditch in our brain. This groove is dedicated to creative thinking, and all the knowledge, feelings and memories that are linked to our work. Habits create shortcuts to this information. There is a time and place, though. When working, we do want to have an open mind and this is where the tips of my teachers do come in place. Fun fact: Many writers and artists take long daily walks. Myself included.

It’s also vital to have habits/rituals that aren’t too limiting. If you can’t work unless you’re holding your favorite pen, that’s all fine and dandy, but what happens when you lose it? That’s dangerous. Never let a pen dictate your ability to work. Unless it’s a tranquilizer-pen. They’re vicious little bastards.

Could’ve Used A More Media-Friendly Ritual, Though

My own quirky habit revolves the state of my workshop. For one reason or another, I need my surroundings to reflect the state of my mind and the progression of my project. So, when I start something new, my workshop is as clean and tidy as it’ll ever be. Through the course of my work, my studio is slowly devolving into a dumpster Sesame Street’s Oscar would proudly call home. By the end I’m annoyed by the mess. It helps me to finish a piece, instead of continuing to work on tiny details nobody will notice.

Then it’s time for something new, and the first thing I do is pick up a mop. A new sculpture is like a blank slate. My mind is blissfully empty again. And I need my workshop to reflect that state. Cleaning vigorously is a ritual that allows me to say goodbye to the old and welcome the new.

We all have our peculiarities.

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