What do you think the ultimate illusion is? I recently referred to control as the ultimate illusion. In the days since, I’ve changed my mind. Control isn’t so much the ultimate illusion as it is a kind of paradox. There are things over which we have some control, but I doubt we really can ever know the extent of that control. There are other things over which we only appear to have control. Finally, there are things over which we definitely do not have control. The events and encounters that fill our daily lives all fall into one of these three categories, but I submit those categorizations change all the time — whether daily, hourly, or by the second.
I’m always fascinated by hearing or reading artists, writers, and other creatives discuss their process. Everyone wants to know, “What is your process?” I’m amazed and a little curious when the process described is assumed by the audience to be always the same. I’m even more curious when the process described is presented by the artist as being always the same. Same time of day, same amount of time a day, same desk, same chair, same window. I’m amazed because that isn’t how process happens for me. To my way of thinking that isn’t process, so much as it is routine.
I recently came across a quote by Toni Morrison from a 1993 interview in The Paris Review in which, when asked about her writing routine, she answered, “I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced…I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job.” Morrison was also a mother. After she lost a grown son, Slade, to cancer, she stopped writing for awhile, setting aside an unfinished novel. Eventually, however, she took up her pencil again and did finish it. Ms. Morrison was a writer, you see. And she was many other things.
I think most of the people who are interested in learning about a creative person’s process eschew a “one-size-fits-all” approach to most things, and when I read Morrison’s words I was reminded of a fear that was triggered in me more than 20 years ago by the words of one of my most beloved and early writing mentors. She encouraged her students to find our writing routine. I was the mother of a toddler at the time. “Routine” was the goal every day, for my toddler’s sake as well as mine, but I knew what a tenuous grip I had on “routine” from the moment I awoke in the morning. When I expressed to my mentor that I was doomed if it came to pinning all my writing hopes on routine, we talked through it. She didn’t want me to mimic her routine, or anyone else’s. All she wanted me to do was always to be open and “available to the Muse.” She was advocating that we be familiar with our process. For her, a regular routine was very much a part of that process, but I have learned that just isn’t true for everyone.
I move through this world not only as a poet and writer, but also as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, dog owner, neighbor, and citizen who is not always organized, clear-headed, articulate, or inspired. We all have different roles to play at different times, and they require something of us. Similar to Morrison, I have an ideal routine, and unlike her I actually occasionally have experienced it. For several years, I would take myself away from my family and all other connections for a few weeks about once a year. A few weeks once a year. I could not sustain such a routine, however. It would have been irresponsible to do so, in fact. Still, I wake up every day with the outline of a productive routine in my head or down on paper. I also wake up every day knowing we live life in relationship with things and people over which we have no control. Mostly; sometimes; usually; never.
Recall my first post of this year. In it, I wrote it is time for me to claim my agency, and it is. I have also admitted being obsessed with my own habits and how to alter some of them. It’s difficult not to ponder things like control and choice when you look at your own habits. I’m discovering how habits differ from routines, just as routine differs from process. And thanks to Toni Morrison’s rediscovered words, I’m ready to accept the fact that routine need not always be part of my process; the truth of that last statement is proven by the fact that it hasn’t always been a part of it.
My process, with or without routine, ultimately requires me to be open and available to all my muses: Aggravation, Love, Fear, Grief, Mystery, Laughter, Pain, Forgetting, Pride, Uncertainty, and all the rest. We live it. Then we write it.