We gave up our subscription to the NY Times Sunday paper a couple years ago when our second daughter came around. To be honest, we should have canceled after having our first child. But we clung tight to the nostalgia of lounging decadent in bed deep into the weekend morning, sipping coffee to the crinkly rhythms of bending, folding, and straightening the newsprint. Even with one child our mornings began much earlier and never offered the leisure of settling into idle pleasures.
And so, as we chased little Clara around the house on Sunday mornings, those fat volumes of newspaper accumulated in an unread tower of information gathering dust in the corner of our bedroom. We wanted to read them. We yearned to read them! But the delight of lazy reading was turning into a nagging sense of obligation, seeming ever-taller each time we shuffled across our bedroom carpet. We might pound through a section late at night after putting our daughter to bed, but by then it felt like more of a clean-up chore than an act of relaxation. And the pile inevitably grew faster than we could shrink it.
So we canceled our subscription and tossed out all the back issues.
When my friend Josh offered me a complimentary copy of the NY Times Magazine this week, I shared it with my wife and we both confessed an immediate swell of envy. He has two kids like us, we thought, how does he keep up with the Sunday Times?! The universe seemed unjust.
Josh was not trying to taunt. He merely had an article he knew would interest me. He knows I have something approaching a stalker’s obsession with the productivity habits of creative people. We’ve discussed what we’ve learned about Stephen King’s routines in the past, and this article featured the entire King clan of authors. It was right up my alley.
The write-up on Joe King caught my attention in particular. Here’s how Owen King described his brother’s creative habits, already formulating in childhood:
I can remember being 8, and eventually everything [their playing] had to stop so he could write for two hours,” Owen recalls. It did not matter if Owen was perched on the edge of slaying some imaginary monster, his brother was off: “Gotta get my two hours in.” (1)
That devotion to his craft is identical to his father’s own daily practice of writing. Come hell or high water, with no exceptions for holidays or weekends, both are obsessive about maintaining their daily practice. Is it coincidence that both are accomplished and prolific writers? With these sort of commitments to creativity, I think not.
Writing, like any skill, requires practice to get better. But I don’t think it’s the writing part so much as it is the dedication to using your own mind to construct something…to develop thoughts…to combine concepts…to synthesize ideas. These activities are difficult, they require consistent practice, and yet your mind so often rebels against the hard work involved in that practice. You would much rather consume ideas than create ideas.
Consumption is infinitely easier than creation.
This pile of books growing in my bedroom has begun creating that same sensation I had when walking past the mountain of Sunday editions a couple years ago. I find my own compulsive needs nagging me to get through the entire stack. And I find myself wanting to sacrifice more of the precious morning time I dedicate to thinking and writing, wading through the pile instead to consume the thoughts of others who invested in their own creativity. All so I can scratch some itch that wants desperately – irrationally – to see that pile shrink; to cross each title off the “to do” list in my mind.
My solution? A new rule. Each morning, you must create before you consume. You must think and write for 45 minutes before you pick up one of those books.
It’s a far cry from Joe and Stephen’s two-hour daily writing ritual, but it’s a start. And it’s a way to exercise this creative muscle between my ears so it doesn’t slip on that dreaded slope of atrophy.
For the record, as a concluding confession, Josh tells me he no longer subscribes to the Sunday Times either. He swiped the magazine from his mother-in-law. So the universe seems just again. It also gives me some perspective on when to expect a return of those lazy weekend mornings….retirement.
(1) “Stephen King’s Family Business,” by Susan Dominus. Published July 31, 2013.