Judy Chicago's system for "psychic privacy"—plus, advice for a stuck writer

"So the thing is that I used to work 17 hours a day."

Welcome to the second issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Last week, we looked at Kurt Vonnegut’s “spiritually pooping” routine as a novelist and teacher. This week, the pioneering American artist Judy Chicago—and the debut of our advice column!

Judy Chicago (b. 1939)

The 80-year-old artist was in the news recently for The Female Divine, the enormous inflatable sculpture she created for Dior’s spring/summer haute couture show in Paris. In a 2009 interview, Chicago described her daily routine in Belen, New Mexico, where she lives and works:

So the thing is that I used to work 17 hours a day. And now I don’t have to work that much to accomplish a similar amount. . . . And I’m too old to work 17 hours. I can still do it if I have to, but I don’t like it, and I don’t want it, and it makes me grumpy, and there’s no reason to. So, you know, now my normal day is seven hours. I go to the studio, I work all day, then I exercise. . . . And then Donald [her husband] and I hang out with the kitties at night, watch movies. On the weekends, we do something, go see friends, visit something, you know. Have fun.

Chicago did not always have such an easy time reconciling her work and personal lives. In her 1975 autobiography, Through the Flower, she described the challenges of trying to work in the same house as her then husband, the sculptor Lloyd Hamrol, whose schedule was the opposite of hers. She wrote:

I liked to get up in the morning and go directly about my business, going into my studio without talking to anyone. Then I liked to work all day and go out at night. Lloyd, on the other hand, preferred to work at night, sleep later than I, and he loved to talk in the morning.

This proved problematic. But Chicago and her husband were able to come to an agreement—one that may sound pretty appealing to anyone attempting to work in the same space as their partner or spouse. “We worked out a system in which we could both have the psychic privacy we needed to do our work,” Chicago wrote. “We established ‘silent days,’ where we would pass each other and not speak. This allowed us to be in the house together without feeling that we had to be accessible to the other person’s needs all the time.”

Portrait (detail) from JudyChicago.org

The key to the arrangement, Chicago continued, was to be “very straightforward with one another.” If one person needed some time alone, it was simply a matter of saying so—then the other person would say “Sure” and make separate plans. “By 1971,” Chicago wrote, “we had worked out a relationship in which, although we struggle, we both understand the nature of the struggle.” Unfortunately, this arrangement did not prove entirely durable: By 1976, the couple had split up.


Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

For some years now I’ve been pursuing a career in the creative arts. I write, perform, and sometimes also produce and direct. I usually get stuck in the writing part. What advice have you found related to multitasking and focus in regards to getting a new work done? My mind is in very different parts at the same time, and I have problems making decisions. At this moment I’m particularly struggling with starting a new project: I have so many images, phrases, little ideas, notes, but I can’t decide where to start and how to define, pursue, and develop one “complete” thing. —Ana in Santiago, Chile

Dear Ana,

This may not be what you want to hear, but it actually sounds to me like you’re on the right track! For so many of the writers and artists I’ve researched, new projects inevitably begin with an excess of “images, phrases, little ideas, notes,” as you put it so well. I’m reminded, for instance, of the writer Maggie Nelson, who told me in a 2016 interview that she tends to go through cycles of intensive reading and note-taking before she’s ready to begin writing. Eventually, something will shift: “It’s kind of cheesy, but I’ll just start writing sentences in my head,” she said. “And then it seems like I’ve hit some kind of tipping point where the research should be over and the writing part should happen.”

Recently, I ran across another good example in Parul Segal’s wonderful profile of the writer Jenny Offill (emphasis mine):

Offill works in a small room that was once the chauffeur’s living quarters. An artist friend told her that she stretched can­vases when stuck; Offill borrowed the idea and took to printing out fragments from [her new novel, Weather] and pasting them onto large poster boards. She laid them out on the bed for me. . . . She pointed out which fragments made it into the book, which ones didn’t. The key to her proc­ess, she told me, is time — hence the agonizing slowness of the writing. Only by waiting and continuing to stare at and sift these fragments does it become clear which ought to remain. So many, she said, lose their “radiance”; they reveal themselves to be merely clever.

In other words: It may feel like you’re stuck, but, in fact, stewing in these preliminary materials and trying to decide where to start—that IS the work, or a huge part of it.

Now, if you find that you never get past this stage, that you stew and stew and don’t ever get any actual writing done—then I would recommend getting yourself a deadline. This could involve entering a writing competition, promising a draft to a respected colleague or collaborator by a certain date, or something else—just as long as you’ll feel really bad (and/or lose money) if you fail to meet the deadline. This may sound unpleasant—many aspects of writing are!—but that pressure could be just what you need to finally concentrate the mind and commit to a specific direction for your project. The environmentalist and essayist Edward Abbey understood this dynamic well. “I hate commitments, obligations and working under pressure,” he once wrote to his editor. “But on the other hand, I like getting paid in advance and I only work under pressure.”

Having trouble finding time for a creative project alongside your other daily obligations? Or feeling stuck, blocked, or discouraged during the time you do have? Email your dilemma to subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

Twitter avatar for @lianafinckLiana Finck @lianafinck
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By the brilliant Liana Finck


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