Robert Lowell kept a double bed in his study
"He was such a large man he really needed to sprawl and see all the pages."
It’s National Poetry Month! Last week, we looked at Anne Sexton’s quest for just a little writing time. This week, Robert Lowell, supine poet.
Robert Lowell (1917–1977)
In the book With Robert Lowell and his Circle, Lowell’s third wife, Caroline Blackwood, remembered the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet’s working habits:
What he did all day was lie on a bed—he liked working on beds—revising his revisions. With a bottle of milk! He had a double bed in his study because he was such a large man he really needed to sprawl and see all the pages.
I find this image of the poet at work quite irresistible—though Lowell’s bottle of milk may not have been as innocent as it seems. Kathleen Spivack, the author of With Robert Lowell and His Circle, recalled seeing Lowell sipping from “a large milk bottle in a paper bag,” and writes, “I never really knew whether he mixed liquor in with the milk, or drank the milk to soothe his stomach between swigs of alcohol.”
Robert Lowell, 1965
Regardless of what was really in that bedside bottle, the key to Lowell’s creative process was not milk, nor alcohol, nor working in bed—it was the first part of Blackwood’s description, that he spent all day “revising his revisions.” For Lowell, writing was revising. The poet Frank Bidart argues as much in his introduction to Lowell’s Collected Poems: “Look at his work with any closeness and you discover that rethinking work, reimagining it, rewriting it was fundamental to him from the very beginning, and pervasive until the end.”
Bidart would know; he had seen this process of ceaseless revision firsthand—a process that Lowell never relinquished even as he found the constant self-criticism difficult to bear. Bidart writes, “I spent a great deal of time with him when he was working on the poems of his last ten years; more than once he said at the end of the day, to the amusement of whoever happened to be present, ‘Well, it’s been another day of humiliations.’”
For NewYorker.com, I wrote about coworking couples in literary/art history, and the strategies they employed to work together in the same space without driving each other crazy (though that still happened in some cases). Read it here.
Above: Elaine and Willem de Kooning, 1953
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I'm looking for advice to unlock myself. When I was 15 years old (I’m 23 now), I was a very creative mind; I went to theatre lessons, wrote in my free time, and even drew and elaborated paintings that I could hang on my bedroom walls. However, since I entered university, I am always too busy. Even if I love what I am studying, I have the feeling that I have lost the ability to enjoy being creative; everything seems to me a waste of time. (A little voice in my head tells me: Go back to your lessons, stop reading that novel or stop drawing.) I am tired of this mental state. During the last year, I joined a book club where I met really interesting people, students like me who were able to follow their passion and carry out all kind of creative activities in combination with their studies. They inspired me a lot, but for one reason or another I still feel blocked. —Mar in Belgium
Thank you for this question, which I found quite touching, and also quite relatable. I think the feelings you describe are more common than you might realize.
The main piece of advice I would give to you is to not be so hard on yourself, because it sounds like that’s an issue. The voice that tells you, “Go back to your lessons, this is a waste of time”—I’d like to suggest that you ignore that voice. Because not only is this voice overly judgmental and critical, it’s also just plain wrong.
Drawing or reading a book for pleasure—these activities are good for you in so many ways! For one thing, they train your brain to be capable of a kind of deep, sustained attention that is becoming increasingly rare. More and more, I think that being able to pay attention to one thing for a long period of time is going to be the super-power of our era. This is true whether you end up pursuing a quote-unquote creative career or not.
Moreover, taking a break from your studies to do things you enjoy will make your studies more successful too. And these breaks don’t have to be very long. If you’re having trouble finding the time to draw or read, you could try setting aside a half-hour first thing in the morning, at lunch, or before bed. If that’s not possible, an hour or two on the weekend can be just as effective. You could even try putting it on your schedule as if it were an appointment.
As for feeling blocked—I’m very glad to hear that you joined a book club where you’re meeting interesting, creative people around your age, because I think those connections and conversations are a great way to get un-blocked. When I feel blocked, I often think of something the poet Nikki Giovanni told me in a telephone interview. I asked her if she had ever experienced writer’s block. “Never,” she said, adding that, as far as she’s concerned, there’s no such thing. “If you have writer’s block, you’re not reading enough,” she told me. “And you’re not thinking enough.”
In other words, the solution to feeling blocked is tweak your input rather than worrying about your output. Especially as a young person, you should immerse yourself in what you find interesting and inspiring, and not beat yourself up about whether you’re making enough stuff. So: Keep reading and drawing and going to the book club! Do this while ignoring that critical inner voice, and I can virtually guarantee that your blocked feeling will dissolve on its own. And when it does I hope you’ll write again to let us know what you’re up to.
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 email@example.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.