What if you physically can’t follow a daily routine?

Advice for a writer and multiple sclerosis patient whose days are unpredictable

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Renata Adler’s nap-filled writing routine. Today: the latest installment of my monthly advice column. Weigh in with your own advice here.


Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

I have read your books and many others on routines, schedules, and habits to check if anything in them suited me. Although I am much better organized than before, I still have trouble sticking to a routine/schedule. (I know routines and schedules are not the same.) My main issue is that I have been a multiple sclerosis patient for 26 years now and no two consecutive days are alike in my life. One morning I may get up at 6 am all fresh and ready to tackle anything. The very next day I might be able to get out of bed only by 8 (or even 10). 

I have been working as a writer since 2003. Until 2011, I was working at various offices—newspaper, e-learning company, etc. My schedule was based on that. From 2011 onwards, I have been a freelancer. So, unless there are tight deadlines, there is no structure in my life. That said, I have never missed a deadline until now. 

Three years ago, I moved to the countryside. I want to be involved in activities like gardening. I try but then it doesn’t work out the way I expect. Either I am really tired or I am not doing something right. I want to understand which it is. So, I want to know if others face similar issues and how they design a routine/schedule.

I am coping well with everything but I want to improve. Can you suggest anything that might help me establish a routine? Do you know of any artists/writers who have similar conditions and yet are managing to stick to a routine/schedule? If so, will you please share their methods/experiences? —SS

Dear SS,

I really appreciate you writing in with this question. I’m always advising writers to adopt a daily routine—but of course not everyone is able to do this, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to explore some alternative solutions.

First, I want to say: It is entirely possible to do ambitious creative work without following a regular routine. Though many writers and artists have found that a routine creates valuable structure for their work lives and, as John Updike said,  “saves you from giving up,” plenty of others didn’t follow any kind of routine, either because they didn’t want to or weren’t able to do so. (I’m listing some examples in the Notes section below.)

Often these individuals were more project-oriented than routine-oriented—meaning that when they found a project that seized their imagination, they worked on it devotedly, maybe obsessively, putting it at the center of their lives. (When Ali Smith is writing a novel, she said, “I become its daily routine.”) And then when they were done with that project, they came back down to earth and resumed whatever their non-project lifestyle looked like. Honoré de Balzac is a good example: One biographer described his lifestyle as “orgies of work” followed by “orgies of relaxation and pleasure,” which sounds like a pretty decent arrangement to me.

Is it possible that you’re just temperamentally more inclined to that style of working? When you have a deadline, you say, then you have structure—but when you don’t have a deadline, all routine flies out the window. If that’s the case, one path forward might be simply to embrace this tendency, which is not at all uncommon among writers.

But I don’t think that’s quite what you’re after. It sounds like you’re someone who craves routine but is prevented by your illness from sticking to one. You want to have a rich daily life, filled with regular stints of writing and gardening—but, you say, “it doesn’t work out the way I expect.”

For what it’s worth, that kind of yearning is exactly why so many people gravitate toward routine in the first place. Routine is a way of creating a structure for the activities that you most value, and then making the whole thing into a habit. It means putting your day on autopilot, but in the best possible way: a way that makes sure the things you value get priority, and that saves you from having to make a lot of pesky, energy-draining decisions about what to do when and in what order.

You asked for examples. One that springs to mind is Charles Darwin, who, like you, moved to the countryside to concentrate on his work, be close to nature, and manage a chronic illness. In his case, the exact cause of his illness is unknown; in the almost 140 years since his death, observers have speculated that Darwin suffered from everything from arsenic poisoning to “smouldering hepatitis.” Scott Stossel, in his excellent book My Age of Anxiety, makes a very good case that “the chief precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety”—in clinical terms, Darwin may have suffered from “panic disorder with agoraphobia.”

Regardless of the underlying cause, the effect was frequent misery. Darwin’s symptoms, Stossel writes, included “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness . . . trembling insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.” Stossel estimates that Darwin “spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.”

To manage his condition, Darwin turned to a daily routine that is noteworthy for its balance. It was not, like so many routines, a scheme for self-improvement or increased productivity; rather, it was more like a life raft, a way for Darwin to create the conditions that seemed to keep the worst effects of his illness at bay.

As I write in Daily Rituals, Darwin’s day was “structured around a few concentrated bursts of work, broken up by set periods of walking, napping, reading, and letter writing.” I won’t describe his entire routine here, but a crucial detail is that his work periods only lasted from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m. and from 10:30 a.m. to noon or a quarter after—a total of three hours and 15 minutes maximum of head-down work. Later, there was another part of the day dedicated to replying to letters, which was a kind of work too—but even so, Darwin worked less than five hours a day, and gave the remainder of his time to walking, napping, reading (or, because his eyes bothered him, being read to), and spending time with his wife, Emma.

An etching of Charles Darwin’s study at Down House, his longtime home in an isolated village in Kent, England

I like the Darwin example for you because, though he was strict about following his routine, overall he was actually very gentle with himself. He was engrossed by his work, but he made sure not to overdo it. He set aside lots of time for walks, which were essential to his good health, and one-on-one time with his wife, which buoyed his spirits. Just as important, he knew that socializing with visitors drained him, so he kept that to an absolute minimum. (According to Stossel, Darwin “installed a mirror outside his study window so he could see guests coming up the drive before they saw him, allowing him time to brace himself or to hide.”)

In short, Darwin designed a routine for himself that was very carefully tailored to his temperament, his priorities, and his abilities. That’s what I would like to see for you. You say that some days you get up at 6:00 a.m. and others not until 10:00 a.m. If that’s the case, then maybe don’t worry so much about what time you get up and instead focus on what you do every day after you get up. Perhaps it’s tea and a book in bed, gardening for a bit, then writing—or trying to write—until you get hungry. Then lunch, a nap, chores. Then . . . more writing? More time outdoors? Dinner? I don’t know—I can’t design your day for you, but I hope you can approach doing so in a way that is generous rather than strict or punitive. If you can do that, I bet you’ll find it easier to stick to. Moreover, you might gradually come to see routine as something you can lean on in times of distress and ill health—as a kind of bulwark rather than an impossible standard you can’t live up to.

Last week, Ann Friedman’s newsletter pointed me to a recent interview with the 77-year-old poet Nikki Giovanni, who was asked about her rituals. I loved her response:

At 7 p.m., I go out to the fish pond in my backyard. There are goldfish there, and I take a seat, and I drink cheap champagne. It’s a $14 bottle. I like it. My body tells me what time it is, and so I just go. You have to take time for yourself, you really do. It’s important to give yourself a little time to think and to enjoy the moment or whatever you’ve done today. To congratulate yourself because a lot of people don’t congratulate themselves. They don’t realize, “Oh, I did a good job today.” Or “I got that done today.” Instead, we pick on ourselves and say, “Oh, I’m no good.” You can’t think like that.

Based on your letter, it sounds to me like you’re someone who doesn’t congratulate herself enough. Maybe you even say, “Oh, I’m no good.” But from my perspective, if you’ve been a multiple sclerosis patient for 26 years and a freelance writer since 2011 and you’ve never missed a deadline (!!), you’re already doing incredibly well. Instead of wanting “to improve,” perhaps the new routine you should adopt is to pour yourself a glass of cheap champagne every evening and drink to your remarkable accomplishments.


PLEASE DISCUSS

As usual, I would love to hear from any of you reading this who have your own words of advice for SS. Do you have experience crafting a daily routine when no two days are alike? I’ve started a discussion thread where anyone can weigh in. Please leave a comment and I’ll be reading and replying this week.

Join the discussion


NOTES

Daily Rituals: Women at Work includes several examples of writers who never followed any particular routine, including Zoe Akins, Toni Cade Bambara, Kate Chopin, Dorothy Parker, Christina Rossetti, and Françoise Sagan. Lorraine Hansberry once wrote in her journal:

They say that one should set a schedule and keep to it no matter what: “write” no matter what. I can’t help it—I think that’s awfully silly, this sitting down and “writing” like a duty. People celebrate it so much because it makes them feel that the writer isn’t quite so precarious a creature.

Susan Sontag, by contrast, believed that writing every day would be best—but she was never able to do so herself; instead, she wrote in “very long, intense, obsessional stretches” of eighteen or twenty or twenty-four hours, often motivated by an egre­giously neglected deadline that she finally couldn’t ignore any longer.


WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛

That concludes another installment of this advice column. At the moment I have more questions than I have time to answer; nevertheless, feel free to send your creative dilemmas to subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll try to get to them in a future issue of the newsletter.

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(Read my past advice here.)


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