As a neurologist and diagnostician, Oliver Sacks must weigh many variables at once to figure out what patients are suffering from. Because of the complexity of thought required for his profession, he has simplified his life wherever possible, to free up mental bandwidth for what he feels is important.
Realizing that he spent a lot of time shopping and figuring out what to eat every day, he systematized his eating, having his housekeeper buy 7 oranges and 7 apples each week, so that he could just reach into the fridge and grab one of each a day without thinking. She also buys tins of sardines and makes a big bowl of tabouleh at the beginning of the week, and he is set – same lunch every day, no extra thought required.
I don’t have a housekeeper (alas), so fellowships at places like MacDowell and VCCA have given me a place to work, and they act as virtual housekeepers, vacuuming up, changing the linens, providing 3 square meals a day. What a gift. You never have to surface from your creativity to deal with repetitive tasks. As a result, most artists agree that they get exponentially more work done in a residency than they can get done at home. If only they would dress me at MacDowell, I’d be set.
I have a writer friend in his 80s who has written every morning, 5 mornings a week, for 50 years. He then goes for a run, no matter the weather, and then the afternoons are for chores and socializing. I have another writer friend (also in his 80s) who writes every morning until 11. He does not have email, asks friends not to even call before 11, and won’t socialize on Saturday nights because he goes to mass early on Sunday mornings. The discipline of their lives helps keep them focused on their work.
My big break-through this week was finding a uniform so I don’t have to figure out what to wear every morning. I’ve always been jealous of parochial school kids and their uniforms. Last year I was going to wear scrubs. They’re pretty terrific because they don’t wrinkle or stain. But they also don’t breathe or stretch. This year I decided to find some mock turtlenecks and just to go with them. I went to JCPenney and voila, they were having a clearance sale in the men’s department – cotton mock turtle necks for $2.97. I bought 5, black and white. I am set for the next several months.
It’s a constant struggle, I think, to cut out clutter without cutting out humanity and joy. I’ve signed up for tai chi classes (rather than walks with friends) because they are in the afternoon, I know exactly when they start and finish, and can plan my day around them.
And so I inch toward a more disciplined life, while I know that life remains messy, and that unpredictability is important to art too, that the joys and frustrations of the unpredictable are what make up good stories, after all. My husband just asked me, “Why are you in such a good mood this morning?”
I said, “I know what I’m wearing today.”