Lessons from The Music Room No. 2: “Just Do” Cold Showers and Write Short Lists

For one year– from Spring 2010 to Spring 2011,  I turned my growing family into a laboratory.  My purpose– to set each of us on a Creative path of our own.  We began in the grand central space we call The Music Room.  Our old piano is here and our shelves are stuffed with great books.  There are Kapla blocks to build with and a wooden castle with queens and kings to play with. For one week I’m writing about what I’ve learned this year– about Creativity and what it takes to live it. Yesterday I wrote The Creative Life is a Struggle.

The Nike slogan Just Do It works well enough as my family’s current task-accomplishment (including all things creativity-related) plan.  I hope this is only temporary because I’m a big fan of the perfectly tuned schedule.

When my first daughter arrived my mother said,  She’ll take over your life until you get a good schedule.  But once you’ve got a schedule you’ll have time for anything you want.  And so it was.  At six months my tiny girl woke at 6 a.m.  I bundled her up, strapped her into a jogger-stroller and ran several miles before breakfast.  We ate at 7:30.   Then I sat her facing the bathroom shower on a bouncy chair with toys so I could shower in peace.  We took walks, sang songs, giggled and read books.  I made her baby food from scratch and tried complicated recipes (i.e., Shitake-mushroom fried polenta topped with tomatoes, slivered almonds and parmigiano-reggiano) for dinner and she watched me.  Twice a week my lovely mother-in-law took over, while I took off for grad school.  I’m barely scratching the surface here.  More than a decade later (I may not be young), I still believe a perfectly tuned schedule is best.

That’s why I’ve tried all sorts of plans and schedules this year to put this creativity thing on rails. But all of them required more energy than they generated.  I nixed each plan when it turned more needy than a child.  Who wants a needy schedule?  I don’t.  Real kid voices (expressing human needs) filter into my dreams at day-break Sunday through Saturday. Check out my current (not-so-needy) 5 item schedule:

  1. I nurse the baby.
  2. I head for my semi-private wake-up chamber–  the cold shower.  (Did I use the word “cold’?  Freezing is more appropriate this time of year– Freezing showers are perfectly safe. I choose to do this, OK?)
  3. I dry my body with the available clean towel.
  4. I pull on my best jeans, dab on the lipstick.
  5. I run the rest of the day (it’s kind of a blur– except when I follow my two-year-old outside and read at the same time, or when I drive to kid-classes or when I lecture at the University. And all running stops when I write.  Which I do almost every day. Some days I even write three pages of long-hand free thought.

Someday I’ll return to a perfectly tuned routine– all Highly Creative people fashion favored schedules.  To read some favored routines I’ve come across check out my series: Routines.

But back to now.  Let me tell you, with five children under twelve–  it’s just impossible to follow a perfectly tuned schedule.  For children each little habit expressively worked on (e.i., flushing the toilet after use or signing every piece of artwork) takes thirty days of practice.  Perfectly tuned schedules are built of a thousand little habits.  You do the math.  So instead, we all meet in The Music Room and make short lists (one for each person above five-years-old) and each finds a way to do it.  On Sundays,  I often have only one item on my list– Write.  And I do.  Of course I still bathe the baby, drive the kids to hit tennis balls and make lunch.  But those things tend to get done list or not.  A one-item “To-Do” list makes you happy at the start but turns exhilarating when you’re finished.

Just Do It is the motto of the determined desperate.  The person who came up with the motto (don’t tell Nike)–  a serial killer about to die for his crimes and ready to get dying over-with, was certainly desperate.  I admit I’m not always determined or desperate.  But this post is proof Just Do It is working out for now.


Today (March 21, 2011) is…

…The exact One Year Anniversary of Creating Brains!

To my faithful readers:

Thank you for sticking with me. Just knowing you’re there adds intensity and relevance to every word I write. Thank you!

To those who’ve left comments:

A capital THANK YOU!  Your feedback keeps me thinking–  what a gift.

To all my Hitters (is that a word yet?)– Creating Brains has been visited over 9,000 times so far!  Whoop-y! Hurray!

Thank you all for visiting.

Sleeping Around in London

Before I start today’s post, I must disclose.  I sleep some,  but not enough to think and walk at the same time. My 11-month-old still nurses through the night.  I get up when she cries at night because I want her to fatten up and grow long.  And, she is my precious baby after all. So, against medical advice (my physician sister-in-law looks out for me–  she thinks I need more sleep),  I sleep some and figure, someday I’ll sleep more. And besides,  I can always find a chair to land on if I feel a thought coming.

It turns out, you don’t need a set amount of sleep at precise intervals to think original  thoughts.  Creativity scholar Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi found highly creative people work with their bio-rhythms.  They arrange their lives to sleep when tired but work when they’re sharp– regardless of hour.  My current baby-controlled schedule is not ideal ( i.e., running a 5k this morning seems impossible) but it’s not horrible for creativity.  I’ve had plenty of brilliant insights in between mid-night naps (unfortunately, I don’t always remember them by morning)  and I’ve found my sharpest hours seem to fall between 1:00 a.m. and dawn (if, I’ve slept early and deep the previous three nights).  I’ve made peace with my sleep issues and continue. My good friend Jennifer says, In a year, things will be different.  She’s right.  I can imagine longer nights a year from now.

Some friends– a high-flying London couple, are about to have their first baby.  She’s a novelist.  He’s a club DJ by night,  international lawyer by day.  Their spacious Hackney flat has plenty of space for the gear they’ll need and they both love kids. They’re more than ready;  they’re giddy non-stop with anticipation.  There’s only one small problem.  They love their current party-almost-every-night, sleep in, work late and do it all again life rhythm.  Last time I visited them,  the guy asked,

Do kids HAVE to go to bed early?  I mean,  that doesn’t make sense.  My sister is adamant.  She says, Just wait.  You’ll see.  Kids HAVE to go to bed super early. It’s just the way it works. But why would that be?  I mean, as long as they get the amount they need–  you know, like 8 hours,  or whatever.  Right?

I said,

I don’t know. I suppose you could convince your baby you live in another time zone–  you could carry around a full-spectrum light lamp in your diaper bag and shine it on your kid’s face at sundown.  And shut the blinds in her room in the morning,  so she still thinks it’s night. That shouldn’t be too hard–    days are pretty dark here in London anyway. I don’t know.  I haven’t tried it.

I don’t remember where our conversation went from there.  But now (two years later) I wonder if they’ll try to make the baby adjust to their time.  Will they lug her around London’s night-scene in a sound-proof bassinet?  I doubt it.  I think the novelist will nix any exceedingly silly plan.  But she is pretty flexible and does like to try things out.

In any case,  the man’s question is a good one.  Do babies need to sleep when 7:30 p.m. hits wherever they are?  I’ve always stuck to a traditional bedtime.  But, I’d love to watch the London couple trick their baby into sleeping exactly when they’d like her to sleep. If they pull this off,  they should write a book and I bet it would hit the bestseller list on Day 1.

Vigorous and Athletic

Highly Creative people keep favored routines.  For ten days I’m posting about the routines of individual Creators, historical and current. My previous post: Can’t Wait to Get to Work.


French Novelist

Colette’s late fifties were probably the happiest and certainly the most fecund years of her life. … She continued both to live and to work like an Olympian, and as must all champions, she kept in training. She walked and swam vigorously. She smoked and drank very little. She kept her muscles toned with massage. She maintained an athletic sex life.

During the summers, she adopted a frugal diet and began losing weight. Back in Paris, she consulted a fashionable quack who gave her blood transfusions–the donor was an attractive young woman–and these, she claimed, improved her vision and increased her vitality. But perhaps her most essential beauty secret was to surround herself with a circle of younger friends, male and female, whose hunger for life helped to recharge her own.

“The pleasure I take in contemplating lives on the ascendant reassures me about myself,” she said. “I see so many people who, as they age, find joy only in … their diminution!”

(From Judith Thurman’s book Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette)

Worked and Dined with Satre: Her Imaginary Husband

Highly Creative people keep favored routines.  For ten days I’m posting about the routines of individual Creators, historical and current. My previous post: Framed His Days with One Great Question.

Simone De Beauvoir

French Existentialist Philosopher, Writer


Do you draw up a very precise plan when you write a novel?


I haven’t, you know, written a novel in ten years, during which time I’ve been working on my memoirs. When I wrote The Mandarins, for example, I created characters and an atmosphere around a given theme, and little by little the plot took shape. But in general I start writing a novel long before working out the plot.

People say that you have great self-discipline and that you never let a day go by without working. At what time do you start?

I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.

When do you see Sartre?

Every evening and often at lunchtime. I generally work at his place in the afternoon.

Doesn’t it bother you to go from one apartment to another?

No. Since I don’t write scholarly books, I take all my papers with me and it works out very well.

Do you plunge in immediately?

It depends to some extent on what I’m writing. If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.

Do your writer friends have the same habits as you?

No, it’s quite a personal matter. Genet, for example, works quite differently. He puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he’s working on something and when he has finished he can let six months go by without doing anything. As I said, I work every day except for two or three months of vacation when I travel and generally don’t work at all. I read very little during the year, and when I go away I take a big valise full of books, books that I don’t have time to read. But if the trip lasts a month or six weeks, I do feel uncomfortable, particularly if I’m between two books. I get bored if I don’t work.

(Thank you to The Paris Review and Mason Currey)

Not Interested in Food or Sleep

Highly Creative people keep favored routines.  For ten days I’m writing about the routines of individual Creators, historical and current.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Nobel Laureate Neurologist, Discovered Human Growth Factor, Italian Senator, Humanist

If you want to live to a 100, you might consider following Rita Levi-Montalcini’s routine: get up at five in the morning, eat just once a day, at lunchtime, keep your brain active, and go to bed at 11pm.

I might allow myself a bowl of soup or an orange in the evening, but that’s about it, she says. “I’m not really interested in food, or sleep.

The secret, she says, is work: she still goes to her laboratory every morning to supervise an all-female team developing her Nobel prize-winning research on brain cells, and in the afternoon she goes across town to her foundation in another part of Rome raising funds to help African women to study.

She remains a passionate advocate of the rights of women, and still remembers the thrill as a small girl of seeing women in uniforms driving trams in the First World War when the men were at the front.

I have never been ill, and I don’t see the impairment of my hearing and sight as a handicap, she says. She wears a hearing aid, and peers at you closely when you talk to her, but tells you – convincingly – my brain functions better today than it did was I was 20.

(Thanks to Richard Owens of The Sunday Times)