Sculptor Anne Truitt's retreat routine
Plus: Advice on doing the hardest thing first so you can't avoid it later
Welcome to the fourth issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Though this newsletter suddenly feels rather frivolous in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, I plan to continue it in the hope that some of you will still find it relevant and/or a welcome break from more serious news. In the meantime, please stay safe—and do your best to practice social distancing—during this anxious moment.
Anne Truitt (1921–2004)
The American sculptor—who would have turned 99 today—is remembered for her hand-built and hand-painted wooden columns, which she painstakingly coated with acrylic, then sanded down, then re-coated and sanded again, repeating the process for weeks or months until she had created an object that, in her words, was “not subject to time but illuminated by it.”
Anne Truitt, Sun Flower, 1971, acrylic on wood, 72 x 12 x 12 inches. Image from Matthew Marks Gallery
But Truitt is also remembered for her trilogy of published journals, starting with 1982’s Daybook, in which she reflected on her daily life as an artist, a wife, and a mother. As Truitt wrote, her work as a sculptor “suddenly erupted into certainty” when she was 40 years old, living in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their three young children, working in her backyard studio during whatever time should could steal away from her domestic obligations. To her friends and neighbors, she wrote, “I had rarely let on that I was doing anything beyond being a housewife.”
Because of this, Truitt relished those times later in her career when she was able to single-mindedly focus on her work. In Daybook, she described her daily routine in the summer of 1974, when she was staying at Yaddo, the storied artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York:
I have settled into the most comfortable routine I have ever known in my working life. I wake very early and, after a quiet period, have my breakfast in my room: cereal, fruit, nuts, the remainder of my luncheon Thermos of milk, and coffee. Then I write in my notebook in bed. By this time, the sun is well up and the pine trees waft delicious smells into my room. My whole body sings with the knowledge that nothing is expected of me except what I expect of myself. I dress, do my few room chores, walk to the mansion to pick up my lunch box (a sandwich, double fruit, double salad—often a whole head of new lettuce) and Thermos of milk, and walk down the winding road to my Stone South studio.
At noon, I stop working, walk up through the meadow to West House, have a reading lunch at my desk, and nap. By 2:30 or so I am back in the studio. Late in the afternoon, I return to my room, have a hot bath and dress for dinner. It is heavenly to work until I am tired, knowing that the evening will be effortless. Dinner is a peaceful pleasure. Afterward I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it. I read, or write letters, have another hot bath in the semidarkness of my room, and sink quietly to sleep.
Truitt returned to Yaddo several times over the subsequent years, and in 1984 she served as the colony’s acting director. In Turn, the second book of her published journals, she wrote, “There is no place on earth more perfect for working than Yaddo; these conditions are ultimate.”
Truitt in her studio. Image from AnneTruitt.org
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I once read that Mark Twain said to eat a frog first thing in the morning, and you won't experience anything worse for the rest of the day. I’ve often tried to use this as a metaphoric motivator—doing the hardest thing (whether that be a tough email, a grueling spreadsheet, or a creatively-taxing essay) first so I can’t avoid it. However, I emphasize try. It rarely happens. I continue to do the easiest things first, losing momentum halfway through the day, unable to tackle the hardest tasks. Where can I seek motivation from other creatives who have had to surmount large pieces of work early in the day to provide relief toward the end? (I’m also a huge hedonist—so pleasure is overwhelmingly the winner over doldrum.) —Kate in Chicago
I love that you asked this, because I’ve been struggling with the same problem lately. On weekdays I always get up early—at 5:30 a.m., ugh!—and I intend to spend the first 90 minutes of my day on whatever my most important and/or most challenging project is. And yet, like you, I often find myself delaying this work by checking the headlines, taking a “quick pass” (ha ha) at Twitter and Instagram, or procrastinating via an easier task.
So where can we seek motivation? The eat-the-frog advice (also the basis for a bestselling anti-procrastination book) is not bad—but I feel like, in emphasizing how awful that first task is, it may actually be counterproductive for a self-described hedonist like yourself.
Let’s look instead at the composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. He began his work day at 9:30 a.m., but he didn’t allow himself to sit at the piano until after he had dealt with any proofs or his correspondence, chores that he disliked. “Before setting about the pleasant task,” his brother noted, “Pyotr Ilich always hastened to get rid of the unpleasant.”
Tchaikovsky in 1893, presumably contemplating his unpleasant tasks
So Tchaivosky was another eat-the-frog type. But there are a couple things to emphasize here: First, Tchaikovsky rewarded himself for completing the unpleasant tasks with a pleasant task (composing). Second, the switch from unpleasant to pleasant work was accompanied by a change of location (moving to the piano). These are small details, yes—but they’re the kind of, ahem, subtle maneuvers that I’m always on the lookout for, because I think they can make a real difference.
Twyla Tharp’s morning follows a similar pattern—first, two hours in the gym, then, as she wrote in The Creative Habit, “the quick shower, the breakfast of three hard-boiled egg whites and a cup of coffee, the hour to make my morning calls and deal with correspondence, the two hours of stretching and working out ideas by myself in the studio, the rehearsals with my dance company . . . .”
Here, I’m assuming that Tharp’s hour of calls and emails are unpleasant chores, and the reward is working out her ideas in the studio—and, again, there is a change of setting involved.
So maybe the solution for a hedonist like yourself is to put less emphasis on eating the frog (yuck!) and more emphasis on the pleasant, nourishing creative thing you get to do when you’re done. And if you can mark or emphasize that shift by changing locations (even if it’s just moving from your desk to the couch, or from your office to a café), all the better.
At least that’s one approach. After writing the above advice, I picked up a copy of the aforementioned anti-procrastination book, Eat That Frog, out of curiosity—and I actually found it kind of helpful. The author’s main point is that people need to figure out what their most important work is and then make sure that they’re moving that work forward every day, and not frittering away their time on other stuff that may feel urgent but isn’t truly essential. So I also wonder about some of the “hardest tasks” you say you need to accomplish first thing—perhaps some of that work (like the tough email or grueling spreadsheet) actually should be ignored or put off? Only you can make that call, but I’d be careful that you’re not expending too much of your precious mental energy on tasks that don’t deserve your fullest attention.
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.