Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Power of the Daily Routine

I'm working on a post about Tales from the Classroom, a comic that Mike and I produced back in 2003 for the Graduate Teaching Center at Yale, but a shiny thing drifted into my view, and it got me thinking about something else.

Some of you reading this will already know that I send a lot of postcards. In fact, I send five postcards a day, and have been doing so since the summer of 1998. (If you get a numbered postcard from me, that's what the number is for: I'm counting them. Later today, I will write postcard #16,615.)

You may not know that I was once interviewed on the radio program Weekend America about my postcard regimen. (You'll have to scroll about halfway down that page and have RealOne Player or something like that to listen to the four-minute interview.)

I've never done this calculation before, but if you collected them all up into one stack, it would be at least seventeen feet high. Maybe more like twenty.

Why do I send five postcards a day? I don't know. I've been doing it for a long time now, and some of my original motivations have been lost or modified, but now it's a large part of how I process my day. It's a way for me to keep in touch with my friends about the small stuff of my life.

But that's not what this post is about. I wanted to talk about the power of a daily routine. You can accomplish a lot in small bits, day by day.

When Mike and I were working on our Demonstration project, I really did draw one demon a day for a hundred days straight. After only a couple of weeks, the sketchbook was taking on a nice heft: it took a little while to look at it. By the end of the project, it was more than you could really take in at once. Since you've been so patient, and since I've been going on for so long without a picture, here's a demon that didn't make it into our booklet.

That's a to-do list and, under it, a not-yet-written postcard that he's urging me to rock.

Around the same time, I think, and unbeknownst to us then, our pal Ben Towle had undertaken a similar project, doing a demon a day for (almost) 100 days. All of his demons are online, but you can also get them in a handsome minicomic for only $3.50 direct from Ben's website store, where there are lots of nice goodies to choose from. (I recommend his cartoon alphabets.) Ben's demons really showcase his awesome inking and his sense of light and shadow -- here are a couple of examples I nabbed from his site:

The Partyka comics collective has a daily drawing feature on their website -- it ought to be the first thing you see when you click over there. I don't think that requires a drawing a day from each of their members, but it's definitely in the same spirit.

I'm not sure whether he's got a daily drawing routine, but the inimitable Eddie Campbell, author of some of my favorite graphic novels, has been blogging daily for quite a while now. (In his blog, he proves himself not only an excellent raconteur, but a whip-smart theoretician and a voracious reader.)

Some of my other favorite comics bloggers also work on a daily routine. Mike Sterling, a comics store owner in southern California, has been posting every day since I started reading his blog, and I think it's because he posts daily that his ruminations on the comics industry have become so interesting to me: I've gotten to know his personality, his store's history, and even some of his employees and regular customers through those daily updates. Chris Sims not only posts every day, but has regular weekly features, chief among them a Thursday-night roundup of his week's comics purchases. It's because of Chris that I now usually go to my local comics store on Fridays and not on Wednesdays (when each week's new comics arrive). Finally, Bully, the Little Stuffed Bull, who seems to post at least daily, has several terrific weekly features, including a "Separated at Birth" post comparing comics swipes (though this week's is a little dubious, as a swipe), his really fun "Ten of a Kind" comics-cover posts, and, recently, a review of one P. G. Wodehouse novel per week. And yes, he at least pretends that he's a little stuffed bull.

That's him in San Diego last month, about to triple his weight with a plate of fish tacos.

And then there's the daily comic strip. I don't think anyone can doubt that working on The Sketchbook Diaries every day for years has helped James Kochalka hone his craft, even though he used to say that craft is the enemy. Drawing the syndicated Zippy every day has certainly made Bill Griffith an incredible draftsman. There are more daily webcomics than I could even try to list. Probably you already have a favorite.

But none of these is the new shiny thing that distracted me from the post I was planning. I also found out, this week, about an artist (in the DC area, I think), who is making a skull a day, for a year, each of them out of a different material: scratchboard, wire-frame, linocut print, chalk on a sidewalk, watercolor, carved watermelon (worth looking for)... One of my favorites is the one made from soy sauce on a plate:

Some of these images are really gorgeous, and the project as a whole is super impressive. When it's all finished, what an awesome coffee-table book (or set of postcards) it would all make.

Which brings me back to what I wanted to discuss: the power of the daily routine. Setting a small artistic task for yourself once a day -- some discrete thing you can finish, or some quota you need to hit in a larger project -- is a wonderful way to make the steady advance of days amount to something.

(I have always been a big procrastinator, and the moment I started really making progress on my dissertation was the point when I set a daily quota for myself. First, it was just twenty minutes of free-writing. Then, when I started drafting chapters, it was a thousand words a day. That's not so much, but it quickly adds up.)

Maybe once a week would work for you better than once a day. Maybe you need to focus on the large chunks; maybe it can be something small that you finish in twenty minutes or an hour. But if you've looked around, with summer waning, and been amazed at how much time has passed without much to show for it, stop thinking (for a minute) about how many months it will take you to realize your long-term goals. Instead, think about how much you can accomplish in a day. Then do it every day.


Bully said...

Thanks for the link, Isaac!

I'd like to point out, however, that under no circumstances do I consider the covers in "Separated at Birth" swipes. They are usually intentional (and often credited) homages or parodies, coincidences, or covers on similar design themes, but I'm not accusing anyone of art swipes in this feature. It's just all in good fun.

Isaac said...

Oh, I was using "swipe" in a more honorable sense -- in the same way that Mike and I swipe Hokusai or Herriman or whoever.

I didn't mean to suggest that they were surreptitious, underhanded, or lazy swipes, just that your "Two of a Kind" usually (okay, not always) highlight some visual imitation.

Matt said...

Here's an English translation (swiped) from the opening scenes of Andrei Tarkovsky's final film--the speaker is the protagonist, a retired journalist and actor, speaks to his mute son amid the roar of the tides:

"You know, sometimes I say to myself, if every single day, at exactly the same stroke of the clock, one were to perform the same single act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, every day at the same time, the world would be changed. Yes, something would change. It would have to.”

Isaac said...

Matt, you're reminding me that one of my early inspirations for the postcard project is something that you see Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel's character) do in the movie Smoke. He takes a photo every day at the same time, on the same corner in Brooklyn, using the same camera and tripod, set up on the same spot. He has done this for years, and he has prints of all the photos in albums.

It sounds like a mildly dumb obsession until you get a chance to see the albums. They're one of the most moving things I've seen in a movie, I think.

William Hurt's character accidentally spots his deceased wife in a photo several years old. It's kind of a heartbreaking moment.