The Habit of Art

I don’t watch a lot of television, but one show I enjoyed was Monk. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it was an old detective show based around an OCD ex-cop with an incredible power of perception. A dead body would show up, the San Francisco police would call him in, he’d work his way through the crime scene, and he’d notice anything, absolutely everything, that was out of place. Then, of course, he’d put all the pieces together and struggle with his irrational phobias (he was afraid of nearly everything, including milk) to solve the crime.

While I’m not normally a fan of detective shows, there was something inherently fascinating in the premise. A character with near debilitating phobias discovering a story simply by paying attention to the chaos and disorder intrinsic in a crime scene. We do the same thing as writers.

Our stories are discovered through the careful observation of chaos. At some point, writers got it in their head that they create the chaos. And they can. But the best stories, come from the idea of chaos. The writer, then, must further explore this chaos, using all five of their God-given senses, to explore the scene of the crime, or messy life situation, or whatever the case may be.

Many writers fail, in large part, because of their inattention to detail. It’s one thing to create disorder and put the pieces together, but if the audience can’t see it, can’t smell it, can’t hear it, can’t feel it—there might as well not be any. Who would tune in to a television show with no picture? In the same way, who would read a book that didn’t appeal to the senses?

Flannery O’Connor talked about the “habit of art.” I think, what she meant by that, is that we, as writers, have an obligation to turn our art into habit. A habit, you’ll notice, is formed over time, by repeating the same action over and again. Writing is born of observation. A writer who does not observe the world around himself or herself is like a deaf, blind, mute detective trying to solve a crime. Not impossible—but highly difficult, and far from exciting.

It should be our goal, then, to form the habit of art. A good idea is great, but it is pointless without the power of observation, without the details of the natural world around us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we should ask ourselves what we are experiencing. It’s so easy to forget to experience life as we live it. We become so obsessed with how we feel (emotionally) that we forget to realize what we feel tangibly—how tight our shoes are, how slick our socks are inside those tight shoes, the feel of sweat under our shirt on a hot day, the lavender scent on your girlfriend’s neck, the roughness of the black and white bark on a birch tree.

When was the last time you touched a tree? Climbed it just to feel the bark in the crook of your knee? Have you ever felt the soil as you dug a hole to plant your rose bushes? Was it cool in the shade of a Spring day? Did you smell the earth, see the worms working their way through the dark dirt?

How then, do you describe what you haven’t experienced? You must deeply imagine it. Maybe you’ve never punched out a window in a jealous rage, but take a moment to imagine exactly what it would be like—the momentary resistance, the eventual give, the way it shatters, the way the cuts don’t burn until a half-second later, when your elbow-deep in the new hole.

But here’s the kicker—you can’t deeply imagine unless you’ve deeply experienced and deeply observed. The art of writing is really a habit of observation as much as it is a habit of sitting down and putting words on the page. Without one, the other doesn’t work. Either, alone, is a futile endeavor.

8 thoughts on “The Habit of Art”

    • Good point, but I’d argue that all works of passion eventually become a chore. Working through that chore and rekindling the passion is only possible if one practices the habit of art. I’d also argue that pursuing the art as habit helps to decrease the amount of time that art seems a chore. I checked out your blog, and am very impressed with your work. I wonder–do you feel there is a difference between visual art (as in painting, sculpting, photography, etc.) and writing? Perhaps the difference in our views lay somewhere in that fine line.

  • As a writer and occasional actress (theater) I believe I would have to argue that it truly depends on the personality of the artist. No matter the medium. I myself can’t tolerate routine, or any repetitive cycle. It’s the death of my muse and of my spirit. For me, the word habit insinuates some sort of schedule or imposed structure. If I did that – I’d never write another story. Perhaps it’s the petulant child inside screaming “you can’t make me” – or perhaps different artists need different approaches. I don’t think it’s as simple as a one size fits all.

    I see everything. But not out of habit – it’s just who I am – a sponge. It’s why I always know where my Lovers keys are, or that the neighbors cat has gotten older sporting a few new grey hairs … or the smell of the asphalt when it rains, the breeze caressing the small hair in my neck like a lovers kiss … all of it. But to sit down and put it to page – that part I can’t make habitual. I store all the information in some part of my brain and when the muse hits – as he often does and hard – I sit, I write and I pull out the moments from memory or imagine them by transporting myself to that place.

    Perhaps I’m not as prolific without the discipline. But I’d rather be a sporadic and free writer – than to “force” myself to do it… out of habit.

    • Fantasia,

      You make a fine point. And here is the debate: to muse or not to muse.

      First of all, let me clarify, because it seems as if quite a few people are misunderstanding. It seems that some view “habit” and “art” (or perhaps, more precisely, “inspiration”) to be mutually exclusive terms. They aren’t. I simply proposed that we make a habit of being inspired, about finding inspiration in everything around us.

      At some point in our creative lives, the muse decides not to clock in. This isn’t a problem, unless of course, we’re on deadline. The inherent risk that these times pose, though, is that the more the muse calls in sick, the longer it takes us to track her down. If we rely solely on inspiration to produce, then we must learn to always be inspired.

      This being said, of course there will be times when we’re “not feeling it.” And that’s okay. There’s no sin in feeling uninspired. However, as writers, if we don’t battle through it, our challenge becomes infinitely harder. If we don’t have the discipline to sit down and write even when we’re not inspired, who’s to say that we’ll sit down when we are?

      Imagine this: It’s performance time. The curtains are about to rise. The audience waits patiently for you to come out and sing, or act, or dance, or whatever it is that you do that they’ve gathered to enjoy, and you’re not feeling it. You’re uninspired.

      Shouldn’t we push through, even when we’re not feeling it? And, don’t we as artists often find our inspiration in DOING our art? The dancer is inspired by dancing. The writer by writing, the artist by painting, etc.

      Shouldn’t there be a time when we look at inspiration and discipline as congenial co-workers instead of sworn enemies?

      • I suppose it depends on the timeline – and if there is a paying audience. Certainly I know that there have been times when I have not “felt it” before going on stage. Sometimes the moment passes as soon as the first laughter in the audience hits me – and like a drug I am filled with the desire to perform. Unfortunately – forcing myself (and I see this in others) more often tends to make for a flat performance, or missed I’d and messed up lines. yes the Show must go on … but at what cost? Sometimes I wonder.

        In the written world – it’s another matter altogether. personally I could not write with a deadline. Look at me now? I’ve take a leave of absence even from my blog. let alone setting pen to paper (metaphorically) to contribute to some semblance of growth for my book.

        I have no publisher breathing down my neck – I have no deadline. This year or next – it does not matter. If I don’t enjoy it … why do it?

        Perhaps there is a middle ground to explore. I am willing to concede on that point. I’d likely be far more proficient if I structured things a little more. I’d have the graphic artist for my project found by now, the story line would be clearer – the book would be more than a bunch of electronic files on my net book.

        yet – there is a joy, and perverse satisfaction … to letting it grow organically. But I ask you – isn’t being artistic precisely an individual that IS always “awake” to inspiration?

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