There are habits that I have and don’t think about and habits that I think about constantly but struggle to keep. I’ve been thinking a lot about these latter, lately.
For example, I keep a separate Google account logged in to Chrome on my work computer for some sense of an illusion that it keeps what I read "separate" from my "work reading," though I am aware that even this is not necessarily immune to the system administrator, were they to want to see what I actually do all day. In this separate set of tabs I open articles, usually from LitHub or the one of the other far-too-many newsletters I’m subscribed to, that I think I might want to read. After finishing an MFA and heading off into the world, I’m thinking about "literary citizenship," or how I can be a productively engaged and community-oriented writer (whatever that means in the time of COVID), and reading articles and new poems or stories seems like the bare minimum. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction so this does, indeed, help me sleep better at night.
Like all well-intentioned habits, however, this one often falls by the wayside. I didn’t do a Wednesday Weekly Recommended Reading yesterday because I had four or five tabs open that I wanted to read first. Reading two of them after finishing up a few projects this morning ("A Second Chance" by Janet Malcolm and "A House Is Not a Home" by Eula Biss) reminded me that this is another small habit I’ve let fall by the wayside. Bliss’s article, in particular.
I have noticed, though, that though I’m not an every-day habit, I do have some habit of working-on-my-habits.
I’ve been seeing a therapist for about a year and a half now, and after we worked thorough what was bringing me there in the first place, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about habits (in so many more words). A part of it was balancing work and school and art, which was an ever-shifting equation given that in any given semester (or month, at times), one or the other would flare up and cause the whole system to come out of whack; it did not help that the hourly job I held for most of grad school could flex wildly in terms of hours worked and stress, which though not the most extreme certainly, also certainly made it hard to make anything like good art.
Now, post-school, post-part-time employment, the discussions have turned towards cementing new habits — at least for the duration of COVID times, during which A. and I are both very fortunate to be able to work entirely from home — around work, keeping up my mental health, keeping up my physical health (i.e., maintaining my bicycling addiction), and work, i.e., not failing to do the work required to not only be a good literary citizen, but also indeed to maintain some semblance of an ongoing artistic practice. Suffice to say that it is something I’ve struggled with before (indeed: it was one of the motivators to go to graduate school), as I am easily distracted by whatever shiny thing (these days: the slippage from working on computational lit projects to simply writing code for its own sake).
I have managed to carve out some kind of a routine. We get up when we get up, start work when we have to, but I try to get a few minutes in the back yard by myself to drink coffee and journal and read either the news or a little bit of a book or magazine (this week: Volume 2 of David Leo Rice’s A Room in Dodge City and the summer issue of Bicycle Quarterly). I sit at my desk and work, read articles, write blog posts, scribble notes for other projects. We go for a walk and make dinner and watch TV (did you know that "Murder She Wrote" can be found streaming on IMDB?), and then after a while I’ll retreat back to the office and write and read and do my best to make interesting art as much as I am able that evening.
Nevertheless, the habit(s) are slow to form. I struggle to do revisions, I struggle to work on longer things, I struggle to start things that feel scary (here’s looking at you, novel). So I write 500-800 word exercises, flash fictions, write the logic code for the next computational lit project (while studiously avoiding writing the actual text). It’s coming, though, but slowly.
On one of the walls in the English department in my high school there was painted:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
The quote is, of course, apocryphal, but it was very much cemented in my little adolescent brain, then very keen on all things old and philosophical. Like all good misquotations, it can be read in any number of ways to suit. There is a somewhat "liberatory" reading, which seemed the only kind of truth when I was reading too much of the existentialists, that you are nothing other than what you repeatedly do, which seems to promise a kind of absurd freedom from class, background, race, the opinions of others; but of course there is also kind of a strong challenge, there: excellence is a habit, therefore you best be on your best behavior and ability at all times.
This, of course, makes me think of the argument in Malcolm’s Kids These Days (which was interesting, though, ultimately I found the book itself somewhat forgettable), about my generation and after — the precariate, or whatever you’d like to call it — thinking of ourselves as assets whose value(s) must be protected at all costs in a kind of risk-mitigation scheme, and how, indeed, this historical circumstance (whose possibility or truth I do find compelling) may converge with this apocryphal quotation to create rather a lot of anxiety surrounding habits and the way they contribute to (or, perhaps, even determine) one’s sense of self.
I’m thinking too, then, to perhaps try and circle these rambling threads up, of things like "Writers Write," whose very name links an activity with identity. And in many ways I’m not disinclined to this view: you are what you consistently do.
But I suppose the question then must center on "consistently." What does "consistently" mean in this context? Is it then the case that, to quote a much-loved writing professor, "writing every day is an emergency?" Does it mean that my poet friend who hasn’t been able to string more than a few lines together since COVID started is no longer a poet, no longer a writer?
But perhaps another angle at which to attack the statement may be in terms of identity, to interrogate "are," i.e., is a "poet" something you "are," or is that merely a description of something you do or have done? Or are the description and "being" then even different in any important way? Where does one locate identity? And then the question becomes of the "I" being identical to what?
Suppose we allow for the moment that existence proceeds essence. This is obviously contra-Aristotle (in some important ways, at least — though I’ll freely admit I am rusty on Aristotle’s metaphysics, which I was only ever vague on to begin with), but supposing we may still import the mis-attributed statement, does the "are" of being change? How often? What accumulation of "consistency" is required to then be? It’s a sorties paradox all over again.
I wish I could remember more of my William James (or had the time, presently, to look). I was given the "Habits" chapter in his Psychology textbook to read as a freshman in college. I remember having a strong, negative gut-reaction to it. I think that reaction was tempered by the time we’d gotten through discussing it in the freshmen seminar. But I do remember it was a question of habit-formation. And habit-formation as a constitutive element of self.
And so perhaps I may want to add another reading of the apocryphal quote, or rather, I would like to re-emphasize the "consistently do" above and beyond the implications for that ever-murky thing we call "identity." We’re awash in conversations about being consistently anti-racist, about giving consistently to organizations you want to support, about consistently holding this or that political line, and a lot of it — or at least some, perhaps darker side of it — seems fixated on gathering just enough "consistent" evidence to affix labels, affix identity. But, at least for me, this only causes anxiety: do I post this or that to genuinely share (and thereby "be" one of "the good ones"), or am I merely performing politics and allyship (and therefore "be" a part of the problem)? In even asking this question of myself am I consistently-enough centering the narrative around myself (though I ask this privately) and therefore am I again coextensive with "the problem?" Perhaps. Perhaps even likely.
But instead — and maybe, too, I am falling prey to something like "the power of positivity," though I maintain perhaps I’m walking closer to William James and his Pragmatism, after all — perhaps I, we, ought to focus on habits not in terms of what they do for our identity, our identification, but rather in terms of habitual actions we enjoy, things we want to do often, actions that we are glad to have taken on our better days when we are able.
I hope I am not falling into some kind of apologist mode. But I must believe — if only for psychological security — in the possibility of change, of changes in action and in habits, both for others and myself.