Of Artistic Rituals and Apologies

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work gives brief snapshots of the work practices of a host of writers, painters, composers, and other miscreants. I have recently started a new routine for writing, getting up at 5am to put in an hour. It’s not much but it’s what I can do and I know that making writing a practice is the secret to making it a success, at least for me. I hoped that Daily Rituals would inspire me with the great lengths to which artists have gone to squeeze out a bit of creativity.

Alas, it backfired when at least the first several entries involved people who made artistic work their whole life and who spent gobs of time each day dedicated to it. This did not exactly inspire me with my own eked out efforts. But after that initial disappointment of expectations, the book and I found a new accord. Because who doesn’t want to know that Patricia Highsmith had a stronger affinity for snails than people and spent most of her near-constant, semi-frantic writing time mainlining coffee, cigarettes, and booze? Or that Thomas Wolfe literally fondled himself to get the creative juices, ah, flowing?

There are the usual suspects who found that writing or painting or what-have-you got in the way of their prodigious social lives, your F. Scott Fitzgeralds and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrecs. And those who stuck to a routine with impressive dedication, such as Gustave Flaubert who, if he finished a novel during his scheduled writing time, simply picked up a new piece of paper and began the next one. Marcel Proust’s household lived in a state of silent stasis until the sensitive genius awoke and rang for his breakfast. And both Jane Austen and Agatha Christie hid their writing from the neighbors and friends due to a quiet embarrassment around putting effort into such an unwomanly pursuit. Fortunately, Austen’s family adored her and her writing, and her sister managed the majority of the household tasks so that Jane could write.

After reading several of these entries, I rounded the corner and began to find the whole project inspirational. Whether a daily practice or a sporadic frenzy, creative work is difficult but no one ever felt it was not worth it. And it includes the most useful writing advice I’ve ever heard, Ernest Hemingway’s practice of stopping writing at a point where you know what needs to happen next and can pick it up again quickly the next round. #protip


In my reading life this year I have come across two important approaches to apology. In Julia Child’s My Life in France, Child claims after a disastrous meal that she did not apologize to her guests because she never apologizes. Doing so won’t make the misstep go away and instead drags it out. Mistakes get made. Don’t apologize. Move on.

What a winning idea! Particularly for a lot of women, particularly for me, who apologizes all the time—for being late, for taking more than a day to respond to an email, for taking up space, for ordinary mistakes. Since reading the book I have challenged myself to stop apologizing for things that don’t need an apology, are not actually something I did wrong, or are not a big deal. It’s been illuminating how often I have started an email, “Apologies for…” only to hit backspace.

But Child’s rule only works up to a point. There are things that do merit an apology. In the light of #metoo, we have seen a lot of apologies, most of them unsatisfactory. But it’s not only sexual violence and harassment. We have multiple historical and present reckonings that make apologies a worthwhile topic for consideration. What would it mean to really apologize for slavery, Jim Crow, settler colonialism, and structural racism? What would it mean to really apologize for what we have done to the planet?

In Eve Ensler’s The Apology she writes the apology she never got and never will from her abusive father. He’s dead and he spent a portion of his precious final breaths disowning her. But Ensler went ahead and wrote the apology she needs. In doing so, she also created a template for what a true apology would look and feel like.

On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Ensler said something to the effect of, she doesn’t believe in forgiveness but she does believe in apologies. It’s not the job of the victim of a wrong to forgive, it’s the job of the wrongdoer to make amends. But she finds that when apology is made truly and seriously, when the offending party truly understands and wants to rectify the wrongs done, that forgiveness tends to follow without being forced. She does not simplify the process of apology. In serious cases, it’s not enough to say the words; one has to do the work, empathize with the wronged one, truly understand the hurt, and strive to never repeat the mistake.

In the final offing, Child and Ensler’s beliefs about apology are not so incompatible. Child reminds us not to apologize for the things that don’t matter, and Ensler underscores the need to apologize for the things that really do. Together, they bring a balance to the practice of apologies.

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