Living Maya Angelou's Daily Routine
In 2016 I experienced, for the first time, true existential dread. To say the very least, suddenly the truths of living made themselves terrifyingly clear to me and had dwarfed every sense of purpose I had previously given to life. For months I felt anxiety without an identifiable cause and wondered if this is how it felt to lose one's mind.
One day, while sitting under a hairdryer at a nearby salon, I unexpectedly stumbled into near-instant relief from the tight pain that found a home in my chest. While reading "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus I came across a line that read,
"The only reality is "anxiety" in the whole chain of being. To the man lost in the world and its diversions this anxiety a brief, fleeting fear."
I felt immediate comfort in the words. These words had been percolating in a different order within my own mind, causing me uneasiness as I pondered the possibility that I was the only one who felt this way. The validity of the philosophical statement didn’t matter much to me. I realized the powerful ability art has to connect the human experience.
Why Maya Angelou?
Since that day, I've viewed artists and their work through very romantic eyes. I love to learn about the greats, immersing myself in their artwork as a gateway to their mind. I am particularly attracted to people who have had experiences unimaginable to my own.
Maya Angelou, or Dr. Angelou as she preferred to be called by those outside her personal circle, overcame extraordinarily difficult circumstances to accomplish extraordinary feats.
About Dr. Angelou
Born on April 4, 1928, Dr. Angelou spent the majority of her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas under Jim Crow laws - an era defined by racial segregation throughout the southern United States. Dr. Angelou’s formative years included racial injustices and sexual abuse so traumatic, she stopped speaking for five years at the age of eight. In autobiographical accounts of her childhood, Dr. Angelou described her love for literature, poetry, and writing at a young age.
Throughout her life, Dr. Angelou would hold many titles including poet, storyteller, autobiographer, professor, civil rights activist, singer, dancer, actress, and director.
At the age of 16, she became San Francisco’s first Black female cable car conductor. Her name would go on to attach itself to many other “firsts” in history including:
First Black woman to write a nonfiction bestseller with her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
First Black woman to write and score a major film.
First female inaugural poet in U.S. presidential history.
Throughout her life, she lived in the United States, Egypt, and Ghana. She spoke French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti. She worked alongside Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She won several prestigious awards throughout her life including a Pulitzer Prize, three Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and over 50 honorary degrees.
"Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest." - Dr. Maya Angelou
I find Dr. Angelou so difficult to understand and easy to admire. Despite the odds being seemingly stacked against her, she managed to find incredible success in each creative avenue she pursued.
Are people born geniuses? Or do certain life experiences aid in that development? There was nothing advantageous about Dr. Angelou's childhood. In fact, many aspects of her childhood would be experiences you wouldn't wish for any child.
I personally feel my creative interests pulling my perceived limited time in different directions. How did Dr. Angelou manage to be so courageous, prolific, and impactful on our world? I want to walk in her shoes for a week, in hopes of better understanding the mind of one of the greatest literary giants ever.
In one 1983 interview, Dr. Angelou described her routine. Here are the key points that I will be structuring my week around.
5:30am: Wake up
6:00am: Coffee with her husband
6:30am: Leave to go to work in a tiny, mean hotel room where she kept a notepad, a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards, and a bottle of sherry.
7:00am: Begin working
12:30pm - 2:00pm: Leave hotel room for home (earlier depending on whether the work was going well)
2:00pm: Go home and re-read the days work, shower, and prepare dinner
Dinner: Eat with husband, have a glass of wine, and read work out loud
My Rules for the Week
1. No cellphone
Given the fact that this interview happened in 1984, it's safe to assume Dr. Angelou didn't have a smartphone with her at all times. For the week, my iPhone will be living in my kitchen drawer. I will only use it for up to an hour each day so I don't lose my Duolingo streak (I'm currently studying French) and if I need to make any phone calls. I will most definitely not be using social media.
2. No music and no TV while at the hotel
A rule Dr. Angelou had for herself while working.
3. Keep home life simple
I will be further challenging myself by not allowing TV in the evenings. The only shows I watch are reality shows anyway, and while I'm sure Dr. Angelou watched TV, I can't quite imagine her spending her evenings engulfed in an episode of Teen Mom OG. I will keep busy by reading or working on other creative projects.
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. - Dr. Maya Angelou
It's my first day of walking in the shoes of Dr. Angelou by living her daily routine. While lying on my hotel bed, I am secretly panicking about the pressure to fill the hours with only a pen, a notepad, a dictionary, a Bible, and a deck of cards. Oh! And a bottle of sherry... can't forget about that. Truth be told, I don't actually have the Bible with me... yet. I made the incorrect assumption that my hotel room would have one waiting for me on the nightstand. I thought all hotel rooms included a Bible? I suppose that's something that silently went away.
I have an unfortunate inability to sleep through commitments. This morning, in anticipation of my 5:30am alarm, my mind decided to wake me up at 3:30am instead. My 6:00am coffee did very little to liven me up. It is now only 7:49am and I can feel myself resisting the urge to slump deeper into the stiff, white hotel bed.
I've created three sections in my notepad:
1. Capturing the Experience
In this aptly named section, I will be journaling about the week. It will be the outlet for any moments where my mind is busy or unfocused. Throughout the week, I will slowly groom the scribbles until they become a somewhat coherent blog post.
2. Personal Reflection
This section will require slightly more brainpower. Unlike the aforementioned section, which will focus on actions and thoughts related to my experiment, this section will be a space to dive deeper into self-discovery and awareness. Another working title for this section is "Self-Induced Existential Dread".
3. Short Story
Lastly, and arguably the most daunting writing task on my plate, is to write a short story. A friend of mine recently told me about a writing competition, which coincides perfectly with this little experiment. This is a task I cautiously look forward to, as I haven't sat down to write a short story in over 10 years.
"I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry." - Dr. Maya Angelou
sherry n. (pl. sherries) a fortified wine originally from southern Spain.
It's the morning and I just had my first sip of sherry ever. I also just used a physical dictionary for the first time in about 20 years.
I'm hoping the morning sherry will grow on me. I imagine Dr. Angelou, on the days where she felt the creativity pouring out of her, slipping her mid-day sherry as a small celebration for only her to enjoy. I want to be able to romanticize this moment of exercising creativity and sipping my extra dry drink. Unfortunately, the only feeling I'm experiencing is "tired" thanks to my 3:30am overly excited mind. I don't imagine the sherry will help my energy levels. Oh well, cheers.
"I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything." - Dr. Maya Angelou
In about an hour I will be packing up and leaving my hotel room until tomorrow. While I can imagine the type of flow state such a lonely and impersonal work environment could have induced, it was not something I experienced today. My heavy eyes did not lend well to my overall productivity and each burning blink distracted me from the task at hand. I look forward to heading home and showering, hopefully, that will give me a much-needed energy boost.
I left the hotel at 2:00pm. My partner, Cory, wanted to take advantage of the mild February weather and met me at the hotel so we could walk home together. I felt like I was being picked up from my first day of school.
Once home, I caught up on some chores, showered, and made dinner. Cory and I ate red Thai curry and enjoyed a glass of Merlot. The red wine and red curry were admittedly a poor pairing choice, but the bottle was already open. Waste not, want not. I shared with him my ideas for a short story. Reviewing and sharing the ideas out loud gave them enough permission to quietly ruminate in my mind for the rest of the evening.
It's my second day living Dr. Angelou's daily routine and I'm feeling much more chipper about the prospect of the hours ahead. I fought yesterday's urge to take a mid-day nap and got to bed at a decent hour. This morning, my 5:30am alarm wasn't as traumatic and I've had enough hours of sleep for my 6:00am coffee to do its job. By the time I woke up this morning, I already had ideas on how to elaborate on my initial story concepts.
"What I represent in fact, what I’m trying like hell to represent every time I go into that hotel room, is myself." - Dr. Maya Angelou
I've spent the morning fiddling with key plot points for a short story premise I feel particularly excited about. I noticed the time and decided to take a bit of a break by pouring myself a glass of sherry. I'm really trying to take moments away from my amateur writing to earnestly reflect on Dr. Angelou's process. I try to imagine her sitting in a hotel room, maybe similar to this one, creating timeless pieces of poetry and literature. The introvert in me has been truly enjoying the anonymous seclusion of working from a hotel room. In this room, there are zero expectations for how I should look, act, or even what I should create.
"I try to pull the language into such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy." - Dr. Maya Angelou
Today, for no discernible reason, I'm just not feeling the creative spark. Upon opening my hotel room door, I felt a surge of gratitude for my little space that remained exactly as I left it yesterday. However, after sitting down and trying to write, nothing came to me. I'm even finding it difficult to capture my thoughts into journal form. I'm coming to the realization that Dr. Angelou must have been truly energized by writing and the English language. These hours alone in the hotel room were the catalyst to her day. It was of course her commitment to her writing that was so impressive and likely fed into her successes.
"I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life." - Dr. Maya Angelou
I feel I am succeeding in creating a simple home life. Without TV or a smartphone constantly within an arms reach, I feel a change in the air of my home. More than ever, we have all been spending more time in our home, working, and living. I have noticed without the physical separation between work and home, my mind never fully commits to either headspace. While working, I am easily distracted by chores around the home and while trying to relax, my mind never fully quiets the need to be doing something productive.
I've been enjoying the separation and structure this routine is creating. Once I'm home, I feel absolutely zero pressure to dedicate my mental capacity to my writing projects. I can be fully present at home, whether that be while reading, eating dinner, or folding laundry.
The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.
Today I got a late start to my day. Yesterday, after my 8:30pm French class I went to bed with the intention of reading. After about a chapter, I decided to "rest my eyes". The next time I woke up it was 6:30am fully clothed, winter Roots socks and all. Since my phone (which is also my alarm clock) now lives in my kitchen drawer, I am dependant on Cory's phone alarm. My early and unexpected bedtime left no space for me to remind Cory to set the alarm.
Now that I am at the hotel, I'm feeling motivated and enthusiastic about the day. With so much space and time in my day to write, I can feel the pace of my thoughts slowing to a manageable speed. I've also enjoyed the "slowness" of physically writing with a pen and paper. I've noticed when I sit down to read, my mind more easily focuses on the words.
"If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be." - Dr. Maya Angelou
At the beginning of the week, I gave my friends and family a heads up that I would essentially be in self-inflicted solitude for an experiment. A thought occurred to me just now... am I becoming "that kooky aunt"? Anyway, I'm currently sipping on some sherry and just finished taking some shots in the hotel room (as in camera shots, not alcoholic). My plan was to vlog this experience, but I only just now realized I haven't taken a single video all week.
It's difficult to capture moments from the week. An important element of this experiment is detaching from expectations and trying to be completely myself. That's literally the point of the hotel. Having a camera filming just slightly changes that dynamic.
I'm not feeling a super urgent desire to leave the hotel room today. I've been reading passages out of the Bible, specifically the Book of Deuteronomy. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Dr. Angelou described her childhood love for the Book of Deuteronomy because of the clear guidelines it lies out. I personally have not read the Bible voluntarily... maybe ever. I keep reading passages that start strong but take an unexpected turn and end by stoning children to death. It's a book full of very interesting little twists and turns.
I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. - Dr. Maya Angelou
Today is the first time I dabbled in the "personal reflection" section of my notebook.
Dr. Angelou's quote "what I’m trying like hell to represent every time I go into that hotel room, is myself" keeps running through my mind. In today's electronically connected world, there is this performative aspect to all our lives. Even the performative aspect of this experiment isn't lost on me.
A few key takeaways from my week:
Wake Up Earlier
Without a regular 9-5 type job, I have noticed myself falling into poor sleep patterns. The mornings are an extremely productive time for me and I would like to be more strict about the time I wake up and go to sleep.
Prioritize Disconnected Space
It's out of my means to be able to book a hotel room to work out of indefinitely, but from this experience, I will be prioritizing disconnected space. The most unexpectedly valuable takeaway from this experiment was the detox from my phone and endless scrolling through streaming platforms. I thought I would be bored without my phone or TV. The combination of having so much dedicated alone time and writing time allowed my brain to slow down in a way that I truly appreciated.
More Boundaries Around My Availability
Since my phone is almost always within arm's reach, I feel as though I am (and also expected to be) constantly available to people. This experiment reminded my introverted mind that it is okay to not feel pressured to immediately respond to the various notifications fed to me daily via my iPhone.
Journalling is an activity I find immensely helpful when I'm working through something difficult in my life. I mostly treat journaling as a venting activity. When things are going well in my life (and I'm not feeling the need to vent), journalling often gets pushed to the side. This week, I recognized I need to also journal when things are going well and I'm feeling creative or inspired. Writing ideas and thoughts on paper seemed to have freed up space in my mind.
My main takeaway from this experience is that if I want to nurture my own creativity, then I need to make a space for myself that is free of distraction and outside influence. I find it difficult to create without being concerned about how it will be viewed. This experience has given me the space to feel more comfortable connecting with a genuinely creative space within me.