Interview by Madeleine Dore
“My routine is so simple – there really isn't that much to say,” explains renowned author and illustrator Maira Kalman.
So often we mistake complexity for productivity, demanding for meaningful, elaborate for interesting. But if Maira’s approach to her days is anything to go by, simplicity contains great intrigue and insight.
Maira starts her days reading the obituaries – the daily reminder of her own mortality serving as the ultimate wake-up call. “Reading the obituaries every morning makes you really conscious of the fact that you have a very limited amount of time. And within that time, the only thing that you can really do is work.”
She spends her afternoons working in the studio or going for a walk to allow for moments of "empty brain."
“For me, the moments when I allow my mind to wander and daydream are the times when I am able to come up with the ideas that really please me the most.”
Her days often conclude watching a favourite murder mystery and an early night, all in all proving that even the most ordinary experiences of our daily lives make for quality time. “I try to always remember that the quality and sweetness of time is something not to be lost.”
Living in New York City, time may not always appear to possess a sweetness, but always an energy.
“There's so much productivity here, so much energy that it's a wonderful place to be. It really motivates you and inspires you,” she says.
Though born in Tel Aviv, Maira has lived in New York since the age of four. The pace of the city is evident in her output – Maira has written and illustrated over twenty books, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Times, and regularly exhibits her work and collaborates with other artists. The latest of these took her to a new medium, costume and set design, for dance theatre work with choreographer John Heginbotham, based on her book, The Principles of Uncertainty.
Despite the impressive list of projects, like creatives everywhere, Maira is not immune to moments of insecurity. “Of course you can get burned out. Of course you can go crazy worrying about not doing enough, when you're probably doing a lot.”
For Maira, it’s about flipping the niggling question about whether you are doing too much or not enough. Instead: “What's the recipe for the right balance?"
"Once you ask that question, then you can start to see that maybe there is no right balance – there's just a constant change and shift," she says.
Now in her late 60s, she explains she has plenty of time to build her life and philosophical reflections. But – she wouldn’t wish to have accumulated such wisdom any earlier.
“Things get murky and confusing at any age. But you can’t have the kind of perceptions that you have at sixty-five when you’re twenty-five and I don’t think it would even be good to have that kind of wisdom – it might prevent you from doing all the stupid things that you should be doing!”
In this way, we needn’t seek to change the silly things we have done or decisions we are unhappy about as it’s “all part of the story,” says Maira.
“Everything's where it is and it's good. Even the things I’m unhappy about in my life have allowed me to persevere and to be patient.
“I have all the variations and all the sorrows and all the happiness – and that's my life. I now know that things will take a lot longer than you think they will to achieve. If you don’t have patience or perseverance, you’re not going to be able to work.”
"Reading the obituaries every morning makes you really conscious of the fact that you have a very limited amount of time. And within that time, the only thing that you can really do is work."
I wake up at six and I'm happy to start the day.
Drinking coffee and reading the obituaries every morning is my anchor. These mini biographies of extraordinary people in different fields are fascinating, funny and very inspiring – it makes you really conscious of the fact that you have a very limited amount of time. And within that time, the only thing that you can really do is work. I mean, of course there are people that you love and that's amazing, but really to find what work is important to you – that's your job.
Usually I go for a walk before having breakfast – sometimes I have oatmeal and sometimes I have a poached egg and a biscuit.
"Drinking coffee and reading the obituaries every morning is my anchor."
I get to the studio around 9.30am, sometimes earlier, sometimes later depending on my deadlines.
Usually I have a very good sense of how much time I need for a project and I can gauge the hours. If I need to go to the museum, I know I’ll be able to get to the studio later to paint. There's nobody watching over me when I work – for better or for worse.
“There's nobody watching over me when I work – for better or for worse.”
But because I’m so committed to deadlines in my editorial work, it’s not like I’m just going into the studio and thinking, ‘What will I create today?’ I have very specific assignments and there isn’t much room for not knowing what I need to do. For me that is very grounding and helpful.
I try to be organised and have so many lists – my whole life could be about making lists. I’ll make up a list and then think, ‘Well, that was a terrible list.’ There are so many unpleasant things to do, and sometimes I don't do everything on the list – I’m as inconsistent as any human being.
“I’m as inconsistent as any human being.”
I don't like to break for lunch. I don't like to meet people for lunch. If I meet somebody, I'd rather meet them for breakfast in the morning and then everybody can go on their merry way.
Often, if you break at lunch, it breaks the momentum of the day. Of course sometimes I do. But most of the time I just like to work through.
"Often, if you break at lunch, it breaks the momentum of the day."
I think I'm more focused in the afternoon – I'm listening to music and I'm very much in my own world. Hopefully there aren't any distractions and then I can just be in this other place.
There are also times I've just been doing a lot of projects and I'm tired and I want to not think about anything and relax and so I do.
I understand what my schedule is and what my deadlines are, so there are definitely some days when I can afford to just wander around the city so that I don't feel as if I'm stuck in my studio forever.
For me, the moments when I allow my mind to wander and daydream are the times when I am able to come up with the ideas that really please me the most. It's not straining, it's not trying very hard – there’s always a lovely sense of surprise of what you'll come up with when you're not trying.
There’s the same sense of surprise when you're taking a walk and not knowing who you are going to see or what you're going to see that will be inspiringly delightful. So I'm very attuned to allowing myself to have those moments of what I call ‘empty brain’, and allow whatever is there to come in and see how if feels.
“I'm very attuned to allowing myself to have those moments of what I call “empty brain”, and allow whatever is there to come in and see how if feels.”
How long I work each day varies of course, but some days I work for five hours and some days I work eight. The very long days I'm not inclined to do so much anymore. I’ll usually finish up around five or six.
I’ll have dinner at home and then hopefully another walk. I'm lucky that I have a boyfriend who likes to cook very much.
Sometimes we go to the movies, sometime we go to the theatre and hear music. But it’s nice to be home and go walk the dog.
I go to sleep early, probably around ten-ish. That is a beautiful thing.
I'm a reasonably well-adjusted human being, so I can do my day's work and then I can go to sleep reading and such. But then of course there's the obligatory waking-up-in-middle-of-the-night-in-a-panic about all sorts of things. That’s usually around 3.00am, the time that most people wake up in a panic – there’s an interesting theory that a metabolic change happens in your body around that time that startles you awake. Why we have to worry as opposed to being delighted, I don't know. It's night, it's dark and the dark forces make their appearance. I try to breathe and tell myself to go back to sleep and I do and then all is well.
“Fear of boredom has kept me working. I don't think anybody likes to be bored. The question is how do you handle that. How do you handle your interest and make your time interesting? That's a mystery.”
– Maira Kalman
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