I love learning about the creative processes and daily habits of people who’ve given us great gifts, everything from powerful writing to awe-inspiring art to beautiful symphonies.
So I was excited to pick up a copy of Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In it, Currey shares the everyday routines of writers, composers, painters, playwrights, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, scientists and other artists — 161 in total.
In his introduction, he notes that Daily Rituals is “about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.” His goal, he says, is “…to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.”
Daily Rituals is a fascinating glimpse into some of the greatest minds, and the habits and practices that are integral to their creative process.
For instance, take exercise. For many of the individuals, it was (and is) indispensable. Spanish artist Joan Miró exercised vigorously. (He worried about suffering another severe depression, which he did as a young man.)
According to Currey, his routine included: “boxing in Paris; jumping rope and Swedish gymnastics at a Barcelona gym; and running on the beach and swimming at Mont-roig, a seaside village where his family owned a farmhouse, to which Miró returned nearly every summer to escape city life and recharge his creative energies.”
Novelist and writer Haruki Murakami has said that “physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” In 1981, when he had just started working as a professional writer, Murakami led a sedentary life and smoked as many as 60 cigarettes a day. But he revised his unhealthy lifestyle. Currey writes:
He soon resolved to change his habits completely, moving with his wife to a rural area, quitting smoking, drinking less, and eating a diet of mostly vegetables and fish. He also started running daily, a habit he has kept up for more than a quarter century.
Oliver Sacks, a physician, professor and author of several bestselling books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, prefers swimming, after he meets with his analyst at 6 a.m. “Swimming gets me going as nothing else can, and I need to do it at the start of the day, otherwise I will be deflected by busyness or laziness.”
For Tchaikovsky, long daily walks were essential to his creative process. The weather conditions didn’t matter. According to Tchaikovsky’s brother:
Somewhere at sometime he had discovered that a man needs a two-hour walk for his health, and his observance of this rule was pedantic and superstitious, as though if he returned five minutes early he would fall ill, and unbelievable misfortunes of some sort would ensue.
Others also followed superstitions. Truman Capote had to write in bed. In 1957 he told The Paris Review: “I am a completely horizontal author.” He’d write longhand using a pencil and then type up the final copy, balancing the typewriter on his knees. He had other superstitions.
He couldn’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray at once, and if he was a guest at someone’s house, he would stuff the butts in his pocket rather than overfill the tray. He couldn’t begin or end anything on Friday. And he compulsively added numbers in his head, refusing to dial a telephone number or accept a hotel room if the digits made a sum he considered unlucky. “It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t,” he said. “But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts.”
Ernest Hemingway had certain interesting idiosyncrasies, as well. Despite popular belief, he didn’t start his work by sharpening 22 number-two pencils. But he did write standing up, “facing a chest-high bookshelf with a typewriter on top, and on top of that a wooden reading board”; and “compose his first drafts “in pencil on onionskin typewriter paper laid slantwise across the board.”
When his work was progressing well, he’d move to the typewriter. When it wasn’t, he’d switch to answering letters.
Maya Angelou is particular about her work area. She’s said that she likes to keep her home pretty. “[A]nd I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” So she works in hotel or motel rooms. In a 1983 interview she shared her routine:
…I keep a hotel room in which I do my work – a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. 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. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.
B.F. Skinner, the founder of behavioral psychology, not surprisingly, treated his work as a lab experiment. (Would you expect anything less?) According to Currey, Skinner conditioned “himself to write every morning with a pair of self-reinforcing behaviors: he started and stopped by the buzz of a timer, and he carefully plotted the number of hours he wrote and the words he produced on a graph.”
So what’s the takeaway from these daily rituals?
They’re as varied and interesting as the great minds who followed them (and follow them today). And despite their great work, many still worried about their progress, struggled with creative blocks and experienced constant self-doubt (like William James and Franz Kafka).
So if you’re regularly second-guessing your work, take heart. You’re among an illustrious group. But I hope you don’t simmer in your self-doubt for too long. There’s work to be done.