The novelist Patricia Highsmith worked in bed surrounded by cigarettes, an ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and a cup full of sugar. According to Mason Currey, the author of the entertaining and enlightening new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, she also liked to have a stiff drink before she settled down to write, “to reduce her energy levels, which veered toward the manic.”
Daily Rituals chronicles the routines of genius-level artists, writers, composers, and philosophers—Beethoven, Kafka, Chuck Close, and John Cheever are among those included. Their quotidian schedules tended to be as regular as they were idiosyncratic. Currey says the most surprising ritual came from the early 20th-century writer Thomas Wolfe, who would unconsciously “fondle his genitals” while working because it “fostered such a "good male feeling" and “stoked his creative energies."
Even the most dissolute-seeming artists, like the painter Francis Bacon, who “lived a life of hedonistic excess, eating multiple rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries”—managed to keep a routine schedule of work, in his own libertine kind of way.
Here, Currey talks about the rituals that successful artists have in common, why enjoying your day job can help you with your personal output, and the importance of bathing on the creative process.
This may be sort of obvious, but everybody in the book found some way to carve out time [to work], either in the early morning, or before binge drinking the rest of the day like Francis Bacon. In some cases, it’s not that long. Gertrude Stein would only work for 30 minutes each day. Some other writers said two to three hours every day is great, but more than that wears them out and hurts the next day’s work. But they worked at the same time every day, regardless of their other obligations.
It’s the repetition that leads you to getting into a creative state. It’s not the rituals themselves—they don’t have any particular special power—that lead you into this zone. It’s more that these artists tried to stick with the same pattern every day.
So many behaviors in the book are ways to take a break. You can’t just work constantly on something that requires a high degree of focus and creative energy, whether it’s writing or composing or painting. No one can do it nonstop for hours on end. Taking a nap and drinking coffee were typical. Igor Stravinsky would do a headstand. Thomas Wolfe had the weird fondling-himself habit. Walking seems the most common, especially among composers. Composers all seemed to take a long walk every day.
So many people in the book talk about focusing on the problem or the idea in the work. When you step away and turn your mind to something else, your mind is still working on it in some way. It’s the spaces in between the work. Philip Larkin only worked on his poetry for two hours in the evening. His brain would work out the problems during the pauses.
The busier people were less precious—you learn to fit [your creative work] in, and you don’t have these elaborate eccentric rituals if you have children or a day job. Someone like Joseph Heller wrote Catch 22 in the evenings after work. He’d write for two or three hours a night after his job as an advertising executive doing campaigns for magazines. He was not a tortured artist. He found as much joy in his day job as writing Catch 22 at night. “I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels,” Heller said. Currey also notes in Daily Rituals that even when Heller quit his day job to write full-time, he still only worked on his novels for two to three hours a day.
Some people say it’s almost like maybe they only had so many hours they could work on their art a day, and they needed to get out of their heads. When you don’t have to work a day job, it’s a challenge to fill the day for some of these people. Ernest Hemingway talked about that in an interview with the Paris Review. The hard part for him was not the three or four hours he was writing in the morning. It was filling the rest of the day, that empty feeling.
A lot of people tend to talk about bathing habits as part of their creative process. Beethoven would stand at the washstand and pace back and forth and then go back to the washstand and put water on himself. It was an essential part of the creative buildup, but it also made him hated as a tenant and neighbor because he was splashing water everywhere. The novelist Somerset Maugham would think about the first two sentences he wanted to write while soaking in the bathtub in the morning. Woody Allen would give himself the chills so he wanted to take a hot shower. Some people get their best thinking done in the shower.
See the slide show above for more rituals from creative pioneers.