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Daily Rituals: How Artists Work


Personal Thoughts

161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks.

Summary Notes

  • “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958.
  • There was the presence only of essentials. It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.
  • “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.” External conditions—having the right pen, a good chair—were important, too. Feldman wrote in a 1965 essay, “My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical considerations that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.”
  • All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary labourers,—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.
  • “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable,” Freud wrote
  • These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”
  • “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
  • “Inspiration is for amateurs,” Close says. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
  • “My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits,”
  • Character, for Kant, is a rationally chosen way of organizing one’s life, based on years of varied experience—indeed, he believed that one does not really develop a character until age forty. And at the core of one’s character, he thought, were maxims—a handful of essential rules for living that, once formulated, should be followed for the rest of one’s life.
  • The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.
  • Unbelievably, he claimed to have a lazy temperament. “Like most men, I am lazy by nature and seize every opportunity to loaf,” he wrote in a 1932 letter. But this only made him work harder; believing that he was inclined to indolence, Mencken didn’t allow himself the luxury of free time. His compulsiveness meant that he was astonishingly productive throughout his life—and yet, at age sixty-four, he could nevertheless write, “Looking back over a life of hard work … my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder.”
  • His phone calls over, Gould would visit a local all-night diner for his sole meal of the day: scrambled eggs, salad, toast, juice, sherbet, and decaf coffee. Eating more frequently made him feel guilty, he said, although he snacked on arrowroot biscuits, Ritz crackers, tea, water, orange juice, and coffee throughout his waking hours. (On recording days he didn’t eat at all; fasting, he said, makes the mind sharper.) Finally, at 5:00 or 6:00 A.M., just as the sun was starting to rise, Gould would take a sedative and go to bed.
  • Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) “My life has been regulated by insomnia,” Bourgeois told an interviewer in 1993. “It’s something that I have never been able to understand, but I accept it.” Bourgeois learned to use these sleepless hours productively, propped up in bed with her “drawing diary,” listening to music or the hum of traffic on the streets. “Each day is new, so each drawing—with words written on the back—lets me know how I’m doing,” she said. “I now have 110 drawing-diary pages, but I’ll probably destroy some. I refer to these diaries as ‘tender compulsions.’ ” As for her daylight hours, Bourgeois told another interviewer: “I work like a bee and feel that I accomplish little.”
  • “I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day.” To minimize the pain, Styron evolved an unusual daily routine: he would sleep until noon, then read and think in bed for another hour or so before lunch with his wife at 1:30. In the early afternoon, he ran errands and dealt with the mail, then began the slow process of easing into work mode. Listening to music was a key part of this transition: “I often have to play music for an hour in order to feel exalted enough to face the act of composing,”
  • If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work.
  • Descartes believed that idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.
  • If I am very lucky indeed I can manage one page, but as a rule only a hand’s-breadth of writing, and often even less if I am in an unproductive mood.” These moods were the bane of Goethe’s later existence; he thought it futile to try to work without the spark of inspiration. He said, “My advice therefore is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”
  • A younger colleague once asked Liszt why he didn’t keep a diary. “To live one’s life is hard enough,” he replied. “Why write down all the misery? It would resemble nothing more than the inventory of a torture chamber.”
  • As an adult, it was not unusual for her to slip out of a sleeping lover’s bed to begin a new novel in the middle of the night. In the mornings, Sand often couldn’t remember what she had written during these somnambulant writing sessions. “If I did not have my works on a shelf, I would even forget their titles,” she claimed.
  • Inspiration can pass through the soul just as easily in the midst of an orgy as in the silence of the woods, but when it is a question of giving form to your thoughts, whether you are secluded in your study or performing on the planks of a stage, you must be in total possession of yourself.
  • At 8:00 A.M. he allowed himself a ninety-minute nap; then, from 9:30 to 4:00, he resumed work, drinking cup after cup of black coffee. (According to one estimate, he drank as many as fifty cups a day.)
  • “The days melt in my hands like ice in the sun,” he wrote in 1830. “I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in a horrible fashion—but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same.”
  • Dickens was prolific—he produced fifteen novels, ten of which are longer than eight hundred pages, and numerous stories, essays, letters, and plays—but he could not be productive without certain conditions in place. First, he needed absolute quiet; at one of his houses, an extra door had to be installed to his study to block out noise. And his study had to be precisely arranged, with his writing desk placed in front of a window and, on the desk itself.
  • He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk. On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

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