What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?
After reading Mason Currey’s fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.
But if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one won’t work for another.
However, whether you’re looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.
Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.
Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting, “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.
Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.
For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.
Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:
When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “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.”
Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”
“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957
I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.
He isn’t the only one.
Marcel Proust, Currey writes …
wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You’re putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.
Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn’t,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”
Err, if you’re really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”
Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”
Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of his routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.
early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family
Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”
Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I’ve found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)
Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.
I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he 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.”
So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don’t overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.