Summary: Daily Rituals How Artists Work By Mason Currey
Summary: Daily Rituals How Artists Work By Mason Currey

Summary: Daily Rituals How Artists Work By Mason Currey

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day. The biographer Andrew Wilson records her methods:

Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost foetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, “a womb of her own.”


Federico Fellini

The Italian filmmaker claimed that he was unable to sleep for more than three hours at a time. In a 1977 interview, he described his morning routine:

I’m up at six in the morning. I walk around the house, open windows, poke around boxes, move books from here to there. For years I’ve been trying to make myself a decent cup of coffee, but it’s not one of my specialties. I go downstairs, outside as soon as possible. By seven I’m on the telephone. I’m scrupulous about choosing who it’s safe to wake at seven in the morning without their getting insulted. For some I perform a real service, a wake-up service; they become used to my waking them at seven or so.

Fellini wrote for newspapers as a young man, but he found that his temperament was better suited to the movies—he liked the sociability of the filmmaking process. “A writer can do everything by himself—but he needs discipline,” he said. “He has to get up at seven in the morning, and be alone in a room with a white sheet of paper. I am too much of a vitellone [loafer] to do that. I think I have chosen the best medium of expression for myself. I love the very precious combination of work and of living-together that filmmaking offers.”


Morton Feldman

A French journalist visited Feldman in 1971, when the American composer was taking a month to work in a small village about an hour north of Paris. “I live here like a monk,” Feldman said.

I get up at six in the morning. I compose until eleven, then my day is over. I go out, I walk, tirelessly, for hours. Max Ernst is not far away. [John] Cage also came here. I’m cut off from all other activity. What effect does that have on me?

Very good … But I’m not used to having so much time, so much ease. Usually I create in the midst of a lot of bustle, of work. You know, I always worked at something other than music. My parents were in “business” and I participated in their worries, in their life.…

Then, I got married, my wife had a very good job and she was out all day. I got up at six in the morning, I did the shopping, the meals, the housework, I worked like mad and in the evening we received a lot of friends (I had so many friends without even realizing it myself). At the end of the year, I discovered that I had not written a single note of music!

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.


Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s unusual bathing habits are worth noting here. His pupil and secretary Anton Schindler recalled them in the biography Beethoven As I Knew Him:

Washing and bathing were among the most pressing necessities of Beethoven’s life. In this respect he was indeed an Oriental: to his way of thinking Mohammed did not exaggerate a whit in the number of ablutions he prescribed. If he did not dress to go out during the morning working hours, he would stand in great déshabillé at his washstand and pour large pitchers of water over his hands, bellowing up and down the scale or sometimes humming loudly to himself. Then he would stride around his room with rolling or staring eyes, jot something down, then resume his pouring of water and loud singing. These were moments of deep meditation, to which no one could have objected but for two unfortunate consequences. First of all, the servants would often burst out laughing. This made the master angry and he would sometimes assault them in language that made him cut an even more ridiculous figure. Or, secondly, he would come into conflict with the landlord, for all too often so much water was spilled that it went right through the floor. This was one of the main reasons for Beethoven’s unpopularity as a tenant. The floor of his living-room would have had to be covered with asphalt to prevent all that water from seeping through. And the master was totally unaware of the excess of inspiration under his feet!


Thomas Mann

Mann was always awake by 8:00 A.M. After getting out of bed, he drank a cup of coffee with his wife, took a bath, and dressed. Breakfast, again with his wife, was at 8:30. Then, at 9:00, Mann closed the door to his study, making himself unavailable for visitors, telephone calls, or family. The children were strictly forbidden to make any noise between 9:00 and noon, Mann’s prime writing hours. It was then that his mind was freshest, and Mann placed tremendous pressure on himself to get things down during that time. “Every passage becomes a ‘passage,’ ” he wrote, “every adjective a decision.” Anything that didn’t come by noon would have to wait until the next day, so he forced himself to “clench the teeth and take one slow step at a time.”

His morning grind over, Mann had lunch in his studio and enjoyed his first cigar—he smoked while writing, but limited himself to twelve cigarettes and two cigars daily. Then he sat on the sofa and read newspapers, periodicals, and books until 4:00, when he returned to bed for an hour-long nap. (Once again, the children were forbidden to make noise during this sacred hour.) At 5:00, Mann rejoined the family for tea. Then he wrote letters, reviews, or newspaper articles—work that could be interrupted by telephone calls or visitors—and took a walk before dinner at 7:30 or 8:00. Sometimes the family entertained guests at this time. If not, Mann and his wife would spend the evening reading or playing gramophone records before retiring to their separate bedrooms at midnight.


Richard Strauss

Strauss’s creative process was methodical and angst-free; he compared his need to compose to a cow giving milk.

Even in late 1892, when Strauss left Germany to recover from bouts of pleurisy and bronchitis in a warmer climate, he quickly established a regular work schedule. He wrote home from a hotel in Egypt:

My day’s work is very simple; I get up at 8 o’clock, have a bath and breakfast; 3 eggs, tea, “Eingemachtes” [homemade jam]; then I go for a stroll for half an hour by the Nile in the palm grove of the hotel, and work from 10 till 1; the orchestration of the first Act goes forward slowly but surely. At 1 o’clock I have lunch, then read my Schopenhauer or play Bezique with Mrs. Conze for a piastre stake. From 3 till 4 I work on; at 4 o’clock tea, and after that I go for a walk until 6 when I do my duty in admiring the usual sunset. At 6 o’clock it gets cool and dark; then I write letters or work a bit more until 7. At 7 dinner, after which I chat and smoke (8–12 a day), at half past 9 I go to my room, read for half an hour and put out the light at ten. So it goes on day after day.


Joan Miró

Miró always maintained a rigidly inflexible daily routine—both because he disliked being distracted from his work, and because he feared slipping back into the severe depression that had afflicted him as a young man, before he discovered painting. To help prevent a relapse, his routine always included vigorous exercise—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. In Miró: The Life of a Passion, Lluís Permanyer describes the artist’s routine in the early 1930s, when he was living in Barcelona with his wife and young daughter:

[A]t six o’clock he got up, washed and had coffee and a few slices of bread for breakfast; at seven he went into the studio and worked non-stop until twelve, when he stopped to do an hour of energetic exercise, like boxing or running; at one o’clock he sat down for a frugal but well-prepared lunch, which he finished off with a coffee and three cigarettes, neither more nor less; then he practised his “Mediterranean yoga,” a nap, but for just five minutes; at two he would receive a friend, deal with business matters or write letters; at three he returned to the studio, where he stayed until dinner time at eight o’clock; after dinner he would read for a while or listen to music.


B. F. Skinner

The founder of behavioral psychology treated his daily writing sessions much like a laboratory experiment, conditioning 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. In a 1963 journal entry, Skinner provided a detailed description of his routine:

I rise sometime between 6 and 6:30 often after having heard the radio news. My breakfast, a dish of corn flakes, is on the kitchen table. Coffee is made automatically by the stove timer. I breakfast alone. At the moment, I am reading a bit every morning of Bergen and Cornelia Evans’ Contemporary American Usage. A couple of pages every day, straight through. The morning papers (Boston Globe, N.Y. Times) arrive, thrown against the wall or door of the kitchen where I breakfast. I read the Globe, often saving the Times till later.

At seven or so I go down to my study, a walnut-paneled room in our basement. My work desk is a long Scandinavian-modern table, with a set of shelves I made myself for holding the works of BFS, notebooks and outlines of the book I am working on, dictionaries, word-books, etc. On my left the big Webster’s International on a stand, on my right an open-top file containing all current and future manuscript materials. As I sit down I turn on a special desk light. This starts a clock, which totalizes my time at my desk. Every twelve hours recorded on it, I plot a point on a cumulative curve, the slope of which shows my overall productivity. To the right of my desk is an electric organ, on which a few minutes each day I play Bach Chorales etc.

Later in the morning I go to my office. These days I leave just before 10 so that Debbie can ride with me to her summer school class. Later, in cooler weather, I will be walking—about 1¾ miles. In my office I open and answer mail, see people if necessary. Get away as soon as possible, usually in time for lunch at home. Afternoons are not profitably spent, working in [the] garden, swimming in our pool. Summers we often have friends in for a swim and drinks from 5 to 7 or possibly 8. Then dinner. Light reading. Little or no work. In bed by 9:30 or 10:00. I usually wake up for an hour or so during the night. I have a clip-board, paper pad and pencil (with a small flashlight attached to the board) for making notes at night. I am not an insomniac. I enjoy that nightly hour and make good use of it. I sleep alone.

By the time Skinner retired from his Harvard teaching post in 1974, that nightly hour of sleeplessness had become an integral part of his routine. His timer now rang four times a day: at midnight, 1:00 A.M., 5:00 A.M., and 7:00 A.M., for one hour of nocturnal composition in addition to his usual two hours at dawn. He followed this routine seven days a week, holidays included, until only a few days before his death in 1990.


Pablo Picasso

In 1911, Picasso moved from the Bateau Lavoir, a conglomeration of low-rent studios in Paris’s Montmartre district, to a much more respectable apartment on the boulevard de Clichy in Montparnasse. The new situation suited his growing fame as a painter, as well as his lifelong bourgeois aspirations. As the biographer John Richardson has written, “After the shabby gentility of his boyhood and the deprivations of his early days in Paris, Picasso wanted a lifestyle which would permit him to work in peace without material worries—‘like a pauper,’ he used to say, ‘but with lots of money.’ ” The Montparnasse apartment was not without its bohemianism, however. Picasso took over its large, airy studio, forbade anyone from entering without his permission, and surrounded himself with his painting supplies, piles of miscellaneous junk, and a menagerie of pets, including a dog, three Siamese cats, and a monkey named Monina.

Throughout his life, Picasso went to bed late and got up late. At the boulevard de Clichy, he would shut himself in the studio by 2:00 P.M. and work there until at least dusk. Meanwhile, his girlfriend of seven years, Fernande, was left alone to her own devices, hanging around the apartment, waiting for Picasso to finish his work and join her for dinner. When he finally emerged from his studio, however, he was hardly good company. “He rarely spoke during meals; sometimes he would not utter a word from beginning to end,” Fernande recalled. “He seemed to be bored, when he was in fact absorbed.” She blamed his chronic bad mood on diet—the hypochondriacal Picasso had recently resolved to drink nothing but mineral water or milk and eat only vegetables, fish, rice pudding, and grapes.

Picasso would make more of an effort to be sociable if guests were present, as they frequently were. He had mixed feelings about entertaining. He liked to be amused between intense periods of work, but he also hated too much distraction. At Fernande’s suggestion, they designated Sunday as “at-home” day (an idea borrowed from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), “and in this way managed to dispose of the obligations of friendship in a single afternoon.” Still, Richardson writes, “the artist veered between anti-social sulking and gregariousness.” Painting, on the other hand, never bored or tired him. Picasso claimed that, even after three or four hours standing in front of a canvas, he did not feel the slightest fatigue. “That’s why painters live so long,” he said. “While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Moslems take off their shoes before entering the mosque.”


Maya Angelou

Angelou has never been able to write at home. “I try to keep home very pretty,” she has said, “and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” As a result, she has always worked in hotel or motel rooms, the more anonymous the better. She described her routine in a 1983 interview:

I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. 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 the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. 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.


Nikola Tesla

As a young apprentice in Thomas Edison’s New York office, Tesla regularly worked from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 the following morning. (“I’ve had many hardworking assistants, but you take the cake,” Edison told him.) Later, after he had started his own company, Tesla arrived at the office at noon. Immediately, his secretary would draw the blinds; Tesla worked best in the dark and would raise the blinds again only in the event of a lightning storm, which he liked to watch flashing above the cityscape from his black mohair sofa. He typically worked at the office until midnight, with a break at 8:00 for dinner in the Palm Room of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

These dinners were carefully scripted affairs. Tesla ate alone, and phoned in his instructions for the meal in advance. Upon arriving, he was shown to his regular table, where eighteen clean linen napkins would be stacked at his place. As he waited for his meal, he would polish the already gleaming silver and crystal with these squares of linen, gradually amassing a heap of discarded napkins on the table. And when his dishes arrived—served to him not by a waiter but by the maître d’hôtel himself—Tesla would mentally calculate their cubic contents before eating, a strange compulsion he had developed in his childhood and without which he could never enjoy his food.


Stephen King

King writes every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays, and he almost never lets himself quit before he reaches his daily quota of two thousand words. He works in the mornings, starting around 8:00 or 8:30. Some days he finishes up as early as 11:30, but more often it takes him until about 1:30 to meet his goal. Then he has the afternoons and evenings free for naps, letters, reading, family, and Red Sox games on TV.

In his memoir On Writing, King compares fiction writing to “creative sleep,” and his writing routine to getting ready for bed each night:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule—in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk—exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go. In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night—six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight—so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.