Daily rituals of great artists

13 November 2013

In the weeks since my first book, Daily Rituals, was published, a number of people have asked me to name my “favourite” ritual. Embarrassingly, I never have a good answer on hand. That’s because what I think people really want to hear is a particularly juicy or bizarre anecdote – and, in truth, there are plenty such examples to draw on. The book describes the routines and working habits of 161 great creative minds, and many of these figures were quite eccentric. So, usually, I’ll tell people about Honoré de Balzac’s excessive coffee-drinking (as many as 50 cups a day!), or how Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom (he said that he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write), or some other tale of amphetamine use, sex addiction, precisely-timed naps, or superstitious exercising.

But, for me, the most resonant moments in the book aren’t necessarily the most outrageous ones, and these don’t always lend themselves to an easy sound bite. So I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight five of my actual favorite entries in Daily Rituals, and explain why they have stuck in my mind. – Mason Currey

Jane Austen: the usefulness of a creaky door hinge

With literary legends like Austen, it’s easy to forget that they were actual working writers who had to sit down at their desks each day, and who often worked in the face of significant obstacles. Austen’s writing circumstances were particularly difficult. She never lived alone and had little expectation of solitude in her daily life. For the last eight years of her life, she lived in a small cottage with her mother, her sister, a close friend, and three servants, not to mention a steady stream of visitors, often unannounced. Austen did not even have her own workroom – she wrote in the family sitting room, “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions,” her nephew recalled. He writes:

She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.

I love this detail of the creaky door hinge; it is a perfect symbol of how tenuous the artistic life can be, of how little stands between a good stretch of work and a wasted day. Personally, I find it useful to remember that many great artists have worked in less-than-ideal conditions, and that it’s still entirely possible to do good work in crummy circumstances.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: solitude versus society

Throughout the book, as much as possible, I let my subjects speak for themselves in quotes from diaries, letters, and interviews. One of my favorite such passages comes from a letter that Mozart sent to his sister in 1782, not long after he had settled in Vienna as freelance composer and performer. Vienna provided Mozart with a lot of opportunities, but staying solvent required a frantic round of piano lessons, concert performances, and social visits with the city’s wealthy patrons. At the same time, Mozart was also courting his future wife, Constanze, under the disapproving gaze of her mother. All this activity left him only a few hours a day to compose new works. Here’s Mozart complaining about his schedule:

My hair is always done by six o’clock in the morning and by seven I am fully dressed. I then compose until nine. From nine to one I give lessons. Then I lunch, unless I am invited to some house where they lunch at two or even three o’clock, as, for example, today and tomorrow at Countess Zichy’s and Countess Thun’s. I can never work before five or six o’clock in the evening, and even then I am often prevented by a concert. If I am not prevented, I compose until nine. I then go to my dear Constanze, though the joy of seeing one another is nearly always spoilt by her mother’s bitter remarks. . . . At half past ten or eleven I come home—it depends on her mother’s darts and on my capacity to endure them! As I cannot rely on being able to compose in the evening owing to the concerts which are taking place and also to the uncertainty as to whether I may not be summoned now here and now there, it is my custom (especially if I get home early) to compose a little before going to bed. I often go on writing until one—and am up again at six.

“Altogether I have so much to do that often I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels,” Mozart wrote to his father. I’m sure that most contemporary freelancers can relate!

Nicholson Baker: two mornings a day

I’m a morning person; I’ve always done my best work shortly after waking, and if I put things off until later in the day I am completely hopeless and find it much more difficult to focus. So I was glad to speak to the American novelist Nicholson Baker, who, it turns out, shares my preference for writing first thing in the morning. “The mind is newly cleansed but it’s also befuddled and you’re still just plain sleepy,” Baker told me. “I found that I wrote differently then.”

Baker likes this early-morning feeling so much that he has developed a strategy to squeeze two mornings out of one day. Typically, he wakes up around 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. and writes for 90 minutes. But then he goes back to sleep for another three hours or so, rising again at 9:00 a.m. and returning to his desk for a second period of writing. I haven’t actually adopted this habit myself, but I find it to be a particularly brilliant piece of schedule engineering.

Pablo Picasso: a pragmatist at heart?

A lot of the figures in my book required long stretches of solitude to do their work. But many of them also had families and friends that they wanted to spend time with. How did they strike a balance between their creative work and their social life?

In most cases, the answer is not very well. A huge number of the figures in the book were frankly terrible spouses and parents, and many of them purposely avoided social engagements in order to pursue their art. Picasso is an interesting case because he both craved social interaction and resented too much distraction. As the biographer John Richarson put it, “the artist veered between anti-social sulking and gregariousness.” At one point, Picasso and his girlfriend designated Sunday as “at-home” day (an idea borrowed from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), in an effort to take care of all their social obligations in a single afternoon, which I find to be a clever and pragmatic solution.

Ingmar Bergman: the cleansing power of art

Lastly, we have Bergman, the great Swedish filmmaker who died in 2007. I just really like this one. You get a great sense of Bergman’s personality from the quotes, and there were so many colorful details to include (like the fact that Bergman was a fan of the TV show Dallas!) Here’s that entry in full:

“Do you know what moviemaking is?” Bergman asked in a 1964 interview. “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film. And during those eight hours there are maybe only ten or twelve minutes, if you’re lucky, of real creation. And maybe they don’t come. Then you have to gear yourself for another eight hours and pray you’re going to get your good ten minutes this time.” But moviemaking for Bergman was also writing scripts, which he always did in his home on the remote island of Farö, Sweden. There he followed essentially the same schedule for decades: up at 8:00, writing from 9:00 until noon, then an austere meal. “He constantly eats the same lunch,” the actress Bibi Andersson remembered. “It doesn’t change. It’s some kind of whipped sour milk, very fat, and strawberry jam, very sweet—a strange kind of baby food he eats with corn flakes.”

After lunch, Bergman worked again from 1:00 to 3:00, then slept for an hour. In the late afternoon he went for a walk or took the ferry to a neighboring island to pick up the newspapers and the mail. In the evening he read, saw friends, screened a movie from his large collection, or watched TV (he was particularly fond of Dallas). “I never use drugs or alcohol,” Bergman said. “The most I drink is a glass of wine and that makes me incredibly happy.”

Music was also “absolutely necessary” for him, and Bergman enjoyed everything from Bach to the Rolling Stones. As he got older, he had trouble sleeping, never managing more than four or five hours a night, which made shooting films arduous. But even after he retired from filmmaking in 1982, Bergman continued to make television movies, direct plays and operas, and write plays, novels, and a memoir. “I have been working all the time,” he said, “and it’s like a flood going through the landscape of your soul. It’s good because it takes away a lot. It’s cleansing. If I hadn’t been at work all the time, I would have been a lunatic.”