Brain Pickings

Daily Rituals: A Guided Tour of Writers’ and Artists’ Creative Habits

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Hemingway wrote standing, Nabokov on index cards, Twain while puffing cigars, and Sitwell in an open coffin.

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone,” the William James’s famous words on habit echo. “Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

Given this omnibus of the daily routines of famous writers was not only one of my favorite articles to research but also the most-read and -shared one in the entire history of Brain Pickings, imagine my delight at the release of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (public library) by Mason Currey, based on his blog of the same title. Currey, who culled the famous routines from a formidable array of interviews, diaries, letters, and magazine profiles, writes in the introduction:

Nearly every weekday morning for a year and a half, I got up at 5:30, brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write about how some of the greatest minds of the past four hundred years approached this exact same task — that is, how they made the time each day to do their best work, how they organized their schedules in order to be creative and productive. By writing about the admittedly mundane details of my subjects’ daily lives — when they slept and ate and worked and worried — I hoped to provide a novel angle on their personalities and careers, to sketch entertaining, small-bore portraits of the artist as a creature of habit.

The notion that if only we could replicate the routines of great minds, we’d be able to reverse-engineer their genius is, of course, an absurd one — yet an alluring one nonetheless. Currey’s feat is in at once indulging and debunking the mythology of our voyeuristic routine-fetishism by exploring the wildly diverse ways in which celebrated creators structure their days, while at the same time engaging in delicate pattern-recognition to reveal a number of recurring undercurrents essential for creative success. Here is a small sampling of some favorites:

Mark Twain — master of epistolary snark, unsuspected poet, cheeky adviser of little girls — followed a simple but rigorous routine:

He would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study — they would blow a horn if they needed him — he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours. … After dinner, Twain would read his day’s work to the assembled family. He liked to have an audience, and his evening performances almost always won their approval. On Sundays, Twain skipped work to relax with his wife and children, read, and daydream in some shady spot on the farm. Whether or not he was working, he smoked cigars constantly.

Photograph courtesy Poetry Foundation

Gertrude Stein’s routine, as detailed in a 1934 New Yorker piece, relied heavily on her partner, Alice B. Toklas, who all but managed Stein’s life:

Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She’s always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it. Miss Toklas, her companion, gets up at six and starts dusting and fussing around. . . . Every morning Miss Toklas bathes and combs their French poodle, Basket, and brushes its teeth. It has its own toothbrush.

Despite his astounding creative output, from Ulysses to his lesser-known poetry to, even, children’s books, James Joyce once described himself as “a man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.” And yet he followed a steady regimen, as outlined in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce:

He woke about 10 o’clock, an hour or more after Stanislaus had breakfast and left the house. Nora gave him coffee and rolls in bed, and he lay there, as Eileen [his sister] described him, “smothered in his own thoughts” until about 11 o’clock. Sometimes his Polish tailor called, and would sit discoursing on the edge of the bed while Joyce listened and nodded. About eleven he rose, shaved, and sat down at the piano (which he was buying slowly and perilously on the installment plan). As often as not his singing and playing were interrupted by the arrival of a bill collector. Joyce was notified and asked what was to be done. “Let them all come in,” he would say resignedly, as if an army were at the door. The collector would come in, dun him with small success, then be skillfully steered off into a discussion of music or politics.

Photograph courtesy BBC

On the most eccentric end of the spectrum, we find Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions:

The Russian-born novelist’s writing habits were famously peculiar. Beginning in 1950, he composed first drafts in pencil on ruled index cards, which he stored in long file boxes. Since, Nabokov claimed, he pictured an entire novel in complete form before he began writing it, this method allowed him to compose passages out of sequence, in whatever order he pleased; by shuffling the cards around, he could quickly rearrange paragraphs, chapters, and whole swaths of the book. (His file box also served as portable desk; he started the first draft of Lolita on a road trip across America, working nights in the backseat of his parked car — the only place in the country, he said, with no noise and no drafts.) Only after months of this labor did he finally relinquish the cards to his wife, Vera, for a typed draft, which would then undergo several more rounds of revisions.

But perhaps Leo Tolstoy, man of great wisdom, had perhaps the most emblematic relationship with the purpose of routine, professing in his diary to write “each day without fail” not necessarily in pursuit of creative merit but to avoid falling out of his routine.

Daily Rituals features such beloved creators as T. S. Eliot, Honoré de Balzac, Sylvia Plath, Alexander Graham Bell, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tchaikovsky, and Georgia O’Keeffe. But more than a mere voyeuristic tour of creative routines, what makes it particularly enjoyable is that Currey manages to take these seemingly superficial rotes and weave of them something so rich and representative of the human impulse for creativity, at once incredibly diverse and uniform in its compulsive restlessness.

Excerpted from Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. Copyright © 2013 by Mason Currey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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