Brain Pickings

Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life

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“A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”

After my recent exploration of how the sleep habits of famous authors affected their creative output, I found myself revisiting a decade’s worth of notes and marginalia on the daily routines and odd customs of literary greats, and inevitably remembered some I had missed in the visualization project. Among them was the immeasurably beautiful daily routine of Herman Melville found in the wonderful 1954 volume Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on the osmotic arts of reading and writing, on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau.

In a letter from December of 1850, mere months before the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville writes to his friend Evert Duyckink, editor of The New York Literary Journal, and describes his life in the country, shortly after he left New York City and settled on a farm in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with his new wife, Elizabeth Shaw. After a few facetious lines about having neglected to write to his friend for months, Melville paints this beautiful vignette imbued with his nautical obsession:

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

He then outlines his daily routine, emanating his equal passion for writing and life — and above all, perhaps, his profound understanding of how the two flow in and out of one another:

Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.

Melville ends with an endearing, tongue-in-cheek lament about the disconnect between his ambition and his productivity and the general creative paradox of writing:

Can you send me fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately — But … a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Complement with more daily routines from Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Joy Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary greats.

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