How I Write

What Do Great Artists’ Routines Reveal?

Could we become Beethoven simply by bathing in a bucket? Alex Aciman wonders if routine is all there is to creativity.

About a third of the way through A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf describes the way Jane Austen wrote all of her novels. According to Woolf, Austen spent her days interrupted by visits and various obligations, and writing almost covertly—always hiding her work whenever someone came into the room. This was, of course, in order to hide the fact that Austen was ambitious, creative, and skilled—all of which Woolf believed were not acceptable things for women to be.

In Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a collection describing the way various artists from the last 400 years have put themselves to work, the author also describes the way Austen wrote. But Currey seems more interested in how many people lived in her house or what time Austen rose each morning than in explaining how and why Austen wrote in secret.

Daily Rituals is, in many ways, a detailed almanac of artists’ timetables. On occasion the hours they keep reveal something fascinating about them; Kafka, for example, didn’t often even attempt to start working until 11:30 p.m., despite his having a relatively simple job and plenty of free daylight hours. Thomas Mann, on the other hand, seemed to spend his whole day not with his children, but rather, insisting that they be kept perfectly quiet so he could write and then nap. Then there is the fascinating story of Benjamin Franklin, who, although busy and constantly working with an almost-hypomanic fervency, still found a leisurely hour or two every morning to read in his study, completely naked.

However, often enough, Currey’s book tells again and again the story of the artist who worked either morning to night without interruption—such as Mozart, who gave lessons and paid visits all day, and composed only in the evenings—or of the artist who worked day to night with constant distraction at their side, such as Joyce, who woke up late, gave lessons, chatted with a tailor, charmed a debt collector, and then worked if he felt like it. Almost every artist covered falls under one of these two categories. Similarly, Currey seems fascinated with the time at which artists drank coffee, or how much of it they liked to have. Proust liked to have two cups with milk, but Auden, quite to the contrary, only took one. No description in Daily Rituals is left without a careful examination of an artist’s coffee-related preferences.

This look into the habits of artists can reveal something charming about a particular artist’s life. On occasion it is an idiosyncrasy, such as the fact that Kierkegaard had a collection of different coffee saucers, from which his valet had to choose the one most appropriate for the philosopher’s midday coffee break—a break that always took place at the same time but with a different cup. Currey also describes the way French composer Erik Satie bought a series of identical chestnut velvet suits, loved eating, and once ate a 38-egg omelet in one sitting. This stirs the fantastic image of a velvet-clad Frenchman eating the world’s largest omelet.

If focusing so intensely on the artists’ schedules can bring out the similarities and small, artistic quirks that might, after 200 pages, start to make each artist’s life seem not only dull but indistinguishable from the others, it can also bring out the subtleties of what it is like to be an artist. Flaubert, for example, according to Currey, would wake up in the morning but couldn’t get to work until everyone had gone to bed. He was distracted by the sounds in the street, and would labor over every word he wrote. He wanted to invent a new style, and nearly drove himself mad doing it. The anxiety with which Flaubert faced the task of writing is made all the more evident by the hours he kept, the people he invited over to read his work at what hour, and how much time he spent working over a single page. Similarly, how little time Shostakovich spent on his work elucidates the fever and impatience of his mind. To see the production of art measured in terms of hours kept and schedules obeyed reveals that artists are anxious and impatient, lazy but ambitious, repetitive, and often neurotic. Or just like the rest of us.

That artists seem to live by rigid schedules points to something simple about their nature. In fact, it is in this simplicity that Currey seems to understand best what it means to be an artist. The artists he features seldom go out with friends except sometimes to cafés, they wake up early, go to bed late, ignore marital and social obligations, snub their children, eat meals in a trance, and allow themselves pleasures that are almost always tied somehow to work. Currey’s unwavering focus on schedules shows that artists do not lead lives but only shells of lives—life becomes a vehicle to produce. Picasso, for example, spent only one day a week hosting guests at his house, but on other days would eat lunch silently without talking to those at the table, and would return quickly to his studio. Mahler required silence from his neighbors and had a wife, it seemed, only so that she could tell the servants when he needed to be fed, to keep stray dogs from barking, and to go on a walk with him when he needed to clear his mind. Even the decadent artists featured, who drank to excess or ran around with countless lovers, still spent hours on their own and seem reclusive at times.

Perhaps the appeal of Daily Rituals is also its problem; the book suggests that all it takes to be a great artist is patience, endurance, a penchant for time keeping, and antisocial behavior. The rituals are so fascinatingly mundane that we can easily see ourselves practicing them. With a precise coffee habit nailed down, maybe the inimitable genius of Franz Liszt or Federico Fellini will follow. One inevitably begins to wonder if it’s really possible that ritual and routine is really all that makes a great artist. Is taking a walk every day at 3 p.m. all we need to become Immanuel Kant? Could we become Beethoven simply by bathing ourselves with a bucket? The humdrum day to day is so tangible that it allows us to wonder, if these were the very daily rituals that made artists great, how easily could we become just as great ourselves.