Daily Rituals

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,”

(He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”)

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.

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care—he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose.

Kierkegaard had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid. The process was scarcely finished before the syrupy stimulant disappeared into the magister’s stomach, where it mingled with the sherry to produce additional energy that percolated up into his seething and bubbling brain—which in any case had already been so productive all day that in the half-light Levin could still notice the tingling and throbbing in the overworked fingers when they grasped the slender handle of the cup.

Franklin famously outlined a scheme to achieve “moral perfection” according to a thirteen-week plan. Each week was devoted to a particular virtue—temperance, cleanliness, moderation, et cetera—and his offenses against these virtues were tracked on a calendar.

But my three hours were not devoted entirely to writing. I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases.…

This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year;—the precise amount which so greatly acerbated the publisher in Paternoster Row, and which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.

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.

as difficult as the writing was, it was in many ways an ideal life for Flaubert. “After all,” as he wrote years later, “work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

The children were strictly forbidden to make any noise between 9:00 and noon,

“I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool,”

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself,” Jung wrote. “… I have done without electricity, and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps. There is no running water, I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

The meal was, to Mahler’s preference, light, simple, thoroughly cooked, and minimally seasoned. “Its purpose was to satisfy without tempting the appetite or causing any sensation of heaviness,”

Do you understand now why I am never bored? For over fifty years I have not stopped working for an instant.

Finally, when I sense that they are not convinced, I promise them a day off during the week. “But Monsieur Matisse,” one of them answered me, “this has been going on for months and I have never had one afternoon off.” Poor things! They don’t understand. Nevertheless I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them merely because they have boyfriends.

Ernest Hemingway (1399-1961)

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.

You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

As a young novelist, Miller frequently wrote from midnight until dawn—until he realized that he was really a morning person.

I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.”

(Faulkner liked to work in the library, and since the library door had no lock, he would remove the doorknob and take it with him.)

write when the spirit moves me,” Faulkner said, “and the spirit moves me every day.”

Asked if he writes during the day or at night, Grass seemed to shudder at the latter notion: “Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good.

Murakami wakes at 4:00 A.M. and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9:00. “I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

The one drawback to this self-made schedule, Murakami admitted in a 2008 essay, is that it doesn’t allow for much of a social life. “People are offended when you repeatedly turn down their invitations,” he wrote. But he decided that the indispensable relationship in his life was with his readers. “My

readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty—and my top priority—as a novelist?”

I have acquired the reputation over the years of being prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don’t work as hard or as long.”

“What I’ve found with daily routines,” he said recently, “is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know, you could say to yourself, ‘From now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if that feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work.

I fancy he must have read and wrote chiefly in the night, for I can scarcely recollect that he ever refused going with me to a tavern.…

“As soon as I am awake, I remember my duty, and like a brisk mariner I give the lash to indolence and bounce up with as much vivacity as if a pretty girl, amorous and willing, were waiting for me,”

I do not believe that the large clock of the Cathedral there completed its task with less passion and less regularity than its fellow citizen Immanuel Kant.

“Kant had formulated the maxim for himself that he would smoke only one pipe, but it is reported that the bowls of his pipes increased considerably in size as the years went on.”

beginning in the 1880s he used chloroform to put himself to sleep.

Joyce finally finished the book in October 1921, after seven years of labor—“diversified,” as he put it, “by eight illnesses and nineteen changes of address, from Austria to Switzerland, to Italy, to France.” All in all, he wrote, “I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20,000 hours in writing Ulysses.”

He required solitude for the task, and always closed the windows of his studio before he began: “I have never been able to compose unless sure that no one could hear me.”

If he felt blocked, the composer might execute a brief headstand, which, he said, “rests the head and clears the brain.”

he once consumed a thirty-egg omelet in a single sitting.)

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 prescribed dose was one or two tablets in the morning and at noon. Sartre took twenty a day, beginning with his morning coffee and slowly chewing one pill after another as he worked.

By the 1950s, too much work on too little sleep—with too much wine and cigarettes—had left Sartre exhausted and on the verge of collapse. Rather than slow down, however, he turned to Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin then fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists

The Russian composer was able to conceptualize a new work entirely in his head, and then write it down with extreme rapidity—if uninterrupted, he could average twenty or thirty pages of score a day, making virtually no corrections as he went.

this feat was apparently preceded by hours or days of mental composition—during which he “appeared to be a man of great inner tensions,”

He would play football and fool around with friends; then he would suddenly disappear. After forty minutes or so he would turn up again. “How are you doing? Let me kick the ball.” Then we would have dinner and drink some wine and take a walk, and he would be the life and soul of the party. Every now and then he would disappear for a while and then join us again. Towards the end of my stay, he disappeared altogether. We didn’t see him for a week. Then he turned up, unshaven and looking exhausted.

“Maugham thought that writing, like drinking, was an easy habit to form and a difficult one to break,”

When he wrapped up his morning’s work at about noon, Maugham often felt impatient to begin again.

an interviewer asked if he was “a nine-till-five man.” “No,” Greene replied. “Good heavens, I would say I was a nine-till-a-quarter-past-ten man.”

I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy. So if I’m in this room and then I go into the other room, it helps me. If I go outside to the street, it’s a huge help. If I go up and take a shower it’s a big help. So I sometimes take extra showers.

I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins.

Hirschfeld even worked on his drawings in his sleep. “Very often, when an assignment is difficult, he can’t fall asleep until the artistic problem is solved, or he dreams about various ways of designing his drawing,”

“Like most men, I am lazy by nature and seize every opportunity to loaf,” he wrote in a 1932 letter. But this only made him work harder; believing that he was inclined to indolence, Mencken didn’t allow himself the luxury of free time.

“Looking back over a life of hard work … my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder.”

I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time—some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next. Or there’s my way—making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

Another reason that Wright was rarely seen working on his designs is that the architect never made so much as a sketch until he had the entire project worked out in his head. Numerous colleagues have reported, with some consternation, his habit of postponing project drawings until right before a crucial client meeting.

“Lou had so much energy that it was hard for him to see that other people might not have as much.”

He was dismissive of inspiration, saying that if he waited for the muse he would compose at most three songs a year.

“I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”

if he skipped a day, he didn’t beat himself up. “It’s an everyday thing, but I’m never guilt-ridden if I don’t work,” he said. “I don’t have a compulsion to write, and I never have. I have a wish, an ambition to write, but it’s not one that justifies the word ‘drive.’

“After five and a half years of working in these dark Satanic mills of American business I am out at last.”

I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence, mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colors of any kind depress me, in fact, and my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky on any given day.

my private motto has always been that behind every silver lining there’s a cloud. So

(“I don’t approve of people who watch television,” he said, “but I am one of them.”)

“I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,” she said.

My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.

a lethal martini

In the evening he would sing a few popular songs in bed before going to sleep—not because he had a good voice but because, Aubrey notes, “he did believe it did his lungs good, and conduced much to prolong his life.”

he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day.

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.)

“Somewhere at sometime he had discovered that a man needs a two-hour walk for his health, and his observance of this rule was pedantic and superstitious, as though if he returned five minutes early he would fall ill, and unbelievable misfortunes of some sort would ensue.”

The seed of a future composition usually reveals itself suddenly, in the most unexpected fashion. If the soil is favourable—that is, if I am in the mood for work, this seed takes root with inconceivable strength and speed, bursts through the soil, puts out roots, leaves, twigs, and finally flowers: I cannot define the creative process except through this metaphor.

Wyeth almost never worked under artificial light, so the daylight hours were precious to him. He hated to stop at the end of the day, often wishing he could start the next day immediately.

But the painting days were the best days, O’Keeffe said: On the other days one is hurrying through the other things one imagines one has to do to keep one’s life going.

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.)

Erdos owed his phenomenal stamina to amphetamines—he took ten to twenty milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily.

“A mathematician,” he liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

There is a great deal of busywork to a writer’s life, as to a professor’s life, a great deal of work that matters only in that, if you don’t do it, your desk becomes very full of papers.

he was careful to give at least three hours a day to the writing project at hand; otherwise, he said, there was a risk he might forget what it’s about.

A solid routine, he added, “saves you from giving up.”

“Einstein would pose with the waylayer’s wife, children, or grandchildren as desired and exchange a few good-humored words. Then he would go on, shaking his head, saying: ‘Well, the old elephant has gone through his tricks again.’ ”

I don’t hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn’t gain by it. The only reason I write is because it interests me more than any other activity I’ve ever found. I like riding, going to operas and concerts, travel in the west; but on the whole writing interests me more than anything else. If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day.

Rand had spent years planning and composing the first third of her novel; over the next twelve months, fueled by Benzedrine pills, she averaged a chapter a week. Her writing routine during this period was grueling: she wrote day and night, sometimes neglecting to go to bed for days (she took naps on the couch in her clothes instead).

To maintain the prodigious energy required of such a project, Farrell relied on drugs: amphetamines to stay up through the night writing—he sometimes worked twenty to twenty-four hours straight, wearing the same dirty pajamas, the hotel room where he was living strewn with paper—and Valium to bring himself down, relieve his anxieties, and get some sleep.

she does have to be strict about avoiding social engagements and other outside entanglements. “Because you won’t get those four hours if you’re spending most of the day worried about getting to an appointment and back,” she says. “What you have to do is clear all distraction. That’s the bottom line.”

for lunch—almost always a ham sandwich and a glass of milk—

(It took him twenty-five years to complete his 1995 novel, The Tunnel.)

Tharp is something of an expert on daily routines. The choreographer’s 2003 book, The Creative Habit, is all about the necessity of forming good, consistent work habits in order to function at a high creative level.

“There are things which help me get in the mood to work. Cleaning for one. Ironing is great. Taking a walk is always inspiring.

he weighed himself before and after every book, estimating that each one cost him nearly a liter and a half of sweat.

Simenon frequently slept with four different women in the same day.

He estimated that he bedded ten thousand women in his life. (His second wife disagreed, putting the total closer to twelve hundred.)

Bernard Malamud (1914-1936)

Malamud began writing seriously in 1940,

There’s no one way—there’s too much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place—you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time—not steal it—and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.