Photo credit: Rebecca Veit
For almost a dozen years now, I’ve been collecting information about the daily routines and working habits of great creative minds — first, for a blog
that I launched in 2007, while procrastinating on a writing assignment due the following day; then for a book based on the blog, published in 2013 as Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
; and now for a sequel, Daily Rituals: Women at Work
, which catalogs the day-to-day working lives of 143 women writers, artists, and performers. I’ve been compiling this material for so long, in fact, that I sometimes forget that the appeal of creative people’s routines is not necessarily self-evident; indeed, it’s worth asking: What accounts for the enduring interest in artists’ daily habits, at least for this longtime aficionado?
Part of the draw, no doubt, is sheer voyeurism. I think we’re all a little curious about what other people do with themselves all day, especially when they’re in their most private spaces, and creative types often gravitate toward eccentric and superstitious behaviors that make for fairly irresistible reading. A few of my favorite examples: Beethoven counted out precisely 60 coffee beans for his morning cup; Tchaikovsky took a daily walk of two hours in duration (no more, no less, no matter the weather); and the German philosopher and writer Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom, because he said that he needed the decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write. Patricia Highsmith kept snails as pets, and once showed up at a London cocktail party with a handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails — her companions for the evening, she said. I could binge on these sorts of anecdotes all day.
I take great solace from the fact that so many of the artists I admire have confronted the same everyday setbacks.
But I also believe that artists’ routines have a utility beyond highbrow trivia, especially for those readers who are aspiring or practicing artists themselves. (And I use the term "artists" here broadly, to include creative workers of all disciplines.) The fact is that sustained creative activity of any sort is difficult. Although popular culture likes to portray the artist as a figure of freedom and improvisation, seizing inspiration from the ether and then turning on a dime to furiously transform it into a completed work, practicing artists know that the reality is much more banal and frequently much more grueling. Inspiration plays a role is many artists’ lives, but a smaller one that you might think, and the actual work of writing, painting, composing, or choreographing is often a slow grind, navigated through trial and error and characterized by a pervasive sense of uncertainty. And since so much of this work is done alone, and is partly or entirely self-motivated — and since straightforwardly productive workdays can be so hard to come by — the structure and conditions of the work can take on outsize importance. Should you get up early to do it, or stay up late, or follow a normal nine-to-five routine? Do you even need to follow a routine? What if you have a day job or dependents or, god forbid, want to get to the gym a few times a week? Is it possible to do the work and also have a reasonably full life outside of it, or does something have to give?
Of course there are no answers to these questions; each of us has to piece together our own system of strategies and compromises — our own “subtle maneuvers,” in Kafka’s memorable phrase — based on our goals, circumstances, and temperaments. So my ambition for the Daily Rituals
books was simply to show how other people did it — to create a kind of library of miniature case studies, describing how a variety of brilliant minds got their work done on a daily basis. Not all of these profiles are going to be useful or even interesting to every person, but I hope that among the 304 examples I’ve compiled across two volumes there are at least a handful of approaches that sing out to readers with relevance and urgency.
Beyond practical strategies, there may also be some comfort to glean from this material. Personally, I take great solace from the fact that so many of the artists I admire have confronted the same everyday setbacks, slumps, and brain fogs, have had the same bouts of self-doubt and self-loathing, have engaged in the same elaborate procrastination techniques. (The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield
noted in her journal in 1921, “Life would be almost perfect here if only when I was pretending
to work I always was working.” Yes!)
With the new volume, switching the focus to women has only strengthened the project, and not just because it has corrected the rather dismal gender imbalance of the first book. Throughout history, women artists have had to work harder, with less support, and against longer odds than their male counterparts; in general, they have had fewer hours in which to do their work, more outside responsibilities to contend with, and greater obstruction from the gatekeepers to professional success. Seeing how they kept up their spirit and fight in the face of these daily obstacles has been genuinely inspiring for me; when I’m feeling discouraged by the relatively minor hurdles in my own work life, I have only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe
, describing her typical day in an 1850 letter:
Since I began this note I have been called off at least a dozen times — once for the fish-man, to buy a codfish — once to see a man who had brought me some baskets of apples — once to see a book man. . .then to nurse the baby — then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner and now I am at it again for nothing but deadly determination enables me to ever write — it is rowing against wind and tide.
This is but one of dozens of examples of “deadly determination” contained in the new book, glimpses of daily grit and fortitude that, for me — and, I hope, for readers — have proved both entertaining and deeply sustaining.
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is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. His first book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
, was published by Knopf in 2013. A sequel, Daily Rituals: Women at Work
, is out now.