The following are excerpts from the book Daily Rituals-How Artists Work by Mason Curry. He has researched and documented the rituals, routines, and daily practices of some of the greatest creative minds in history, from Benjamin Franklin to Beethoven, from Silvia Plath to Picasso. We all have our own individual ways of summoning the muse, of flexing our creative muscles, of getting our brains and bodies aligned to do our best work. Here are a few examples of how some well-known creative individuals spent their time.
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
The author of such psychological thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley was, in person as solitary and misanthropic as some of her heroes. Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable. “There is no real life except in working, that is to say in the imagination,” she wrote in her journal. Fortunately, Highsmith was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.
Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day. The biographer Andrew Wilson records her methods:
Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost fetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, “a womb of her own.”
Highsmith was also in the habit of having a stiff drink before she started to write- “not to perk her up,” Wilson notes, “but to reduce her energy levels, which veered toward the manic.” In her later years, as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day. She was also a chain smoker for most of her life, going through a pack of Gauloises a day. In matters of food, she was indifferent. One acquaintance remembered that “she only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs, and cereal, all at odd times of the day.”
Ill at ease around most people, she had an unusually intense connection with animals-particularly cats, but also snails, which she bred at home. Highsmith was inspired to keep the gastropods as pets when she saw a pair at a fish market locked in a strange embrace. She eventually housed three thousand snails in her garden in Suffolk, England, and once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying a gigantic handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails-her companions for the evening, she said.
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
“I usually go in shifts of three or four hours with either naps or, like, you know, fairly diverting do-something-with-other-people things in the middle,” Wallace said in 1996, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest. “So, like, I’ll get up at eleven or noon, work til two or three.” In later interviews, however, Wallace said that he followed a regular writing routine only when the work was going badly. From a 1999 radio interview:
Things are either going well or they’re not going well…I’m working on something now and I just can’t seem to get it. I flounder and I flounder. And when I’m floundering I don’t want to work, so I invent draconian “All right, this morning I’ll work from seven-thirty to eight-forty-five with one five-minute break”- all this baroque b.s. And after five or ten or a dozen or, you know, as with some books, fifty tries, all of a sudden it will just, it will start to go. And once it starts to go, it requires no effort. And then actually the discipline’s required in terms of being willing to be away from it and to remember that, “Oh, I have a relationship that I have to nurture or I have to grocery shop or pay these bills” and stuff. So I have absolutely no routine at all, because the times I’m trying to build a routine are the times that the writing just seems futile and flagellating.
David Lynch (b. 1946)
“I like things to be orderly,” Lynch told a reporter in 1990.
For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate milkshake 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. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.
Lynch’s other means of getting ideas is Transcendental Meditation, which he has practiced daily since 1973. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. “I meditate once in the morning and again in the afternoon, for about twenty minutes each time. Then I go about the business of my day.” If he’s shooting a film, he will sometimes sneak in a third session at the end of the day. “We waste so much time on other things, anyway,” he writes. “Once you add this and have a routine, it fits in very naturally.”
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, then Auden himself was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. The poet was obsessively punctual and lived by an exacting timetable throughout his life. “He checks his watch over and over again,” a guest of Auden’s once noted. “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival-all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.” Auden believed that a life of such military precision was essential to his creativity, a way of taming the muse to his own schedule. “A modern stoic,” he observed, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same time every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. He usually resumed his work after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6:30 sharp, with the poet mixing himself and any guests several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine, followed by more wine and conversation. He went to bed early, never later than 11:00, and, as he grew older, closer to 9:30.
To maintain his energy and concentration, the poet relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine- “the chemical life,” he called it-for twenty years until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco-although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”
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