Lettering by Joel Holland, Prop Stylist: Megumi Emoto, Planner Courtesy Emilyey.com
Juan Ponce de León spent his life searching for the fountain of youth. I have spent mine searching for the ideal daily routine. But as years of color-coded paper calendars have given way to cloud-based scheduling apps, routine continues to elude me; each day is a new day, as unpredictable as a ride on a rodeo bull and over seemingly as quickly.
Naturally, I was fascinated by the recent book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Author Mason Currey examines the schedules of 161 painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers.
As I read, I became convinced that for these geniuses, a routine was more than a luxury—it was essential to their work. I began to notice common elements in the lives of the healthier geniuses (the ones who relied more on discipline than on, say, booze and Benzedrine) that allowed them to produce the works for which they are still famous.
A Private Workspace
Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky hinge never be oiled so that she always had a warning whenever someone was approaching the room where she wrote. William Faulkner, lacking a lock on his study door, detached the doorknob and brought it into the room with him. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door—they’d blow a horn to draw him out. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office; only his wife knew the address and telephone number.
A Daily Walk
For many artists, a regular stroll was essential creative inspiration. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon, and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour jaunt but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that doing so would make him ill. Ludwig van Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Nineteenth-century composer Erik Satie did the same on his long hikes from Paris to the working-class suburb where he lived, stopping under street lamps to jot down notions that arose on his journey; it’s rumored that when those lamps were turned off during the war years, his productivity declined too.
Anthony Trollope wrote for only three hours a day, but he required of himself a rate of 250 words per 15 minutes. Ernest Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart “so as not to kid myself.” American psychologist B. F. Skinner started and stopped his writing sessions by setting a timer, and he carefully plotted the number of hours he wrote and the words he produced on a graph.
“I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.”
A Clear Divide Between Important Work and Busywork
It amazed (and humbled) me to see the amount of time each genius allocated to answering letters. Many did their writing, composing, or painting in the morning and did the “busywork” of answering letters in the afternoon. Others would write letters when the real work wasn’t going well. But these historical geniuses did have one advantage: The post would arrive at regular intervals, not constantly, as e-mail does.
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A Habit of Stopping When They’re on a Roll, Not When They’re Stuck
Hemingway put it thus: “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.” Arthur Miller said, “I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, do you see? I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.”
With the exception of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—who rose at 6 a.m., spent the day in a flurry of music lessons, concerts, and social engagements, and often didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m.—many would write in the morning, stop for lunch and a stroll, spend an hour or two answering letters, and knock off work by 2 or 3 p.m. “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same, is a fool,” wrote Carl Jung. Or, well, a Mozart.
A Supremely Supportive Partner
Martha Freud, wife of Sigmund, “laid out his clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush,” notes Currey. Gertrude Stein preferred to write outdoors, looking at rocks and cows—and so on trips to the French countryside, Alice B. Toklas would shoo a few cows into the writer’s line of vision. Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, took over most of the domestic duties so that Jane would have time to write: “Composition seems impossible to me with a head full of joints of mutton & doses of rhubarb,” Jane once wrote. And Andy Warhol called friend and collaborator Pat Hackett every morning, recounting the previous day’s activities in detail. “Doing the diary,” as they called it, could last two full hours—with Hackett dutifully jotting down notes and typing them up every weekday morning from 1976 until Warhol’s death in 1987. (The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Hackett, was published in 1989.)
An Often Limited Social Life
One of Simone de Beauvoir’s lovers put it this way: “There were no parties, no receptions … It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.” Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an “at-home day” from Stein and Toklas—so that they could “dispose of the obligations of friendship in a single afternoon.”
The routines of these thinkers are strangely compelling. Perhaps it is because they are so unattainable. The very idea that you can organize your time as you like is out of reach for most of us, so I’ll close with a toast to all those who worked within constraints.
Like Francine Prose, who began writing when the school bus picked up her children and stopped when it brought them back; or T. S. Eliot, who found it much easier to write once he had a day job in a bank than he had as a starving poet; and even F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose early writing was crammed in around his strict schedule as a young military officer.
Those days were not as fabled as the gin-soaked nights in Paris that came later, but they were much more productive—and no doubt easier on his liver. Being forced to follow the ruts of someone else’s routine may grate, but they do make it easier to stay on the path. Whether we break that trail ourselves or take the path of least resistance, perhaps what’s most important is that we keep walking.