Ludwig van Beethoven believed in the perfect cup of coffee, so he rose at dawn each morning and meticulously counted out 60 beans to prepare for himself the ideal brew. Maya Angelou liked to keep a beautiful home, but couldn’t work in “pretty surroundings,” so each day she packed up her typewriter and made her way to a hotel or motel room (the more anonymous the better, she said). Truman Capote described himself as “a completely horizontal author,” and wrote exclusively lying down.
It turns out that creative geniuses have a wide array of unconventional habits. But, as Mason Currey illuminates in “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” they have more in common than their eccentricity and their brilliance. Currey describes the routines of 161 writers, philosophers, composers, scientists and artists, and while the day-to-day practices of these individuals contain incredible variance, several threads trace their way through the lives of the past few centuries’ most prolific minds.
Ever eager to emulate the crème de la crème, I was thrilled to learn a few strategies and mindsets for establishing productivity and cultivating creativity from the book. Here are a few of my favorite lessons:
Find your time of day…
Ernest Hemingway started writing as soon after first light as possible because the early morning hours decreased his likelihood of being disturbed. For the same reason, the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller wrote exclusively late at night. The lesson here is that the early bird doesn’t necessarily get the worm, and neither does the night owl. The most successful birds (err, people) know themselves and their circumstances; they have determined their most productive time of day and they have devoted those hours to focused work.
I, for instance, am most clear-headed and enthusiastic about work from 7 a.m. until noon or so (and the best of those hours are the first three). I try, as much as I am able, to avoid scheduling meetings or phone calls during this window, and since I prefer waking up without an alarm, my goal is to be asleep by 10 p.m., with a prioritized to-do list ready for the following morning. That way, I can make the most of my favorite pocket of time.
…And use other time creatively
I, for one, tend to think of work time as existing at my desk, or at least behind my laptop screen. But artists like novelist Umberto Eco and composer Dmitri Shostakovich would disagree. Shostakovich, for example, was rarely seen “working,” because he tended to conceptualize new compositions entirely in his head — while playing football with friends, taking a walk, or eating dinner — and then write them down rapidly when he caught moments alone. In Eco’s words to an interviewer from The Paris Review, “This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing.” This gives me a whole new appreciation for how I can occupy my mind while folding laundry.
Be patient and persistent…
No matter how many times experience proves me wrong, I consistently underestimate how long it will take me to complete the tasks on my to-do list. It baffles me over and over again when I can’t manage to draft an article in an hour, plan a lesson in two, and deep clean the entire apartment in three. This book served as an official reminder that good work takes time. I like the way the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman puts it: “Do you know what moviemaking is? Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film.” While Currey’s book reveals a chorus of lament over the hours required to produce even a small amount of quality work, it also displays a collective acknowledgment that, with patience and persistence, pages eventually add up.
…But be sure to rest
Thinking in the cracks and allowing ample time for creative work are useful strategies, but working all the time isn’t. Notice that Ingmar Bergman didn’t say movie making is 10, 12 or 14 hours of hard work, but rather, eight. Most of the artists whom Currey profiles seemed to understand that time away from work is essential, and their days included long walks, leisurely dinners with friends and family, reading or letter writing, and the pursuit of other hobbies. As writer Henry Miller explains: “I don’t believe in draining the reservoir…I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.”
For all of us — students, young professionals, aspiring artists, members of families and communities, loyal friends, and more — time is a limited resource. Thoughtfully considering how we use the hours that we have been given, and maybe incorporating the wisdom of people who have gone before us, can impact the quality of our work, our satisfaction, and ultimately, our lives.