Mason Currey's 2013 book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work addresses the issue of building one's creative routine by assuming that no system for organization and self-discipline can be applied universally. Rather than offering suggestions for establishing a routine, Currey lets the artists and writers speak for themselves; his book is in essence a long list of famously productive human beings, each entry accompanied by several paragraphs of how he or she spent their day and managed their work. Given the unstructured nature of writing and other creative pursuits, no personality manages the challenge the same, however all find a way to do so. Below are some of our favorite excerpts from this very readable, inspiring tome.
Leo Tolstoy, writer
"I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine." This is Tolstoy in one of the relatively few diary entries he made during the mid-1860's, when he was deep into the writing of War and Peace. Although he does not describe his routine in the diary, his oldest son, Sergei, later recorded the pattern of Tolstoy's days at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate in the Tula Region of Russia.
"From September to May we children and our teachers got up betweeen eight and nine o'clock and went to the hall to have breakfast. After nine, in his dressing-gown, still unwashed and undressed, with a tousled beard, Father came down from his bedroom to the room under the hall where he finished his toilet. If we met him on the way he greeted us hastily and reluctantly. We used to say: "Papa is in a bad temper until he has washed." Then he, too came up to have his breakfast, for which he usually ate two boiled eggs in a glass. He did not eat anything after that until five in teh afternoon. Later, at the end of 1880, he began to take luncheon at two or three. He was not talkative at breakfast and soon retired to his study with a glass of tea. We hardly saw him after that until dinner."
According to Sergei, Tolstoy worked in isolation--no one was allowed to enter his study, and the doors to the adjoining rooms were locked to ensure that he would not be interrupted. (An account by Tolstoy's daughter Tatyana disagrees on this point--she remembers that their mother was allowed in the study; she would sit on the divan sewing quietly while her husband wrote.) Before dinner, Tolstoy would go for a walk or ride, often to supervise some work on the estate grounds" (169-171).
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writer
As a young man Goethe could write all day long, but as he grew older he found that he could muster the necessary creative energy only in the mornings. "At one time in my life I could make myself write a printed sheet every day, and I found this quite easy," he said in 1828. "Now I can only work at the second part of my Faust in the early hours of the day, when I am feeling revived and strengthened by sleep and not yet harassed by the absurd trivialities of everyday life. And even so, what does this work amount to? If I am very lucky indeed I can manage one page, but as a rule only a hand's-breath of writing, and often even less if I am in an unproductive mood." These moods were teh bane of Goethe's later existence; he thought it futile to try to work without the spark of inspiration. He said, my advice therefore is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one's unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on" (152).
Chuck Close, painter
"In an ideal world, I would work six hours a day, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon," Close said recently. "That's what I always liked to do. Especially since my kids were born. I used to work at night, but when my kids were born I couldn't just work at night and sleep during the day. So that's when I started having a kind of regular, nine-to-five work schedule. And if I work more than three hours at a time, I really start screwing up. So the idea is to work for three hours, break for lunch, go back and work for three hours, and then, you know, break. Sometimes I could go back and work in the evenings, but basically it was counterproductive. At a certain point, I'd start making enough mistakes that I would spend the next day trying to correct them."
Unfortunately, Close says, his life now has so many obligations that he is often unable to stick to this routine. (He tries to schedule all meetings and phone calls for after 4:00 p.m., but has found that this is not always possible.) When he does find the time to work, he never lacks for ideas. "Inspiration is for amateurs," Close says. "The rest of us just show up and get to work." While he paints, he likes to have the TV or the radio playing in the background--particularly if there's a juicy political scandal happening. "My finest hours were Watergate, Iran-Contra, the impeachment," he says. The constant chatter can be distracting, he admits, but he claims that this is actually a good thing: "I like a certain amount of distraction. It keeps me from being anxious. It keeps things at a little bit more of an arm's length."
Currey's book can be purchased at Novelry.com