Daily Rituals: How Artists Create (And Avoid Creating) Their Art
Daily Rituals: How Artists Create (And Avoid Creating) Their Art
“In my personal life, if I don’t have a project, I don’t have any discipline,” says performance artist Marina Abramovic. Discipline and daily ritual were one of the subjects of her 2002 piece The House with the Ocean View. Abramovic spent 12 straight days living on three open platforms in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. She did not eat or speak, nor did she have any privacy: the rooms were open and spectators were even invited to observe the artist through a high-powered telescope. She had no escape: the ladders leaning against bedroom, sitting room and bathroom had rungs made of large butcher knives. (Photo courtesy PBS.org)
One Sunday in 2007 Mason Currey was sitting alone in the office of his employer—an architecture magazine—trying (and failing) to finish an article that was due the next day. Instead of getting down to business, he compulsively tidied his cubicle, made Nespresso shots in the kitchenette, and began searching the Internet for information about other writers’ work schedules. The looming magazine article was “written in a last-minute panic the next morning,” but Currey’s Daily Routines blog, a site compiling the work habits of artists was launched that very afternoon.
Procrastination takes many forms, and apparently, even has its occasional rewards. In an ironic twist for Currey, a project that started as a distraction from writing has been transformed into a new book from Random House, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Using letters, biographies, anecdotes, interviews, and diaries, Currey examines the creative routines of 161 writers, visual artists, choreographers, composers, filmmakers, scientists, and philosophers. Currey’s collection is full of entertaining and revealing anecdotes about everyone from Marina Abramovic, to Erik Satie, to Oliver Sacks and Jane Austen.
“It’s easy to conclude that if you want to be a great artist you have to give something up. I certainly have felt that way in my own life. I compiled this book while also working a full-time job as a magazine editor, and you quickly realize that you can’t do it all—sometimes you have to sacrifice sleep, or your social life, or exercise, or having a clean house, or any number of other things.” –Mason Currey (Photo by Stephen Kozlowski)
While I was shocked to learn that Nikola Tesla regularly demanded 18 clean napkins at his table each evening when he dined at the Waldorf-Astoria, I wasn’t surprised that Currey’s research didn’t uncover a single “magic-bullet” creative routine used by successful artists everywhere.
Caffeine addiction seems to be the one habit most artists have in common. It’s not only the caffeine that’s important, it’s also the ritual of making that perfect cup of coffee or tea.
As Currey reveals, Beethoven‘s daily breakfast consisted solely of coffee: “he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose.”
Kierkegaard also kept up his energy after supper with sherry and an entire cup of sugar dissolved by strong, black coffee. The philosopher had at least 50 sets of cups and saucers (no two alike). Before the coffee could be served, Kierkegaard’s secretary had “to select which cup and saucer he preferred that day, and then, bizarrely, justify his choice to Kierkegaard.”
Such rituals make me think of a turkey vulture circling over a dead possum in the road. The turkey vulture knows precisely where its next meal is coming from, just as the artist knows what will happen as soon as the coffee is consumed, the daily walk finished, and the email alerts turned off: work. But circling is an essential part of the creative process. The impulse to procrastinate is strong, but these “circling” rituals allow us the luxury of delaying just a little longer and send a signal to our bodies and minds (and perhaps even to others in the vicinity) that it’s time to get busy.
These kinds of creative routines are also useful when our energy lags or we become stuck. Studies show that mental relaxation and a rise in dopamine levels aid the creative process. (This is why it’s not always more productive to push through and continue work when our body demands a break).
Currey’s book is brimming with examples of artists who know how to get the most out of a work day. Composer Steve Reich runs errands or makes a cup of tea when he needs a break. “Those can be very fruitful pauses, especially if there’s a little problem that comes up,” says Reich. “The best thing to do is to just leave it and put your mind somewhere else, and not always but often the solution to that problem will bubble up spontaneously.” When Woody Allen is “obsessively thinking” about a new story and feeling stuck, he finds that taking a shower or going for a walk gives him “a fresh burst of mental energy.” Igor Stravinsky preferred headstands when he needed to clear his head.
Discipline in the form of an effective routine may be the best way to get over the psychological barriers to creation. “You need three things to become a successful novelist: talent, luck and discipline,” the writer Michael Chabon once said. “Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.” This is why we feel so guilty when we’re cruising Facebook or Twitter, instead of making art—we are painfully aware that discipline, an essential lifeline, is slipping away.
But as Currey’s book proves, “discipline” comes in many forms. In the case of performance artist Marina Abramovic, ritual is her art. Currey describes the extreme regiment she underwent for The Artist is Present at MoMA, a performance piece that required her to sit motionless and silent in a chair six days a week for eleven weeks total (736 hours and 30 minutes in all). Abramovic trained her body to go all day without food and without urinating by getting out of bed every 45 minutes at night and drinking a small amount of water. “In my personal life, if I don’t have a project, I don’t have any discipline,” says the artist. Discipline and daily ritual were one of the subjects of her 2002 piece The House with the Ocean View. For this work, Abramovic spent 12 straight days living on three open platforms in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. She did not eat or speak, nor did she have any privacy: the rooms were open and spectators were invited to observe the artist through a high-powered telescope. She had no escape: the ladders leaning against bedroom, sitting room and bathroom had rungs made of large butcher knives.
Caffeine addiction seems to be the one habit most artists have in common. For years, Lynch’s twice-daily meditation routine was offset by his love of chocolate shakes and “four, five, six, seven cups of coffee” from Bob’s Big Boy.(Photo via wesleying.org)
In the book Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Abramovic explains to Mary Jane Jacob that Buddhism is best practiced by removing ourselves from reality, such as in a monastery. “But I can’t function that way as an artist. I have all these responsibilities as an artist and a teacher, and other obligations in this society, and they are at another energy level, another speed…
[But] I can find time in performance. And there I am most in connection with Buddhism. At the same time, the impact this kind of piece has comes after. I feel transformed. I my point of view, life is not transforming me, it’s performance that transforms me.
Meditation has also been an important daily practice for filmmaker David Lynch. As Currey details, Lynch has been meditating twice a day since 1973 and has “never missed a meditation in thirty-three years.” (For seven years, however, Lynch’s penchant for orderliness was offset by his love of chocolate shakes and “four, five, six, seven cups of coffee” from Bob’s Big Boy.)
These stories are insightful and amusing, but what interests me most about Currey’s compilation are deeper questions about creativity and daily life. Getting past the peculiarities of personal schedule—the daily word quotas, the naps, the strange eating rituals, and coffee addictions—what can we learn about balancing creative work, family, day jobs, and health?
Can we really have it all as artists, or must something be sacrificed in the name of art?
A friend once told me she would never date or marry an artist because “they’re too selfish,” and heaven knows I’ve seen my share of accomplished artists with the emotional intelligence of a 2-year-old. But isn’t the “selfish artist” type just as stereotypical as the “romantic, head-in-the clouds artist type”—the one with no common sense who floats through life in a fog waiting for the muse to strike? Or how about the myth that only “hard-drinking, cheating bastards” can create great literature? (As Joyce Maynard recently wrote in the Times, being a genius doesn’t justify cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art.)
Surely, it’s possible to be an artist and still live a functional, fulfilling life? Must something (or someone) always be sacrificed on the altar of the creative process?
“These were some of my big questions as well,” Mason Currey told me this week via email. “How much do you have to give up for your art? And is it possible to strike a healthy balance between intensive creative work and a ‘normal’ life?”
Here is Mason…
As I’m sure you noticed, many of the figures in the book made huge sacrifices for their work. I’m thinking, for instance, of Samuel Beckett, who did much of his best work during a period described as “the siege in the room”—because he pretty much spent all of his time shut in his bedroom obsessing over his writing, subsisting on a diet of scrambled eggs and red wine.
There are countless other examples of this kind of self-denying, monomaniacal lifestyle—artists who sacrificed their health and their relationships (not to mention basic creature comforts) for their art. (Some other examples from the book include Karl Marx, Honore de Balzac, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, George Gershwin, and countless others.)
So it’s easy to conclude that if you want to be a great artist you have to give something up. I certainly have felt that way in my own life. I compiled this book while also working a full-time job as a magazine editor, and you quickly realize that you can’t do it all—sometimes you have to sacrifice sleep, or your social life, or exercise, or having a clean house, or any number of other things.
That said, some people in the book managed to strike a pretty healthy balance, or at least what seems like a healthy balance from the outside. For instance, there’s someone like P.G. Wodehouse, who typically wrote in the morning, went for a walk with his best friend, watched his favorite soap opera, had tea with his wife—this was hardly a tortured, difficult existence…
Alice Munro…managed to write her short stories while raising two kids, sneaking in work while the kids were napping or at school. So that seems like a pretty decent balance. But this also meant laboring in obscurity for many years; it took her almost two decades to write the stories for her first collection. I’m sure that a lot of writers in similar circumstances would have gotten discouraged and given up.
Ultimately, I think very few writers and artists work in ideal circumstances, and everyone has to figure out their own balancing act.
I‘ve written about Alice Munro’s balancing act between motherhood and writing previously, and her circumstances recall the concerns of Virginia Woolf in her famous essay A Room of One’s Own. This gender gap was also explored in Tillie Olsen‘s work Silences. The book examinesauthors’ silent periods, including unpublished work, writer’s blocks, and the problems that working-class writers, and women in particular, have in finding the time to concentrate on their art. Olsen argues that circumstances, including gender, economic class, education, and race, determine whether creative capacity will be used and developed, or impaired and lost. According to Olsen, prior to the late 20th century, all the great female writers in Western literature either had no children or had full-time housekeepers to raise the children.
Olsen’s own creative output was drastically reduced by the obligations of motherhood and home life. In 1934 a published excerpt from her first novel-in-progress led to a book contract with Random House, but Olsen abandoned the project because of family demands. The novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, would not be completed and published until 1974. In Olsen’s New York Times obituary, Julie Bosman quotes writer Margaret Atwood on the subject of balancing motherhood and creative work. Atwood argues that Ms. Olsen’s small output was due to her full life as a wife and mother, a “grueling obstacle course” experienced by many writers: “She did not write for a very simple reason: A day has 24 hours. For 20 years she had no time, no energy and none of the money that would have bought both.”
In her book Silences, Tillie Olsen claims that prior to the late 20th century, all the great female writers in Western literature either had no children or had full-time housekeepers to raise the children. “She did not write for a very simple reason,” says Margaret Atwood. “A day has 24 hours. For 20 years she had no time, no energy and none of the money that would have bought both.” (Photo of Tillie Olsen and her husband, Jack, courtesy of the Olsen family via sfgate.com)
Reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, it’s hard not to notice how success rests, in part, on the shoulders of sympathetic partners and spouses. It’s remarkable to see how many households have revolved around artists’ creative schedules. (Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s edict that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” should be revised to say “a woman must have money, a room of her own, and a wife” if she is to write fiction”!)
Currey’s research reveals that Sigmund Freud‘s wife “laid out Freud’s clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush.” According to Currey, it was Martha Bernays‘s household management that permitted the doctor’s “single-minded devotion to his work.”
National-Book-Award-winner William Styron once said that he never could have had a successful writing career without his wife, Rose. (I tried and failed to find the source of this quote—I may have read it in James L. W. West’s biography William Styron: A Life.) Indeed, in memoirs and interviews, Rose Styron emerges “as a good and heroic presence, erring only on the side of excessive tolerance,” as one writer put it. From the outside, Styron did seem to have it all: four children, a long marriage, two expensive houses on Martha’s Vineyard and in Connecticut. According to Currey, Styron believed that his upper-middle class life was “stabilizing and [an] important influence.” Styron kept this famous Flaubert quote tacked on his wall: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Novelist William Faulkner had an eccentric daily habit when writing in the library at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi. As Currey details, the library door had no lock, so Faulkner would remove the doorknob and take it with him so no on could enter. In William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist, Stephen Oates describes this routine in more detail. Faulkner woke at 4 a.m., ate “a tremendous breakfast of fruit, eggs, grits, bacon or broiled steak, toast with Dundee marmalade, and hot black Louisiana coffee.” The doorknob ritual was once explained by Faulkner’s wife, Estelle: “No on can get in, and he is quite secure…He is difficult to get along with when he is working hard on something.” According to Oates, “Faulkner insisted on a quiet house when he was working: radio, doorbell, telephone—all were ‘forbidden items.'”
Benjamin Franklin’s ideal daily routine as it appeared in the original edition of his autobiography.
Composer John Adams works in his studio from 9-5 each day, taking breaks to make “endless cups of green tea.” As Currey explains, he prefers not to listen to music in the evenings. “At the end of the day I’m more apt to want to cook a nice meal or read a book or watch a movie with my wife.” (John Adams photo by Margaretta Mitchell courtesy the Library of Congress)
Again, here is Currey:
It’s impossible to read these anecdotes without being struck by how many great writers and artists were hopelessly indebted to their spouses or partners for taking care of the practical details of their day-to-day lives. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Gustav Mahler, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Mann, many others.) I think it shows that the artists themselves weren’t the only ones making sacrifices; often their devotion to their work placed a tremendous burden on their families.
And certainly this has made it more difficult, historically, for women writers and artists. I love the story about how Jane Austen would write in the family sitting room, and that she refused to get the squeaky door hinge fixed because it served as a warning for her that people were coming, and then she would hide her writing papers before the visitors arrived. It’s both inspiring that she could work in these conditions, and also sort of tragic that she couldn’t enjoy the sort of privacy that a male writer might have enjoyed.
I don’t know if I have any great insights to share on this subject — except to say that, if you want to be a writer or artist, you’d do well to find a supportive, understanding spouse!
This advice was also echoed by writer Grace Paley: “The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.” In addition to a sympathetic partner, Paley also recommends that writers “keep a low overhead.”
Georgia writer James Dickey made his living working for an ad agency in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. “Every time I had a minute to spare,… I would stick a poem in the typewriter where I had been typing Coca-Cola ads.” After several years of writing poetry on the clock, his boss fired him. (Photo courtesy Christopher Dickey and jamesdickey.blogspot.com)
Money is a lingering issue for many working artists. What is the best way for an artist to pay the bills? There are a select few who are able to make a living from their art, but most creatives have day jobs. Some artists gravitate to fields that are similar to their artistic medium, while others find that this wastes their creative energy, so instead pursue jobs that are a complete contrast.
And employers take note: artists do not always make ideal employees. Georgia writer James Dickey made his living working for an ad agency in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. “Every time I had a minute to spare,” Currey quotes the poet, “…I would stick a poem in the typewriter where I had been typing Coca-Cola ads.” After several years of writing poetry on the clock, his boss fired him.
I asked Currey what other discoveries he made about artists and their work lives:
On the one hand, it seems like artists almost inevitably have to give something up for their work. On the other hand, you know, if you only have a certain amount of time each day in which to be creative, it’s amazing how much you can get done in that time. So the people with day jobs, who could only spare a couple hours a day, were often as productive — or, in some cases, even more productive — than those figures who didn’t have to worry about money and could work whenever they wanted.
I’m thinking, for instance, of the poet Wallace Stevens, who had a long career as an insurance lawyer. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” Stevens once said. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”
I will say, however, that writers may have an easier time striking this balance than other artists. A novelist or poet can write for as little as an hour a day and make significant progress. For the most part, painters and composers seem to need to spend more time with their work; fitting it in before or after a day at the office is trickier.
For me, maybe the most interesting day job was Joseph Heller‘s career in magazine advertising. I would have assumed that the author of Catch-22 would have had little patience for this kind of commercial work. But Heller was far from miserable at his advertising jobs—he later called his Time colleagues the “most intelligent and well-informed people I worked with in my life,” and said that he put as much creative effort into a McCall’s promotional campaign as he did into his fiction at night.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a fascinating read, and while the book won’t give you a “magic bullet” solution, it will provide you with something more significant: another reason to procrastinate. (After all, artists understand that “research” is often as satisfying as art making, but without all of that annoying psychological turmoil.)
More importantly, Daily Rituals will remind you that you’re not alone in your creative struggles and eccentricities. (Some potential “notes to self”: If T.S. Eliot can create poetic masterpieces while working as a bank clerk, then I can too! If Kierkegaard and David Lynch can consume such excessive amounts of sugar and coffee every day, then I shouldn’t feel guilty about that bowl of popcorn I ate at 2 a.m. while trying to finish my deadline!)
As Currey’s book proves, making art is hard work and only those willing to experience a special form of hell-on-earth should pursue it. The rejections, the self-doubt, the hours of solitude, of sitting at a computer, of stressing your body with the same repetitive motion, of saying “no” to friends and family when you really want to say “yes,” the deadlines, the anxiety, and yes, the ever-important self-discipline—these special forms of torture are not for the faint of heart.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp has a rigid schedule that begins with a 5:30 a.m. taxi ride to the gym each morning. Tharp admits that her repetitive routine is “actively anti-social,” but “on the other hand, it is pro-creative.” (Photo by Marc Von Borstel via chicagomag.com)
So why do it at all?
First, because we can’t help ourselves: “If you are destined to become a writer, you can’t help it,” Donald Harington once said. “If you can help it, you aren’t destined to become a writer. The frustrations and disappointments, not even to mention the unspeakable loneliness, are too unbearable for anyone who doesn’t have a deep sense of being unable to avoid writing.”
And secondly, because there are occasional rewards for all of this hair-pulling. “The life of a writer is absolute hell compared to the life of a businessman,” Roald Dahl wrote in his book Boy.” The writer has to force himself to work He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him…A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”
What Are Your Daily Rituals?
What daily habits and eccentric rituals help you be more productive in your creative work? What struggles are you facing in your artistic practice? I’d love to hear from you in the Comments Section below.
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I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”)
From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time.
In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.)
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