The rigors of employment and/or the demands of family life tend to impose a routine upon most adult human beings, but what would it be like to spend each day on vocational work and organize around it accordingly? Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work shows how many of the greats throughout history have adapted to find a routine that fits. Having a plan, of whatever sort, does seem to reap dividends in the minds of the inspired and the creative.
Whilst these do vary wildly, there are some common connectors. Putting aside all the other stimulants, legal and illegal, there is one drink that has sustained the superbrains throughout time. Coffee. Ludwig Van Beethoven was fanatical about his brew. He even counted out the beans, sixty exactly, to ensure his morning cup would be to his satisfaction. Balzac wins the prize for the most conspicuous consumption, he drank over fifty coffees a day. Kierkegaard filled a cup with sugar sloshed in black coffee, and slurped the hot mud. Thomas Mann had his in the bath. WH Auden combined coffee and crossword before moving onto his daily dose of Benzadrine. Le Corbusier had his after an hour of calisthenics.
A daily walk is a counterbalance to all this caffeine, which features in an extraordinary number of genius routines. Composers as a breed are particularly inclined towards a long stroll, perhaps something to do with finding the rhythm. Tchaikovsky walked for two hours and timed it to the minute, any deviation, even by a minute, would upset him. Beethoven always took a pencil and paper with him on a vigorous hike and then would stop at a tavern to read the newspaper. Mahler and Satie were walkers, so was Flaubert who always took an amble after lunch, Thomas Mann, Immanuel Kant, John Milton, Charles Dickens all fitted in a short walk, while Charles Darwin took three a day accompanied by his fox terrier, Polly.
Along with walks, naps are a key feature in many lives. David Foster Wallace liked to work in shifts of three or four hours, interspersed with naps or diversions, but when his work was going well he was completely immersed and never noticed the time go by, in fact it was harder to stop than to keep going. Ingmar Bergman liked to take a nap after lunch, Thomas Mann took one in the afternoon, Balzac had his at eight in the morning, but he risen and been working since one am. He then went back to work until four pm and to bed at six. Darwin had a nap at three pm before the half an hour he allocated to “idleness.”
Getting up early and getting straight down to work is a technique that many early birds have adopted to good effect, and an early start is by far the favored option of all the routines in the book. Hemingway was a devotee, he said there was no one to disturb him and as it was cool, he would warm up as he wrote. No doubt this applies also to Benjamin Franklin who liked to take an “air bath” first thing, in other words sit naked by an open window, whatever the weather. Georgia O’Keefe got going early, so did Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Vladimir Nabokov and Nicholson Baker, who began at 4.30am. He found the drowsiness contributed to his writing, his mind was cleaned but “also befuddled.” The image of the maverick working through the night hours is far less common, although there are examples, including Marcel Proust, who woke at three pm and took some opium to get himself going before a late breakfast. George Sand was another night owl, but also needed stimulants, in that case, chocolate and tobacco). WH Auden was at his desk by 6.30am, Milton by 7 (after memorizing the Bible for two hours) and Maya Angelou would have driven herself to a hotel or motel room by this hour to begin her solitary seven hour stint.
Food is a necessary interruption to all human endeavours, but some keep it simple and easy by eating the same thing everyday. Patricia Highsmith never ate anything else but bacon and eggs. Ingmar Bergman drank a concoction of whipped sour milk with jam combined with corn flakes. Kant, after a hard morning’s teaching, would treat himself to a four-hour lunch break with meat and wine, but that was his only meal of the day.
Writers and alcohol are well-known partners, but tobacco in all its guises is another writerly prop of distinction. From the pipe smokers (Flaubert, Beethoven, Kant, Milton) to the snuff takers and the cigar and cigarette puffers (too numerous to mention) nicotine has long been part of the paraphernalia of profound thinking.
All this time management is not so easy for women with small children to care for. Alice Munro and Sylvia Plath are two of the women writers who had to fit work around childcare. Munro took twenty years to compile the stories for her first volume Dance of the Happy Shades. Plath’s diaries reveal how she got up at 5am to get work done before her children woke up. In 1962 she completed all the poems for Ariel in just two months time in these early hours. Many men who were holding down day jobs had the same challenge to fit their live’s work around their paid jobs. The most famous of the job-loathers is Franz Kafka, but he was not alone. T.S Eliot worked as a banker, William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician, Wallace Stevens an insurance clerk, and William Faulkner worked the night shift at a power plant.
While not everyone is industrious in terms of the hours put in, Gertrude Stein could only work half an hour a day, but she said all those half hours added up in a lifetime, the routine factor is consistent. “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day” advised Auden, and then “always do it at exactly the same moment.” This is what John Cheever was doing when he got up and dressed in a full suit and tie regalia every morning in the 19402, and went down to the basement in his building. After stripping down to his boxers, he then worked in a storage cupboard until lunchtime, when it was on again with the suit and tie and back upstairs again, day’s work done.
Regimes presented throughout the book are incredibly varied yet they all possess the hallmark of consistency and application. Fixed routines do appear to be indispensable to the creative, in corralling and controlling their outputs, no matter how they are arrived at. Discipline, at the beginning and the end of the day, seems to be the key to success.
Benjamin Franklin topped and tailed his days with two questions, “What good shall I do today?”and “What good have I done today?” His regular eight hours of focused work would hopefully always give him a sense of achievement. In what we might now call a “gratitude diary” it is not a bad aim to find a way of working that allows a daily reflection of that nature. Mason Currey’s book proves that there are many routes to such an ambition, but finding one that suits the individual is a many-faceted process.
Nowadays we all face the additional distractions of relentless electronic communications. To help avoid these, taking a daily walk and sticking to a work routine would appear to be tried-and-tested recipes well worth following.
By Kate Henderson