Read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work Online

Authors: Mason Currey

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Writing, #Art, #History

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Wolfe typically began writing around midnight, “
priming himself with awesome quantities of tea and coffee,” as one biographer noted. Since he could never find a chair or table that was totally comfortable for a man of his height (Wolfe was 6’6″), he usually wrote standing up, using the top of the refrigerator as his desk. He would keep at it
until dawn, taking breaks to smoke a cigarette at the window or pace through the apartment. Then he would have a drink and sleep until around 11:00. In the late morning Wolfe would begin another stretch of work, sometimes aided by a typist who would arrive to find the previous night’s pages scattered all over the kitchen floor.

Patricia Highsmith

The author of such psychological thrillers as
Strangers on a Train
The Talented Mr. Ripley
was, in person, as solitary and misanthropic as some of her heroes. Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable. “
There is no real life except in working, that is to say in the imagination,” she wrote in her journal. Fortunately, Highsmith was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said,
like rats have orgasms.

Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day. The biographer Andrew Wilson records her methods:

Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost foetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, “a womb of her own.”

Patricia Highsmith, Paris, 1977

Highsmith was also in the habit of having a stiff drink before she started to write—“
not to perk her up,” Wilson notes, “but to reduce her energy levels, which veered toward the manic.” In her later years, as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day. She was also a chain smoker for most of her life, going through a pack of Gauloises a day. In matters of food, she was indifferent. One acquaintance remembered that “
she only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.”

Ill at ease around most people, she had an unusually intense connection with animals—particularly cats, but also snails, which she bred at home. Highsmith was inspired to keep the gastropods as pets when she saw a pair at a fish market locked in a strange embrace. (She later told a radio interviewer that “
they give me a sort of tranquility.”) She eventually housed three hundred snails in her garden in Suffolk, England, and once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying a gigantic handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails—her companions for the evening, she said. When she later moved to France, Highsmith had to get around the prohibition against bringing live snails into the country. So she smuggled them in, making multiple trips across the border with six to ten of the creatures hidden under each breast.

Federico Fellini

The Italian filmmaker claimed that he was unable to sleep for more than three hours at a time. In a 1977 interview, he described his morning routine:

I’m up at six in the morning. I walk around the house, open windows, poke around boxes, move books from here to there. For years I’ve been trying to make myself a decent cup of coffee, but it’s not one of my specialties. I go downstairs, outside as soon as possible. By seven I’m on the telephone. I’m scrupulous about choosing who it’s safe to wake at seven in the morning without their getting insulted.
For some I perform a real service, a wake-up service; they become used to my waking them at seven or so.

Fellini wrote for newspapers as a young man, but he found that his temperament was better suited to the movies—he liked the sociability of the filmmaking process. “
A writer can do everything by himself—but he needs discipline,” he said. “He has to get up at seven in the morning, and be alone in a room with a white sheet of paper. I am too much of a
[loafer] to do that. I think I have chosen the best medium of expression for myself. I love the very precious combination of work and of living-together that filmmaking offers.”

Ingmar Bergman

Do you know what moviemaking is?” Bergman asked in a 1964 interview. “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film. And during those eight hours there are maybe only ten or twelve minutes, if you’re lucky, of real creation. And maybe they don’t come. Then you have to gear yourself for another eight hours and pray you’re going to get your good ten minutes this time.” But moviemaking for Bergman was also writing scripts, which he always did in his home on the remote island of Fårö, Sweden. There he followed essentially the same schedule for decades: up at 8:00, writing from 9:00 until noon, then an austere meal. “
He constantly eats the same lunch,” the actress Bibi Andersson remembered. “It doesn’t change. It’s some kind of whipped sour milk, very
fat, and strawberry jam, very sweet—a strange kind of baby food he eats with corn flakes.”

After lunch, Bergman worked again from 1:00 to 3:00, then slept for an hour. In the late afternoon he went for a walk or took the ferry to a neighboring island to pick up the newspapers and the mail. In the evening he read, saw friends, screened a movie from his large collection, or watched TV (he was particularly fond of
). “
I never use drugs or alcohol,” Bergman said. “The most I drink is a glass of wine and that makes me incredibly happy.” Music was also “absolutely necessary” for him, and Bergman enjoyed everything from Bach to the Rolling Stones. As he got older, he had trouble sleeping, never managing more than four or five hours a night, which made shooting films arduous. But even after he retired from filmmaking in 1982, Bergman continued to make television movies, direct plays and operas, and write plays, novels, and a memoir. “
I have been working all the time,” he said, “and it’s like a flood going through the landscape of your soul. It’s good because it takes away a lot. It’s cleansing. If I hadn’t been at work all the time, I would have been a lunatic.”

Morton Feldman

A French journalist visited Feldman in 1971, when the American composer was taking a month to work in a small village about an hour north of Paris. “
I live here like a monk,” Feldman said.

I get up at six in the morning. I compose until eleven, then my day is over. I go out, I walk, tirelessly, for hours. Max Ernst is not far away. [John] Cage also came here. I’m cut off from all other activity. What effect does that have on me?

Very good … But I’m not used to having so much time, so much ease. Usually I create in the midst of a lot of bustle, of work. You know, I always worked at something other than music. My parents were in “business” and I participated in their worries, in their life.…

Then, I got married, my wife had a very good job and she was out all day. I got up at six in the morning, I did the shopping, the meals, the housework, I worked like mad and in the evening we received a lot of friends (I had so many friends without even realizing it myself). At the end of the year, I discovered that I had not written a single note of music!

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “
the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.” External conditions—having the right pen, a good chair—were important, too. Feldman wrote in a 1965 essay, “
My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series
of practical considerations that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

In 1781, after several years searching in vain for a suitable post with the European nobility, Mozart decided to settle in Vienna as a freelance composer and performer. There were ample opportunities in the city for a musician of Mozart’s talent and renown, but staying solvent necessitated a frantic round of piano lessons, concert performances, and social visits with the city’s wealthy patrons. At the same time, Mozart was also courting his future wife, Constanze, under the disapproving gaze of her mother. All this activity left him only a few hours a day to compose new works. In a 1782 letter to his sister, he gave a detailed account of these hectic days in Vienna:

My hair is always done by six o’clock in the morning and by seven I am fully dressed. I then compose until nine. From nine to one I give lessons. Then I lunch, unless I am invited to some house where they lunch at two or even three o’clock, as, for example, today and tomorrow at Countess Zichy’s and Countess Thun’s. I can never work before five or six o’clock in the evening, and even then I am often prevented by a concert. If I am not prevented, I compose until nine. I then go to my dear Constanze, though the joy of seeing one another is nearly always spoilt
by her mother’s bitter remarks.… At half past ten or eleven I come home—it depends on her mother’s darts and on my capacity to endure them! As I cannot rely on being able to compose in the evening owing to the concerts which are taking place and also to the uncertainty as to whether I may not be summoned now here and now there, it is my custom (especially if I get home early) to compose a little before going to bed. I often go on writing until one—and am up again at six.

Altogether I have so much to do that often I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels,” Mozart wrote to his father. Apparently he was not exaggerating; when Leopold Mozart went to visit his son a few years later, he found the freelancer’s life just as tumultuous as promised. He wrote home from Vienna, “
It is impossible for me to describe the rush and bustle.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care—he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk outdoors, which aided his creativity. (Perhaps for this reason, Beethoven’s productivity was generally higher during the warmer months.)

After a midday dinner, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much of the rest of the afternoon. He always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of music paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts. As the day wound down, he might stop at a tavern to read the newspapers. Evenings were often spent with company or at the theater, although in winter he preferred to stay home and read. Supper was usually a simple affair—a bowl of soup, say, and some leftovers from dinner. Beethoven enjoyed wine with his food, and he liked to have a glass of beer and a pipe after supper. He rarely worked on his music in the evening, and he retired early, going to bed at 10:00 at the latest.

Beethoven’s unusual bathing habits are worth noting here. His pupil and secretary Anton Schindler recalled them in the biography
Beethoven As I Knew Him

Washing and bathing were among the most pressing necessities of Beethoven’s life. In this respect he was indeed an Oriental: to his way of thinking Mohammed did not exaggerate a whit in the number of ablutions he prescribed. If he did not dress to go out during the morning working hours, he would stand in great
at his washstand and pour large pitchers of water over his hands, bellowing up and down the scale or sometimes humming loudly to himself. Then he would stride around his room with rolling or staring eyes, jot something down, then resume his pouring of water and loud singing. These were moments of deep meditation, to which no one could have objected but for two unfortunate
consequences. First of all, the servants would often burst out laughing. This made the master angry and he would sometimes assault them in language that made him cut an even more ridiculous figure. Or, secondly, he would come into conflict with the landlord, for all too often so much water was spilled that it went right through the floor. This was one of the main reasons for Beethoven’s unpopularity as a tenant. The floor of his living-room would have had to be covered with asphalt to prevent all that water from seeping through. And the master was totally unaware of the excess of inspiration under his feet!

BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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