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Authors: Mason Currey

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BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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Søren Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher’s day was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking. Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening. The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.

Kierkegaard kept up his energy with coffee, usually taken after supper and a glass of sherry. Israel Levin, his secretary from 1844 until 1850, recalled that Kierkegaard owned “
at least fifty sets of cups and saucers, but only one of each sort”—and that, before coffee could be served,
Levin had to select which cup and saucer he preferred that day, and then, bizarrely, justify his choice to Kierkegaard. And this was not the end of the strange ritual. The biographer Joakim Garff writes:

Kierkegaard had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid. The process was scarcely finished before the syrupy stimulant disappeared into the magister’s stomach, where it mingled with the sherry to produce additional energy that percolated up into his seething and bubbling brain—which in any case had already been so productive all day that in the half-light Levin could still notice the tingling and throbbing in the overworked fingers when they grasped the slender handle of the cup.


The French Enlightenment writer and philosopher liked to work in bed, particularly in his later years. A visitor
recorded Voltaire’s routine in 1774: He spent the morning in bed, reading and dictating new work to one of his secretaries. At noon he rose and got dressed. Then he would receive visitors or, if there were none, continue to work, taking coffee and chocolate for sustenance. (He
did not eat lunch.) Between 2:00 and 4:00, Voltaire and his principal secretary, Jean-Louis Wagnière, went out in a carriage to survey the estate. Then he worked again until 8:00, when he would join his widowed niece (and longtime lover) Madame Denis and others for supper. But his working day did not end there. Voltaire often continued to give dictation after supper, continuing deep into the night.
Wagnière estimated that, all told, they worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. For Voltaire, it was a perfect arrangement. “
I love the cell,” he wrote.

Benjamin Franklin

In his
, Franklin famously outlined a scheme to achieve “
moral perfection” according to a thirteen-week plan. Each week was devoted to a particular virtue—temperance, cleanliness, moderation, et cetera—and his offenses against these virtues were tracked on a calendar. Franklin thought that if he could maintain his devotion to one virtue for an entire week, it would become a habit; then he could move on to the next virtue, successively making fewer and fewer offenses (indicated on the calendar by a black mark) until he had completely reformed himself and would thereafter need only occasional bouts of moral maintenance.

The plan worked, up to a point. After following the course several times in a row, he found it necessary to go through just one course in a year, and then one every few years. But the virtue of
Let all your things
have their places; let each part of your business have its time”—appears to have eluded his grasp. Franklin was not naturally inclined to keep his papers and other possessions organized, and he found the effort so vexing that he almost quit in frustration. Moreover, the demands of his printing business meant that he couldn’t always follow the exacting daily timetable that he set for himself. That ideal schedule, also recorded in Franklin’s little book of virtues, looked like this:

Benjamin Franklin’s ideal daily routine, from his autobiography
photo credit 13.1

This timetable was formulated before Franklin adopted a favorite habit of his later years—his daily “air bath.” At the time, baths in cold water were considered a tonic, but Franklin believed the cold was too much of a shock to the system. He wrote in a letter:

I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bathe in another element, I mean cold air. With this view I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing. This practice is not in the least painful, but on the contrary, agreeable; and if I return to bed afterwards, before I dress myself, as sometimes happens, I make a supplement to my night’s rest, of one or two hours of the most pleasing sleep that can be imagined.

Anthony Trollope

Trollope managed to produce forty-seven novels and sixteen other books by dint of an unvarying early-morning writing session. In his
, Trollope described his composition methods at Waltham Cross, England, where he lived for twelve years. For most of that time he was also employed as a civil servant at the General Post Office, a career he began in 1834 and did not resign until thirty-three years later, when he had already published more than two dozen books.

It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30
; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy. During all those years at Waltham Cross he never was once late with the coffee which it was his duty to bring me. I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to any one else for the success I have had. By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.

All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary labourers,—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours,—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself,—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went. But my three hours were not devoted entirely to writing. I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases.…
This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year;—the precise amount which so greatly acerbated the publisher in Paternoster Row, and which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.

If he completed a novel before his three hours were up, Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one. In his industrious habits he was no doubt influenced by his
Frances Trollope, an immensely popular author in her own right. She did not begin writing until the age of fifty-three, and then only because she desperately needed money to support her six children and ailing husband. In order to squeeze the necessary writing time out of the day while still acting as the primary caregiver to her family, Mrs. Trollope sat down at her desk each day at 4:00
and completed her writing in time to serve breakfast.

Jane Austen

Austen never lived alone and had little expectation of solitude in her daily life. Her final home, a cottage in the village of Chawton, England, was no exception: she lived there with her mother, her sister, a close friend, and three servants, and there was a steady stream of visitors, often
unannounced. Nevertheless, between settling in Chawton in 1809 and her death, Austen was remarkably productive: she revised earlier versions of
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
for publication, and wrote three new novels,
Mansfield Park
, and

Austen wrote in the family sitting room, “
subject to all kinds of casual interruptions,” her nephew recalled.

She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.

Austen rose early, before the other women were up, and played the piano. At 9:00 she organized the family breakfast, her one major piece of household work. Then she settled down to write in the sitting room, often with her mother and sister sewing quietly nearby. If visitors showed up, she would hide her papers and join in the sewing. Dinner, the main meal of the day, was served between 3:00 and 4:00. Afterward there was conversation, card games, and tea. The evening was spent reading aloud from novels, and during this time Austen would read her work-in-progress to her family.

Although she did not have the independence and privacy that a contemporary writer might expect, Austen was nonetheless fortunate with the arrangements at
Chawton. Her family was respectful of her work, and her sister Cassandra shouldered the bulk of the house-running burden—a huge relief for the novelist, who once wrote, “
Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton & doses of rhubarb.”

Frédéric Chopin

During his ten-year relationship with the French novelist George Sand, Chopin spent most of his summers at Sand’s country estate in Nohant, in central France. Chopin was an urban animal; in the country, he quickly became bored and moody. But the lack of distractions was good for his music. Most days he rose late, had breakfast in his bedroom, and spent the day composing, with a break to give a piano lesson to Sand’s daughter, Solange. At 6:00
the household assembled for dinner, often served outdoors, followed by music, conversation, and sundry entertainments. Then Chopin retired to bed while Sand went to her writing table (see
this page

Although his lack of any real responsibility at Nohant made it easier for Chopin to compose, his work process was still far from effortless. Sand noted his work habits:

His creation was spontaneous and miraculous. He found it without seeking it, without foreseeing it. It came on his piano suddenly, complete, sublime, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he was impatient to play it to himself. But then began the most heart-rending labour I ever saw. It was a series of efforts, of irresolutions, and of frettings to seize again certain details of the theme he had heard; what he had conceived as a whole he analysed too much when wishing to write it, and his regret at not finding it again, in his opinion, clearly defined, threw him into a kind of despair. He shut himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, walking, breaking his pens, repeating and altering a bar a hundred times, writing and effacing it as many times, and recommencing the next day with a minute and desperate perseverance. He spent six weeks over a single page to write it at last as he had noted it down at the very first.

BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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