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Authors: Mason Currey

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

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BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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Benjamin Britten
(1913–1976)

The English composer and conductor hated the Romantic cliché of the creative artist waiting for inspiration to strike. He said in a 1967 television interview:

That isn’t the way I work. I like working to an exact timetable. I often thank my stars that I had a rather conventional upbringing, that I went to a rather strict school where one was made to work. And I can without much difficulty sit down at nine o’clock in the morning and work straight through the morning until lunchtime, then in the afternoon letters—or, rather more important, is that I go for a walk, where I plan out what I’m going to write in the next period at my desk. I then come back. After tea, up to my studio and work through until about eight o’clock. After dinner I usually find I’m too sleepy to do much more than read a little bit, and then go to bed rather early.

In the morning Britten had a cold bath; in the evening, a hot one. In the summer he liked to swim, and he would play tennis on the weekends when he could. Around the house, he was hopeless. Britten’s longtime partner and collaborator, Peter Pears, remembers, “
He could make a cup of tea, boil an egg and wash up, but not much more. If he made his bed, he usually made a mess of it.” Britten’s life was his work—a fact that alienated some of his colleagues over the years. “
Functioning as a composer was
his whole world,” Donald Mitchell recalled. “The creativity had to come first.… Everyone, including himself, had to be sacrificed to the creative act.”

Ann Beattie
(b. 1947)

Beattie works best at night. “I really believe in day people and night people,” she told an interviewer in 1980.

I really think people’s bodies are on different clocks. I even feel now like I just woke up and I’ve been awake for three or four hours. And I’ll feel this way until seven o’clock tonight when I’ll start to pick up and then by nine it will be O.K. to start writing. My favorite hours are from 12:00 to 3:00
A.M.
for writing.

She doesn’t write every night, however. “
I really don’t adhere to schedules at all, and don’t have the slightest desire to do that,” she said. “The times that I’ve tried that, when I have been in a slump and I try to get out of it by saying, ‘Come on, Ann, sit down at that typewriter,’ I’ve gotten in a worse slump. It’s better if I just let it ride.” As a result, she often won’t write anything for months. “I’ve learned I can’t force it,” she said. But that doesn’t mean that she is able to relax and enjoy herself during these fallow periods; rather, she says it’s like having an almost permanent case of writer’s block. As she told an interviewer in 1998, “
I certainly am a moody and, I would say, not very happy person.”

Günter Grass
(b. 1927)

Asked if he writes during the day or at night, Grass seemed to shudder at the latter notion: “Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good. I need daylight to begin. Between nine and ten o’clock I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at seven o’clock in the evening.”

Tom Stoppard
(b. 1937)

The playwright has struggled with chronic disorganization and procrastination throughout his career. He once noted that the only thing that really got him to write was fear—he had to get “
frightened enough to discipline myself to the typewriter for successive bouts.” Then he would sit up all night writing and smoking, usually working in the kitchen while the rest of the household was asleep. His biographer, Ira Nadel, notes that Stoppard’s smoking habits were unusual as well: “
An inveterate chain-smoker, he was notorious for stubbing out a
cigarette after one or two puffs and then lighting another. This, he calculated, was equivalent to smoking with a very long filter.”

At various times, Stoppard attempted to reform his “ineffectual inefficiency” as a writer; in the early 1980s he even succeeded in chaining himself to the desk from roughly 10:00
A.M.
to 5:00
P.M.
daily. But he gradually
slipped back into old habits. In 1997, he told a reporter that he generally worked from midday to midnight, adding, “
I never work in the mornings unless I’m in real trouble.”

Haruki Murakami
(b. 1949)

When he is writing a novel, Murakami wakes at 4:00
A.M.
and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9:00. “
I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he told
The Paris Review
in 2004. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Murakami has said that maintaining this repetition for the time required to complete a novel takes more than mental discipline: “
Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” When he first hung out his shingle as a professional writer, in 1981, after several years running a small jazz club in Tokyo, he discovered that the sedentary lifestyle caused him to gain weight rapidly; he was also smoking as many as sixty cigarettes a day. He soon resolved to change his habits completely, moving with his wife to a rural area, quitting smoking, drinking less, and eating a diet of mostly vegetables and fish. He also started running daily, a habit he has kept up for more than a quarter century.

The one drawback to this self-made schedule, Murakami admitted in a 2008 essay, is that it doesn’t allow
for much of a social life. “
People are offended when you repeatedly turn down their invitations,” he wrote. But he decided that the indispensable relationship in his life was with his readers. “My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty—and my top priority—as a novelist?”

Toni Morrison
(b. 1931)


I am not able to write regularly,” Morrison told
The Paris Review
in 1993. “I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.” Indeed, for much of her writing career, Morrison not only worked a day job—as an editor at Random House—but taught university literature courses and raised her two sons as a single parent. “
It does seem hectic,” she admitted in 1977.

But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I don’t go to the cocktail parties, I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate. When I sit down to write I never brood. I have so many other things to do, with my children and teaching, that I can’t afford it. I brood, thinking of ideas, in the automobile
when I’m driving to work or in the subway or when I’m mowing the lawn. By the time I get to the paper something’s there—I can produce.

Morrison’s writing hours have varied over the years. In interviews in the 1970s and ’80s, she frequently mentions working on her fiction in the evenings. But by the ’90s, she had switched to the early morning hours, saying, “
I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.” For the morning writing, her ritual is to rise around 5:00, make coffee, and “
watch the light come.” This last part is crucial. “Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process,” Morrison said. “For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being
in
the light, it’s being there
before it arrives
. It enables me, in some sense.”

Joyce Carol Oates
(b. 1938)

The famously prolific American writer—Oates has published more than fifty novels, thirty-six collections of short stories, and dozens of volumes of poetry, drama, and essays—generally writes from 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning until 1:00
P.M.
Then she eats lunch and allows herself an afternoon break before resuming work from 4:00
P.M.
until dinner at around 7:00. Sometimes she will continue writing after dinner, but more often she reads in
the evening. Given the number of hours she spends at the desk, Oates has pointed out, her productivity is not really so remarkable. “
I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day’s work, it
is
a single page, and these pages add up,” she told one interviewer. “As a result I have acquired the reputation over the years of being prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don’t work as hard or as long.” This doesn’t mean that she always finds the work pleasant or easy; the first several weeks of a new novel, Oates has said, are particularly difficult and demoralizing: “
Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Chuck Close
(b. 1940)

“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 evening, 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.”

Francine Prose
(b. 1947)

The American author has found that literary success has made literary productivity increasingly difficult. She writes:

Back in the day, when my kids were little and I lived in the country and I was an unknown novelist, I had a schedule so regular that it was practically Pavlovian,
and I loved it. The school bus came, I started to write. The school bus returned, I stopped. Now that I’m in the city and my kids are grown and the world, it seems, will pay me to do anything BUT write (or in any case para-literary activities often seem more lucrative and frequently more seductive than actual writing) my routine is more haphazard. I write whenever I am able, for a few days or a week or a month if I can get the time. I sneak away to the country and work on a computer that’s not connected to the Internet and count on the world to go away long enough for me to get a few words down on paper, whenever and however I can. When the writing is going well, I can work all day. When it’s not, I spend a lot of time gardening and standing in front of the refrigerator.

John Adams
(b. 1947)

“My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits,” Adams said in a recent interview. “Because creativity, particularly the kind of work I do—which is writing large-scale pieces, either symphonic music or opera music—is just, it’s very labor-intensive. And it’s something that you can’t do with an assistant. You have to do it all by yourself.” Adams works most days in a studio in his Berkeley, California, home. (He keeps another, mirror-image studio in a remote wooded location along the California coast, where he goes to
work for short periods.) “When I’m home, I get up in the morning and I have a very active dog, so I take the dog up into the high mountains behind where we live,” he says. Then he heads into the studio and works from 9:00
A.M.
until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, taking breaks to go downstairs and make “endless cups of green tea.” Otherwise, Adams says that he doesn’t have any particular creative rituals or superstitions: “I find basically that if I do things regularly, I don’t have writer’s block or come into terrible crises.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that all his studio time is spent in concentrated creative work. “I confess that I’m not as Zen disciplined or as pure as I’d like,” he says. “Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my e-mail or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.” In the evening, Adams generally tries to switch off. He doesn’t listen to a lot of music; after spending the day composing, he’s usually had enough. “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,” he says.

Although he maintains a regular working schedule, Adams also tries not to overplan his musical life. “I actually really demand from myself a sort of inordinate amount of unstructured freedom,” he says. “I don’t want to know what I’m doing the next year or even the next week. I somehow have this feeling that to keep the spontaneity from my creative work fresh I need to be in a state
of rather shocking irresponsibility.” Of course he has to make commitments and set premiere dates and things of that nature. But, he says, “I also try to keep a sort of random freedom about my daily life so that I can be open for ideas when they come.”

BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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