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Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Mason Currey · 6 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
Franz Kafka, frustrated with his living quarters and day job, wrote in a letter to Felice Bauer in 1912, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.” Kafka is one of 161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations”. . . Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day . . . Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.” Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself that each morning he write three thousand words (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for thirty-three years during the writing of more than two dozen books . . . Karl Marx . . . Woody Allen . . . Agatha Christie . . . George Balanchine, who did most of his work while ironing . . . Leo Tolstoy . . . Charles Dickens . . . Pablo Picasso . . . George Gershwin, who, said his brother Ira, worked for twelve hours a day from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers . . . Here also are the daily rituals of Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, John Updike, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, and Igor Stravinsky (he was never able to compose unless he was sure no one could hear him and, when blocked, stood on his head to “clear the brain”).
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If you are interested in the routines of writers, I can't recommend Daily Rituals by Mason Curry enough. Kierkegaard's method of preparing coffee is probably my favorite:

“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.”

No wonder he only lived to 42.
Whatever Kierkegaard was drinking, calling it coffee would only dignify it.
Most of us , whether we realise it or agree or not, work for income which in turn allows us to work on more interesting things. Some may save up some money which lasts for a duration and go do the interesting things. You are doing it right!

However what will help is doing it differently. Can you do time blocking? I assume that while you are doing interesting things at work, no one notices or cares. That is a great job! So why not block your 1st half to do the necessary boring work, and the second half the interesting work. Win Win! I agree this may need some discipline but think of it as a daily ritual! Btw, many greats [1] have had rituals like this, so who knows? :-)

The other aspect you might be missing is 'when interesting things turn boring'. Usually that happens when you want to ship the product and you hit the long tail of shipping. Try replacing 'doing interesting' vs 'doing interesting and shipping'. But we don't want to give up the idea of doing only interesting? That happens when you can work through the boring parts of shipping an interesting piece of work. Keep trying and you will find it, then find a job in that domain or do your startup in that domain and you are set. I realised 3D graphics was my calling the same way, so I am saying from experience.

[1] :

If you read this article and found yourself wishing there was more detail about the writing routine of each author, then you might like "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" [1]. It's a really great small book that goes in detail through the daily routines of many authors and artists.


Well, no. I've been reading this book about the daily schedules of the greats [1] and there are many artists who had very active social lives while in their prime. Some more so than others - Francis Bacon would wake at 7am and work hard until lunchtime, when he'd share a bottle of wine with a friend in his studio and then drink, eat and party until the middle of the next morning, getting to bed at 3am. Rinse and repeat.


I wish I could function competently on 4 hours of sleep, let alone write world changing philosophical treatises.
If we're talking strictly about artists, he probably means [1] rather than [2].



Not to get off track, but the book looks at Francis Bacon the 20th century painter, not the 16th century philosopher. I once had a confusing conversation with a room full of artists before I realized that we had no idea who the "other" Francis Bacon was.
I would like to imagine what that conversation be like for the "France is Bacon" guy.
I cannot recommend this simple book enough.
There's a whole book about this and its boring as fuck:

Everyone in the book sleeps, eats, drinks wine, and finally works for a couple hours when they can be alone. Later a little bit of opium.

The book Daily Rituals, from which most of these seem to be excerpted, is a great read into the daily routines of lots of "creative" people of all stripes -- writers, artists, scientists, etc.

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