The Habits and Routines of Great Artists
Like Thomas, there are, of course, the early birds: Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, is up by 4 in morning and works straight through till 10. Frank Lloyd-Wright used to do most of his sketches from 4 – 7 in the morning and Saul Bellew went from 6 AM to noon. Joyce Carol Oats and W.H Auden are two more Ante Meridian Evangelists, each feeling sharpest from 7 to 11.30, with the latter commenting, “only the Hitlers of the world work at night. No honest artist does.” Of the book's two hundred and sixty one entries, very few are night owls.
Flaubert stirred from his bed around 11, banging on the wall to get his morning papers. Then, after a walk with his mother and tutoring his niece, the ‘hermit of Croisset’ began his labours and kept going into the wee hours. Tom Stoppard (a diabolical procrastinator) writes his plays at night time under a haze of fear and adrenaline. Indeed, the iron discipline of Murakami and Carol Oates is by no means de rigueur. Gertrude Stein is someone who struggled with consistency. A 1934 New York Times interview with Stein and her partner Alice Toklas recorded, “The great woman likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing… .When the great lady has inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.”
Accounts of artists who plod are like a spritz, satisfying to read, but equally compelling are tales of literary history’s mythic operators. Anthony Trollope, churned out an astonishing forty seven novels and forty six short stories in his lifetime, but his routine was not overly zealous, “All those who have lived as literary men, will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write”. The secret to his prodigious output lay in a routine of discipline: “I require of myself two hundred and fifty words every fifteen minutes. I have found that the two hundred and fifty words have been as forthcoming as my watch went.” In contrast to this moderation was the colossal regime of France’s legendary Honoré de Balzac. Eating a light dinner at 6 in the evening, he went to bed, then rising at 1, worked steadily until 7 o’clock, after which time he took a ninety minute nap, resuming work again from 9.30 to 4. Sustained by an eye watering fifty cups of coffee a day, Balzac produced over ninety novels. Such excess took its toll, writing to a friend he said, “I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in horrible fashion – but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same!” He died at 51 years of age.
Edifying to learn was that some of the best ideas occur away from the desk. Umberto Ecco had no routine but said his mind was always composing, “During those seconds I was waiting for you (The Paris Review interviewer) I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing. I can work in the water closet, on the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially at sea. Less so in the bath, but there too.” Similarly active in mundane moments was Agatha Christie, “I like to compose my plots during tedious processes, like washing the dishes”.
I’d like to sign off with my favourite routine of all: Martin Amis’. Speaking to The Paris Review in 1998, he said “Everyone thinks I’m a systematic, nose to the grindstone sort of person, but to me it seems like a part time job, really, in that writing continuously from 11 to 1 is a very good day’s work. Then you can read or play tennis or snooker. Two hours. I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.”
A summary of artist’s habits
The work horses:
Simone de Beauvoir: 10 – 1 worked, 1-5 lunches with friends, 5 – 9 worked.
Joyce Carol Oats: 8 – 1 works, 4 – 7 works, 7 – 9 reads.
Haruki Murakami: 4 – 10 works, afternoon 10km run or swim, evening listens to music, 9 bed.
Kierkegaard: 6 – 9 work 12 – 3 walk
Charles Dickens: 8 – 1 worked, 2 – 5 walk, 6 – 8 dinner with family
Jan Miro: 6 -12 worked 2 – 8 worked
Benjamin Franklin - liked to sit in his conservatory naked every morning, taking ‘an air bath’.
Stravinsky and Saul Bellew - cleared mental blocks by standing on their heads
Worked away from home:
Arnold Bennett - Hotels
Maya Angelou - Hotels
Capote - “I am a horizontal worker”
Frank Lloyd Wright
Read aloud to spouses at night: