The Habits of Artists

What are the habits of artists? The habits of artists are of many sorts and, as Mason Curry explains in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, they are always coordinated to some kind of ritual. While the habits vary from artist to artist, the rituals usually do not, which is another way of stating the obvious about rituals: they "free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action," as the philosopher William James might put it.

Maya Angelous
"A solid routine," Curry writes, "fosters a well-worn groove for one's mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods." Whether your rise every day at 5:30 AM, as Ernest Hemingway did, or at 10 AM, as Gustave Flaubert did because he only started his real work at 10 PM, whether you subsist on amphetamines as W. H. Auden did or whether you maintain a vigorous schedule of boxing, jumping rope, gymnastics and running as Joan Miro did, the purpose of a ritual is to keep you moving in the direction of a fruitful life, however you determine that for yourself. The worst thing, conversely, is to flounder: to keep changing your bedtime hour or to re-arrange your working hours every day or to allow yourself to lurch from one impulse to another as the day unfolds, without any sense of why you're doing it and not something else instead. While a bit extreme perhaps, Auden nonetheless gets the basic point right: "A modern stoic knows that surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble." If you're Auden, that is, I guess.

Daily Rituals is the kind of book I would recommend to every artist (or writer or scholar or teacher or human being) for two reasons. One, it offers a wide range of rituals that worked for all sorts of people, 161 people to be exact, from poets to philosophers, from mathematicians to painters, and there is a good chance you might find your personality type among them and receive the sort of practical encouragement to apply yourself again to a ritualized (and therefore hopefully satisfying) life.

Two, it is a very entertaining book. The excerpts are bite-sized, the anecdotes insightful or humorous, and the author works with a broad time period, from Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) to Maya Angelou (b. 1928), and with a variety of personalities, from Jane Austen (1775-1817) to David Lynch (b. 1946). He also includes an impressive list of resources to follow up with the excerpts, if you're so inclined.

Carl Jung
Are there commonalities? A few. Coffee, chocolate and cigarettes seem to be a favorite stimulant of artists--for the past three centuries, in fact. Taking long walks appears to work for many as a way to give the mind a rest while it simmers on the day's work. Lots of artists love their naps. Lots of artists love their morning baths. Some prefer to walk around naked before beginning the day. Half are given to melodramatic lives (like Bacon or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), half prefer a well-tempered life (like Flaubert or Richard Strauss). Novelists tend to prefer a few hours of quality work, while painters and philosophers find themselves working all day long, at all hours of the day. And the majority of the people included in this volume were not parents responsible for small children. Karl Marx seemed to regret his marriage, while Gustav Mahler apparently took his wife for granted. Of those that did care for children, a surprising number had servants to help. So there's that.

To inspire you to get ahold of your own copy, here are a few of my favorite observations or quips.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992): "Bacon would read and reread classic cookbooks to relax himself before bed."

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938): "Wolfe typically began writing around midnight, 'priming himself with awesome quantities of tea and coffee', as one biographer noted."

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995): "Highsmith only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day." She also had a love affair with snails, housing three hundred of them in her garden in Suffolk, England. She "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."

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007): "In the evening, he read, saw friends, screened a movie from his large collection, or watched TV (he was particularly fond of Dallas)."

Morton Feldman (1926-1987): "For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): "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.... I can never work before five or six o'clock in the evening, and even then I am often prevented by a concert. "

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): "If he did not dress to go out during the morning working hours, he would stand in great deshabille 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."

Jane Austen 1775-1817): "Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton & doses of rhubarb."

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849): "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."

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880): "It's no easy business to be simple."

Carl Jung (1875-1961): "I've realized that somebody who's tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool."

Gertrude Stein 1874-1946): "Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies [she along with Alice Toklas] drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn't seem to fit in with Miss Stein's mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel."

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas

Dmitri Shostakovich


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