Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

date Dec 23, 2015
authors Mason Currey
reading time 18 mins

It was heartening and humbling to read various kinds of routine and daily life of composers, writers, painters and then realise that all struggle with work and yet cannot live without it. This quote probably sums up the book:

“Inspiration is for amateurs,” Close says. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

There is no other secret to great work other than doing it every single day, continuously whether it’s good or bad, long or short, productive or non-productive. And another one:

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I believe it.

The case for routine:

In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

Habits + freeing our minds

by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”


“Sooner or later,” Pritchett writes, “the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”

Various kinds of artists - we are all unique

For every cheerfully industrious Gibbon who worked nonstop and seemed free of the self-doubt and crises of confidence that dog us mere mortals, there is a William James or a Franz Kafka, great minds who wasted time, waited vainly for inspiration to strike, experienced torturous blocks and dry spells, were racked by doubt and insecurity.

Routine and ambition

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, then Auden himself was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. The poet was obsessively punctual and lived by an exacting timetable throughout his life.

Showing up every single day

And yet, as the biographer Michael Peppiatt has written, Bacon was “essentially a creature of habit,” with a daily schedule that varied little over his career. Painting came first. Despite his late nights, Bacon always woke at the first light of day and worked for several hours, usually finishing around noon.

Simple life

There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values. We completely avoided all that. There was the presence only of essentials. It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.

Daily work

Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day.

Everyday at the same time

“A writer can do everything by himself—but he needs discipline,” he said. “He has to get up at seven in the morning, and be alone in a room with a white sheet of paper.

A large volume of work with tiny amount

“Do you know what moviemaking is?” Bergman asked in a 1964 interview. “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film. And during those eight hours there are maybe only ten or twelve minutes, if you’re lucky, of real creation. And maybe they don’t come. Then you have to gear yourself for another eight hours and pray you’re going to get your good ten minutes this time.”

Working and copying

“He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Start immediately after ending

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.

Eliminate all distractions

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.

Sometimes we are slow

Often he complained of his slow progress. “Bovary is not exactly racing along: two pages in a week! Sometimes I’m so discouraged I could jump out a window.” But, gradually, the pages began to pile up.

Work and life

And yet, as difficult as the writing was, it was in many ways an ideal life for Flaubert. “After all,” as he wrote years later, “work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

Working in solitude

Then, at 9:00, Mann closed the door to his study, making himself unavailable for visitors, telephone calls, or family. The children were strictly forbidden to make any noise between 9:00 and noon, Mann’s prime writing hours. It was then that his mind was freshest, and Mann placed tremendous pressure on himself to get things down during that time.


Marx was, by 1858, already several years into Das Kapital, the massive work of political economy that would occupy the rest of his life. He never had a regular job. “I must pursue my goal through thick and thin and I must not allow bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine,”

Life and work

“I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable,” Freud wrote

Working during holidays

As a result, nearly all Jung’s writing was done on holidays. (And although he had many patients who relied on him, Jung was not shy about taking time off; “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool,” he said.)

A side note: on women and art in the past

(Prior to their marriage, she had been a promising composer in her own right, but Mahler had made her quit, saying that there could be only one composer in the family.) As she wrote in her diary that July, “There’s such a struggle going on in me! And a miserable longing for someone who thinks OF ME, who helps me to find MYSELF! I’ve sunk to the level of a housekeeper!”

Never bored!

“Basically, I enjoy everything: I am never bored,” Matisse told a visitor in 1941, during a tour of his studio in the south of France.

Work as a route to non-depression

Miró always maintained a rigidly inflexible daily routine—both because he disliked being distracted from his work, and because he feared slipping back into the severe depression that had afflicted him as a young man, before he discovered painting.


Miró hated for this routine to be interrupted by social or cultural events. As he told an American journalist, “Merde! I absolutely detest all openings and parties! They’re commercial, political, and everybody talks too much.

Getrude’s work of consistency

“If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.”

Every day,

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Creative rhythm

Two or three hours in the morning were enough for him, although he stressed the importance of keeping regular hours in order to cultivate a daily creative rhythm.

Bursts of creativity

The real writing usually happened in brief bursts of concentrated activity, during which he could manage seven thousand or eight thousand words in one session. This method worked pretty well for short stories, which Fitzgerald preferred to compose in a spontaneous manner. “Stories are best written in either one jump or three, according to the length,”

Most work is thrown away - but that’s how excellence is created

“I wish I had a routine for writing,” Miller told an interviewer in 1999. “I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that.

Repition is important

“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.”

Avoiding social life

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.

Work work work

“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,”

Working all by yourself

“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.”

When you come across a block / bug / obstacle - i have heard of this process so so so many times from Ford to Tesla to Einstein to Curie

“And then I come back. But those can be very fruitful pauses, especially if there’s a little problem that comes up. The best thing to do is to just leave it and put your mind somewhere else, and not always but often the solution to that problem will bubble up spontaneously.

More work == more possibility. It’s just probability

Reich doesn’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike, but he does believe that certain pieces are more inspired than others—and that, with continual work, you can look forward to hitting these patches of inspiration from time to time.

On the next piece

“One has to be open to the reality—and it’s a very wonderful reality—that the next piece is going to hold some surprises for you.”

Habits of order

“Recollect,” he wrote, “that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser—never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number.”

Automation + creativity

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

3-4 works of creativity

Generally, three hours of composition were the most he could manage in a day, although he would do less demanding tasks—writing letters, copying scores, practicing the piano—in the afternoon.

Real artists get to work with or without inspiration

Unless he was touring, Stravinsky worked on his compositions daily, with or without inspiration, he said. He required solitude for the task, and always closed the windows of his studio before he began:

Work is never tiring for them

Painting, on the other hand, never bored or tired him. Picasso claimed that, even after three or four hours standing in front of a canvas, he did not feel the slightest fatigue. “That’s why painters live so long,” he said.

No interruption + completely lost

Once I could get away, however, shut the door and get people not to interrupt me, then I was able to go full speed ahead, completely lost in what I was doing.

Work whether you feel like it or not

Yeats always made sure to write for at least two hours every day, whether he felt inclined to it or not. This daily discipline was crucial for Yeats both because his concentration faltered without a regular schedule—“ Every change upsets my never very resolute habits of work”—and

Job + routine + discipline

“I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once said. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”


“I meditate once in the morning and again in the afternoon, for about twenty minutes each time. Then I go about the business of my day.” If he’s shooting a film, he will sometimes sneak in a third session at the end of the day. “We waste so much time on other things, anyway,” he writes. “Once you add this and have a routine, it fits in very naturally.”

Not inspiration - but continuous work

He was dismissive of inspiration, saying that if he waited for the muse he would compose at most three songs a year. It was better to work every day. “Like the pugilist,” Gershwin said, “the songwriter must always keep in training.”

Fired from work - but many held on tho their jobs and did creative work

By 1961, however, his boss had caught on to the fact that Dickey was more concerned with literature than with advertising, and fired him. Dickey claimed that he had quit; he wrote to a friend, “After five and a half years of working in these dark Satanic mills of American business I am out at last.”

Rituals = security

“for Gould, everything had a routine. It was almost as if the constant repetition of certain rituals created a kind of security

With creative work you are always at the start

There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again.

Most creativity is always almost uneventful

Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business.


Descartes believed that idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself.


Yet Schiller could not abandon the habit; it was the only reliable method to guarantee himself the long, uninterrupted stretches of time he needed to be productive. He wrote to a friend, “We have failed to recognize our great asset: time. A conscientious use of it could make us into something quite amazing.”

Giving form to your thoughts

Inspiration can pass through the soul just as easily in the midst of an orgy as in the silence of the woods, but when it is a question of giving form to your thoughts, whether you are secluded in your study or performing on the planks of a stage, you must be in total possession of yourself.

Routine and not getting out of it

“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” This is Tolstoy in one of the relatively few diary entries he made during the mid-1860s, when he was deep into the writing of War and Peace.

No interference

“What a joy to be in my own home!” he wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. “What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.”

Walks and creativity

Tchaikovsky’s superstition may have been justified—his walks were essential to his creativity, and he often stopped to jot down ideas that he would later flesh out at the piano.

Seed and giving form to thought

The seed of a future composition usually reveals itself suddenly, in the most unexpected fashion. If the soil is favourable—that is, if I am in the mood for work, this seed takes root with inconceivable strength and speed, bursts through the soil, puts out roots, leaves, twigs, and finally flowers: I cannot define the creative process except through this metaphor.

Graham Bell, creativity and restlessness

Bell explained to her that “I have my periods of restlessness when my brain is crowded with ideas tingling to my fingertips when I am excited and cannot stop for anybody.”

Rather be a slave of creative work

“Some pianists say they are the slaves of their instrument,” Rachmaninoff told a reporter in 1933. “If I am its slave, all I can say is—I have a very kind master.” Two hours a day was all the practice he needed to stay in top form.

Every artist struggled with finances, but did it anyway

London—Orwell couldn’t support himself on his writing alone. But the lowly teaching jobs he had been holding left him little time to write and put him on the margins of literary society. Luckily, Orwell’s Aunt Nellie found him an attractive alterative: a part-time assistant job at a London secondhand bookshop.

Routine and work

Rice adds that for her it’s “not a matter of being strict”—when beginning a new book, she tends to slip into a routine naturally, without any conscious planning. And once she’s adopted a writing schedule, she doesn’t need to force herself to work. But she does have to be strict about avoiding social engagements and other outside entanglements.

When the pain of not doing work is greater than doing the work

Weeks go by, and I don’t paint until finally I can’t stand it any longer. I get fed up.

Never say i will only start something when a great idea comes - that will never happen

It is a danger to wait around for an idea to occur to you. You have to find the idea.

final note:

I work every day. I work weekends, I work nights.… [S]ome people looking at that from the outside might use that modern term “workaholic,” or might see this as obsessive or destructive. But it’s not work to me, it’s just what I do, that’s my life. I also spend a lot of time with my family, and I sing, and go to ball games,