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”).
Succinct descriptions of artistic temperament and practice provide the material for this entertaining, if repetitive, collection. Currey catalogues well over 100 writers, thinkers, and artists, with most given roughly a page of text describing the details of their routines, often rooted in a quote from journals or interviews. The specifics and the dispositions vary wildly while Marcel Proust would wake around four in the afternoon, smoke opium and drink coffee, and then work late into the evening with barely a bite to eat, there are as many figures, like Ernest Hemingway or Georgia O'Keeffe, who completed their work in the dawn hours and left the rest of the day for other pursuits. The rigorous lists (and staggering amounts) of chemicals ingested and the exacting workday hours are interesting, although the real treasures are to be found in the bizarre beliefs that undergird the strange practices of many artists. The included thinkers are almost without exception white Europeans and Americans and predominantly male, which limits the scope and increases the sense of monotony. There are enough moments of insight and entertainment, however, to keep this routine of routines engaging. Illustrations.
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It Should Have Been Called "Daily Rituals: How Writers Work"
This is a book that lacks rigor or imagination. It proports to be a book about the daily rituals of creative people in all walks of life. In fact, it's mainly about the daily working habits of writers. Moreover, what little coverage of non-writers there is is haphazard. For example, the artists discussed are mostly the big name painters you would find in a first edition of the "History of Art" by H. W. Janson and almost all the musicians covered were classical composers. The motivation for this book does not derive from a need to provide a diverse overview of creative people in a variety of genres; it is motivated instead by the author's personal preferences. As a result it feels like a book that needed to be updated before it was even published. While the book does provide some insights into the working habits of creative people, it sometimes goes off-track. With the painter, Henri Matisse, we only learn that the artist didn't give his models any time off. That's an interesting tidbit, but it hardly gives a glimpse into Matisse's working methods.
If anything can be extracted from the anecodotes in the book it may be that with a few notable exceptions, most creative people develop a working routine and stick to it.