Ludwig van Beethoven poured water over his hands while humming scales. Jonathan Edwards pinned bits of paper to his clothing to remember ideas while horseback riding. Anthony Trollope paid a groom five extra pounds a year to bring him coffee each morning at 5:30.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a collection of dozens of vignettes about “writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, philosophers and scientists on how they create.” I found it impossible to put down. Just when I thought I discovered a pattern to these artists’ daily practices (early morning work and no day job, for example) new structures began to emerge (the night-time only artist and those who held other occupations).
As someone who has sometimes struggled to find a rhythm to my writing, I found this glimpse into others’ lives both inspiring and familiar. While there were differences in each daily ritual, some habits were repeated in most creative processes*:
Structure allowed Trollope to “tutor his mind” and write for three hours before going to work at the Post Office. Gustave Flaubert believed being “regular and orderly in your life [allows you to be] violent and original in your work.” In other words, when the structure is established, you are freed to focus on what counts.
Solitude and simplicity seem to function hand in hand. Time alone, free of distraction is necessary to create. This means a narrowing or stripping away of extraneous things gives a creative the space to work. Some artists deliberately would forgo social commitments or would choose a hermit-like existence. Others would make room for community but keep those hours separate from the work. “What you need to do is clear all distraction,” Anne Rice says. “That’s the bottom line.”
I was surprised how many artists engaged in daily exercise — calisthenics, swimming, and the like — long, long before this was considered the ideal. Walking long distances was by far the exercise of choice, serving as both a break from the work and sometimes a new way to view it. Those walks I take with the dog when I’m feeling stuck? I’m in good company.
This book has inspired me to think again about how I might best keep my days simple and distraction free. In the midst of my daily solitude it has made me feel a part of something bigger than myself. I’m carrying the creative torch like those before me and those who will come after — important work indeed!
Does ritual play into your creative process?
*I’m focusing on the positive here. Many artists relied on various vices to (supposedly) bring out their best work. A few, like George Sand, felt “the work of the imagination is exciting enough…Whether you are secluded in your study or performing on the planks of a stage, you must be in total possession of yourself.”
Amy Rogers Hays says
I’m a big fan of the 5 mile daily walk. Also working first thing in the morning, after breakfast with really good decaf coffee. Usually at my standing desk, with my Spodify writing play list, and Scrivner on composition mode (green back ground, white text.) I love the four themes that you pulled out of the book!
I feel like I have a sense of your routine from your lovely blog. If you haven’t read this, I highly suggest it!
Keeping a routine is something I struggle with. I know what an ideal day in my (writing) life would look like, but my discipline is often ZERO to make it happen! I write in fringe moments, but I do want to have more of a pattern. I think my writing will develop. In 2015 my personal challenge is to take my writing seriously, and I feel I should start with some kind of routine.
I’ve been there and understand. During different seasons I had to learn to flex with life situations (young children, teaching) and develop tricks (keeping records).
Kristina M. says
I’m so glad I clicked over to your site! I am currently reading this book, I can only handle it in small spurts because of the repetitive-ness. My main observation was that the artists fell into two camps: wake up early work for a few hours then spend the rest of the day on less taxing activities or 2 sleep till noon drink vodka, pop pills, and chain smoke then work like a maniac and finally sleep off your binge. I definitely know which camp I would rather be in! It’s so weird that you mentioned Beethoven’s hand washing ritual first because that’s the one that has stuck with me the most. I was thinking about it after i washed up from gardening the other day. I asked myself if I felt any more creative than usual but alas I felt the same.
Love that you’re reading Daily Rituals right this moment! Isn’t it funny how “meaningless” routines can trigger creativity? I find I play so many games with myself to settle into the work (I tell myself I’m just playing rather than writing a whole book, for example, or promise myself I can stop in two hours if I want). These tricks free me up in some way. And having a daily/weekly rhythm keeps me from the option of not showing up.
Sharon Lovejoy says
Thanks so much for connecting me to this book. I am ordering it tonight.
I find that reading poetry first thing and then going outdoors to feed the birds, pull weeds, deadhead, and maybe cut a bouquet helps me immeasurably. It makes me feel that all is right with the world.
Thanks for your sensitive postings. They help me.
Thank you so much, Sharon! Poetry and gardening sound like a beautiful way to enter in to the creative life. I think it’s easy when creating to become detached from the wider world. These two things are a lovely way to stay connected.
I don’t know about daily rituals, but solitude and quiet are important to me. When my kids were younger, I seemed to manage fine with all the noise and distractions, but my most productive times were when I stayed up working after everyone went to bed!
This book looks interesting. I’ve put a hold on it at the library!
I hope you enjoy it!
Our house is currently being painted and it’s been …trying. Not my ideal working environment, for sure. But I’m trying to remember it won’t last forever, and things will be extra pretty once it’s all over.