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.”