This week's Sunday Guardian column.
Ah, the artist’s life. Behold the lonely garret, the pacing of the floor, the looking up at the heavens for inspiration. And when it does strike, the hours of blissful creation, after which it’s time again to wait for the Muse.
This myth of the artist is largely just that – a myth. Overlooked is the role of discipline, the perseverance needed to drag oneself to the table day after day and put down the pieces that make the whole. (“Sooner or later,” V.S. Pritchett wrote, “the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”)
Rituals are an indispensible aid to such discipline and artists have depended on several over the years, from the stimulating to the unhealthy to the bizarre. William Styron and Gustave Flaubert, among others, knew this well. The former once tacked on his doorframe a piece of cardboard with a quotation from the latter: ''Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.''
Then, there was the beleaguered Franz Kafka, who once wrote to Felice Bauer: “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 manoeuvre.” Such manoeuvres are the subject of a fascinating new book compiled and edited by Mason Currey. Titled Daily Rituals, it started as a blog in 2007, which, with growing popularity, was requisitioned by a canny agent. Currey's goal is “to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.”
Culled from a series of interviews, memoirs, biographies, letters and other sources, Daily Rituals is a window into the practices of well-known writers, philosophers, architects, mathematicians and more. An alarming number of people, for instance, confess to arising early in the morning, from Anthony Trollope to Alaa al Aswany to Emily Dickinson. For many, this began as nothing more than a practical consideration. As Toni Morrison has said: “Writing before dawn began as a necessity--I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama--and that was always around five in the morning”. (James Joyce, that lucky sod, awoke at 10 in the morning and lay in bed till 11, "smothered in thoughts".)
Other rituals are more languid. Truman Capote once proclaimed, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping”. For others, puffing and especially sipping were integral parts of their day. Kingsley Amis and Capote apart, there was Winston Churchill, who started at 11 a.m. when he “took a weak whisky and soda to his study”. As for W.H. Auden, “he swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.)”
Not all rituals involve the bottle. Dickens was an inveterate walker, as was Tchaikovsky. Ingmar Bergman was known for afternoon strolls to clear the mind, and Haruki Murakami has written about his love for running. Similarly, for architect Bernard Tshumi, “I work best either under pressure or by emptying my brain over the weekend. That blank state is helpful. It is like an athlete before a competition.”
Healthy or otherwise, rituals are clearly at the service of talent, not a substitute for it. This is what Balzac, prodigious coffee-drinker, meant when he noted, “Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.” Perhaps that's a hint to end this piece.