A very interesting new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, examines the work habits of over 150 of the greatest writers, artists and scientists.
What does nearly every genius have in common?
During his most fertile years, from the late 1920s through the early ’40s, Faulkner worked at an astonishing pace, often completing three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount. (He once wrote to his mother that he had managed ten thousand words in one day, working between 10: 00 A.M. and midnight— a personal record.) “I write when the spirit moves me,” Faulkner said, “and the spirit moves me every day.”
Sometimes the intensity of the work brings on strange physical reactions— her back goes out, her knees swell, and her eyelids once swelled completely shut. Still, she enjoys pushing herself to the limits of her ability. “I have always got to be the best,” she has said. “I’m absolutely compulsive, I admit it. I don’t see that’s a negative.”
His compulsiveness meant that he was astonishingly productive throughout his life— and yet, at age sixty-four, he could nevertheless write, “Looking back over a life of hard work … my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder.”
Musician Glenn Gould:
From the time he retired from public performances in 1961, when he was thirty-one years old, Gould devoted himself completely to his work, spending the vast majority of his time thinking about music at home or recording music in the studio. He had no hobbies and only a few close friends and collaborators, with whom he communicated mostly by telephone. “I don’t think that my life style is like most other people’s and I’m rather glad for that,” Gould told an interviewer in 1980. “[ T] he two things, life style and work, have become one. Now if that’s eccentricity, then I’m eccentric.”
Alexander Graham Bell:
As a young man, Bell tended to work around the clock, allowing himself only three or four hours of sleep a night… When in the throes of a new idea, he pleaded with his wife to let him be free of family obligations; sometimes, in these states, he would work for up to twenty-two hours straight without sleep.
“Today again from seven o’clock in the morning till six in the evening I worked without stirring except to take some food a step or two away,” van Gogh wrote in an 1888 letter to his brother, Theo, adding, “I have no thought of fatigue, I shall do another picture this very night, and I shall bring it off.”
Artist Chuck Close:
“Inspiration is for amateurs,” Close says. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
What else did many have in common?
- There were more morning people than night owls. Most had a clear routine. The majority woke early, worked until midday, took a break for a few hours then resumed work until dinner. Most seemed to use the evening hours for relaxation and socializing.
- Going for walks was another pattern. Tchaikovsky, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Georgia O’Keefe and many others had long walks as part of their daily routine.
- Kids, don’t try this at home but copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and smoking was mentioned as well. Balzac regularly drank over 50 cups of coffee during a work session; Freud smoked as many as 20 cigars a day for decades; there was no shortage of alcoholics, and I was surprised just how common the use of amphetamines was.
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre:
…he turned to Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin then fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists (and legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market). The prescribed dose was one or two tablets in the morning and at noon. Sartre took twenty a day… “His diet over a period of twenty-four hours included two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol— wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on— two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals.”
Mathematician Paul Erdos:
Erdos owed his phenomenal stamina to amphetamines— he took ten to twenty milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily. Worried about his drug use, a friend once bet Erdos that he wouldn’t be able to give up amphetamines for a month. Erdos took the bet and succeeded in going cold turkey for thirty days. When he came to collect his money, he told his friend, “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” After the bet, Erdos promptly resumed his amphetamine habit, which he supplemented with shots of strong espresso and caffeine tablets. “A mathematician,” he liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
As the Erdos anecdote illustrates, many of the drugs (especially the amphetamines) were not used for pleasure, but as a way to increase productivity and output.
Overall, the message is clear. Work, work, work. To be a genius at your craft it’s all about the hours and dedication.
“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.”
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