The best word to describe this book is “delightful”. The author uses brief bios and vignettes to describe the daily rituals of famous writers, painters, composers and other creatives. While non-Western subjects are noticeably missing (with the exception of my perennial favorite Haruki Murakami), the book is an enjoyable and fast-paced read, and I try to re-read a profile or two every night.
The most common activities included:
- long walks, typically after lunch or in the early evening
- early morning or late night work sessions (instead of the white collar 9-5 schedule)
- and related, a large minority had regular jobs of the 9-5 sort
- lots of coffee and cigarettes; quite a few took amphetamines and sleep aids, too
Some of my favorite tidbits:
- Auden relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning, then a sedative to sleep
- Francis Bacon read cookbooks to relax before bed
- Beauvoir and Sartre had a relationship where they could take other lovers but were required to tell everything
- Sartre consumed absurd amounts of drugs and alcohol; biographer Annie Cohen-Solal reports, “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.”
- Beethoven would often count 60 beans for every cup of coffee, and take long showers by pouring water slowly over his head while standing
- Ben Franklin liked to take “air baths” – walking around naked each morning
- Freud’s wife “laid out his clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush”
- F Scott Fitzgerald was basically a functioning alcoholic, and believed short stories were best written in one go
- Proust ate almost nothing — often just two cups of cafe au lair and two croissants a day
- Stravinsky required complete solitude to compose, and would do headstands to energize himself
- Stephen King writes every day, including birthdays and holidays, and has a daily quota of 2,000 words
- Twain liked to read his daily work to his family after dinner
- Cheever put on a suit each day, rode the elevator down to the basement of his building, then took it off and worked in his boxers
- Louis Armstrong loved to smoke pot, and his favorite meals were red beans and rice, and Chinese take-out
- Frank Lloyd Wright, even at aged 85, could still make love to his wife two to three times a day
Murakami: “I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Joyce Carol Oates: “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”
Baker: “What I’ve found with daily routines,” he said recently, “is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know, you could say to yourself, ‘From now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if that feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine. I find I have to do it for each book, have something different.”
Stravinsky: “I have never been able to compose unless sure that no one could hear me.” If he felt blocked, the composer might execute a brief headstand, which, he said, “rests the head and clears the brain.
Erdos: “A mathematician,” he liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.
Wallace Stevens: “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once said. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.
Joseph Heller on writing Catch 22: “I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years,” he said. “I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.