Make Your Day by Mason Currey
With coronavirus upending long-established routines, should you seek out the stability of a regular schedule—or seize the opportunity to live your wildest bohemian fantasy?
As the author of two books about the routines and working habits of great creative minds—including novelists, painters, poets, composers, sculptors, filmmakers, and philosophers—I’m often asked for my advice about building an effective daily routine. And now that the coronavirus pandemic has upended so many people’s normal days, that advice seems more relevant than ever.
Except, in all honesty, I’ve long struggled to actually come up with this advice. The truth is, the famous writers and artists whose habits I’ve studied didn’t necessarily follow “good” routines. Many worked virtually all the time, pursuing their creative projects with monomaniacal devotion, often to the detriment of their relationships, their financial prospects, and their physical and mental health. And the tricks they adopted to get their work done are not exactly foolproof recipes for boosted productivity. Beethoven counted out precisely 60 coffee beans for his morning cup. Thomas Wolfe used the top of his refrigerator as a desk, and when blocked dreamily fondled his “male configurations” for inspiration. The 18th-century German writer Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom, because, he said, he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.
Nevertheless, when pushed, I have been able to extrapolate some basic guidelines, geared especially toward aspiring artists: figure out what time of day you do your best work, and then do whatever you can to carve out some hours at that time every day. Seize the power of repetition to, in Haruki Murakami’s words, “mesmerize [yourself] to reach a deeper state of mind,” and use rituals to transition in and out of these trancelike states. If you do nothing else each day, take a walk, which has an amazing power to generate new ideas and break creative blocks. Naps are good; coffee is better. Ignore the idea of inspiration and instead establish a regular daily practice, through which you can expect to hit patches of inspiration from time to time. To conclude, I might quote Schiller, that old apple sniffer, who once wrote in a letter to a friend, “We have failed to recognize our great asset: time. A conscientious use of it could make us into something quite amazing.”
None of this is bad advice. And, God knows, there is no shame in leaning into a fixed schedule in times of distress, especially for those prone to mood swings and sudden storms of anxiety. (“I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines,” the poet May Sarton wrote in the first entry of her 1974 Journal of a Solitude, a relevant read now.) But with the unleashing of coronavirus, my usual spiel feels profoundly misaligned to the times. Worldwide social-distancing mandates are doing more than testing our work-from-home arrangements; they’re also, I sense, undermining a lot of folks’ (already shaky) faith in the capitalistic virtue of ever-higher productivity as an unquestioned good and a rough measure of personal worth. And that calls for some outside-the-box-thinking.
Fortunately, who better to inspire this thinking than the genuine weirdo artists of the Western canon? If you want to know about relishing solitude, inventing elaborate security-blanket routines, adhering to bizarre daily rituals and baroque superstitions, setting and enforcing inviolable boundaries with friends and loved ones—in short, letting your temperament and ambition and instinct guide your day, and the consequences be damned—there could be no better models.
So for those unmoored from normal life and not necessarily looking to rush back, here is a selection of alternative patterns and unorthodox coping mechanisms drawn from my research into great minds’ daily lives. Consider it less as actionable advice—though much here could be imitated while maintaining social distancing—and more as inspiration for letting your day take the shape it might naturally take if not dictated from without by work shifts, school schedules, business hours, and so on. We don’t know what the world is going to look like when this is all over. If you’re in a position to experiment, why not give yourself permission to do so?
Early in the morning
In his later years, Benjamin Franklin believed strongly in a daily bath—although not in water. At the time, baths in cold water were considered a tonic, but Franklin believed the cold was too much of shock to the system. He wrote, “I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bathe in another element, I mean cold air.” So Franklin rose early almost every morning and sat in his room naked, reading and writing for 30 minutes or an hour. Then he sometimes returned to bed for “one or two hours of the most pleasing sleep that can be imagined.”
Staying in bed
The British poet Edith Sitwell liked to write in bed, beginning at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. “All women should have a day a week in bed,” she said, and when she was engrossed in a writing project she would follow her own advice, staying there all morning and through the afternoon—until finally, she said, “I am honestly so tired that all I can do is to lie on my bed with my mouth open.”
Getting dressed (for no one)
The Chilean American author Isabel Allende gets up at 6:00 a.m., has coffee with her dog, and then, she told me in a 2016 interview, “I get dressed and I put on makeup and high heels, even if nobody is going to see me—because it puts me in the mood of the day. If I stay in pajamas I won’t do anything.” The filmmaker and writer Miranda July does much the same thing. Although she frequently spends her workday alone in her office, she puts great care into getting dressed each morning. “I like clothes, and I think I see it as a bit of an antidepressant,” she has said. “I just like looking down and seeing the material and having the sense that I’m fit for the world, even if I’m not in the world.”
Oversleeping isn’t necessarily a problem
At his apartment on the boulevard de Clichy in Montparnasse, Picasso forbade anyone from entering his large, airy studio, and surrounded himself with his painting supplies, piles of miscellaneous junk, and a menagerie of pets, including a dog, three Siamese cats, and a monkey named Monina. A late sleeper, Picasso shut himself in the studio each day by 2:00 p.m. and did not emerge until dusk at the earliest.
At night, do as you please
Glenn Gould preferred an unorthodox schedule, which he described in a Canadian television documentary.
"I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence, mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colors of any kind depress me, in fact, and my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky on any given day. Matter of fact, my private motto has always been that behind every silver lining there’s a cloud. So I schedule my errands for as late an hour as possible, and I tend to emerge along with the bats and the raccoons at twilight."
. . . if the kids allow it
As the Brooklyn-born sculptor Lila Katzen was beginning to establish herself as an artist, she was also the mother and chief caretaker of two small children. At the time, she used the upstairs of her Baltimore house as her studio, and she worked after her kids went to bed at night. “I worked from eight in the evening to two in the morning,” she said, adding that she also used the kids’ naptimes to sneak upstairs and work. If the kids woke up during these times, Katzen would yell, “Here are some crayons and paper,” and throw them down the stairs.
As detailed in a 1934 New Yorker piece, Gertrude Stein relied on her longtime partner Alice B. Toklas to drive her around the French countryside in search of the optimal writing setting:
[S]he prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.
Conclusion: Embrace your peculiarities
Many of these examples involve mildly superstitious behavior. This isn’t surprising. Doing creative work is almost always a process of trial and error—and when you find something that seems to work, it makes sense to stick with it, even if it’s a little silly or weird (e.g. Benjamin Franklin’s air baths, Gertrude Stein’s cows). Of course, society expects artists to be eccentric, so they may have an easier time that than rest of us embracing their superstitious side. But I think, for any of us, there can be real power in allowing ourselves a similar kind of latitude. The starting point is paying attention to your own idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. When do you actually feel most creative, most mentally clear, most connected to your work? It might be late at night, immediately after taking a morning run, while showering, while wearing a certain item of clothing, while lying in bed with a cup of tea, in a busy public place like a library or café, or maybe even after staying out too late the night before. (The painter Francis Bacon said he worked best with a hangover.) Then see what you can do to create those ideal conditions in a regular, purposeful way. The results may surprise you.
Mason Currey is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles and the author of the Daily Rituals books, chronicling the day-to-day work habits of more than 300 great creative minds. His freelance writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Slate, and he writes the weekly Subtle Maneuvers newsletter on the ups and downs of creativity in the real world. (Photography: Rebecca Veit)