Over the past 2 ½ weeks, I’ve looked at the most common strategies that great artists have used to do their work each day. Now, for this penultimate chapter in the series, I wanted to briefly call out some of the less common—but still significant!—habits that cropped up in my Daily Rituals research.
Working in bed: “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote told The Paris Review in 1957. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.” Capote shared this habit with an impressive roster of writers and philosophers. Before his afternoon walk, John Milton devoted his mornings to solitary contemplation in bed. René Descartes liked to sleep until midmorning, then linger in bed, thinking and writing, until 11 a.m. or so. Voltaire also spent the morning in bed, reading and dictating new work to one of his secretaries.
Marcel Proust wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by two pillows. To reach the notebook resting on his lap, he had to lean awkwardly on one elbow, and his only working light was a weak green-shaded bedside lamp. Thus any substantial period of work left his wrist cramped and his eyes exhausted. “After ten pages I am shattered,” he wrote.
William Styron took it easier on himself. He would sleep until noon, then read and think in bed for another hour or so before lunch with his wife at 1:30. (He didn’t begin writing until around 4 in the afternoon.) Patricia Highsmith also eased herself into work mode by sitting in bed, Andrew Wilson writes, “surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar.” Edith Wharton wrote in bed in the mornings, as did Edith Sitwell, who said, “All women should have a day a week in bed.” When she was engrossed in a writing project, Sitwell would sometimes stay 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.”
Working in the bath: Somerset Maugham got a head start on his morning writing session by thinking of his first two sentences while soaking in the tub. The composer Benjamin Britten bookended his work sessions with baths—a cold one in the morning and a hot one in the evening. While working on his scripts, Woody Allen uses the shower as a creative stimulant. “It breaks up everything and relaxes me,” he told Eric Lax:
“The shower is particularly good in cold weather. This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.”
Bathing was essential to Beethoven’s creative process as well. He liked to stand at his washstand and pour pitchers of water on his hands, bellowing up and down the scale or humming loudly to himself, then pacing about the room and pausing to jot down ideas. In this way he worked himself into a meditative state that was excellent for his composing—but not so great for his popularity as a tenant and neighbor. With all the pouring and pacing, Beethoven often spilled so much water that it dripped through the floor.
Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, preferred a daily “air bath.” In his time, baths in cold water were considered a tonic, but Franklin believed the cold was too much of a shock to the system. “I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bathe in another element, I mean cold air,” he wrote in a letter. “With this view I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing.”
Smoking: “I’ve always painted while smoking,” Balthus wrote in his memoir.
“I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking doubled my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas. Now that my body is weaker, I smoke less, but I wouldn’t miss for anything the exquisite moments of contemplation before a painting-in-progress, with a cigarette between my lips, helping me to advance into it.”
Countless writers also found that smoking helped them achieve a certain contemplative state—or maybe they just liked all the little rituals that accompany smoking. V. S. Pritchett lit a pipe before he started writing, and as the day wore on, he would surround himself with spent matches. Donald Barthelme smoked cigarettes while he wrote and, fearful of starting a fire, ended each session by carefully emptying his ashtray in the kitchen. Thomas Mann also smoked while writing, but he limited himself to 12 cigarettes and two cigars daily. Immanuel Kant restricted himself to one pipe each morning after waking—but according to Manfred Kuehn, “it is reported that the bowls of his pipes increased considerably in size as the years went on.”
Exercising: Long walks are great, but many artists find that they need more robust physical activity in their day. Joan Miró’s routine always included an hour of vigorous exercise: boxing in Paris, jumping rope and Swedish gymnastics at a Barcelona gym, or running on the beach and swimming on the coast of Spain. After lunch, Victor Hugo embarked on a two-hour walk or performed a series of strenuous exercises on the beach. According to the biographer Graham Robb, Hugo would “run until sweat breaks out, strip naked, jump off a rock into the waves, then lie down in the sun to dry.”
As part of his slow buildup to writing, Franz Kafka devoted 10 minutes to the “Müller technique“—a series of swings, stretches, and body-weight exercises that he performed naked at the window; he did an additional 10 minutes after he had finished writing. P. G. Wodehouse employed a similar regimen, performing a series of 12 callisthenic exercises every morning after waking.
Igor Stravinsky also did exercise right after he woke up. And if he felt blocked while composing later, he might execute a brief head stand, which, he said, “rests the head and clears the brain.”
Taking breaks: So many of the habits in this series—exercising, smoking, napping, walking, caffeinating, masturbating—are really just excuses to take a break. That’s OK! Breaks are good. No one can work nonstop—and if you can, you probably shouldn’t. A lot of artists have noted that it’s during breaks that the “real” work happens and new ideas or insights spring to mind.
The composer Steve Reich relies on this method. “If I can get in a couple hours of work, then I just have to have a cup of tea or I have to run an errand to get a little bit of a break,” he told me. “And then I come back. But those can be very fruitful pauses, especially if there’s a little problem that comes up. The best thing to do is to just leave it and put your mind somewhere else, and not always but often the solution to that problem will bubble up spontaneously.”
When Hemingway got bogged down in his fiction writing, he would take breaks to answer letters. Charles Darwin took time off in the morning to review the day’s mail and to listen to his wife read aloud from whatever novel they were working their way through. L. Frank Baum alternated between writing and gardening, puttering about in his flower beds while he tried to work out ideas for his books. “My characters just won’t do what I want them to,” he would explain.
Of course, there is a fine line between taking a much-needed break and procrastinating—but as we’ve seen, procrastinating can have its benefits, too. If you’re truly obsessed with a problem in your work, some part of your brain will be gnawing away at it all the time. In some sense, then, artists are always working, even when they’re not.