If you want to do prolonged creative work, you’re going to need to figure out a way to avoid the demands of society, at least some of the time. Most artistic endeavor requires stretches of solitude. That’s why so many artists get up super early or stay up super late—only then, when the rest of the world is asleep, are they guaranteed not to be interrupted by family, friends, visitors, or telephone calls.
Other artists have avoided society in a more dramatic fashion. Proust had his famous cork-lined bedroom. Nathaniel Hawthorne had his “solitary years,” the period between his college graduation and the publication of his first collection of short stories, during which he basically just stayed in his bedroom from morning until sunset, reading and writing (although he destroyed much of what he wrote). This went on for 12 years. A century later, Samuel Beckett followed a similar routine during “the siege in the room,” a period of intense creative activity that produced some of his finest work. Paul Strathern describes Beckett’s lifestyle during the siege:
“It was spent largely in his room, isolated from the world, coming face to face with his own demons, attempting to explore the workings of his mind. His routine was for the most part simple enough. He would rise around the early hours of the afternoon, make himself scrambled eggs, and retire to his room for as many hours as he could bear. He would then leave for his late-night perambulation of the bars of Montparnasse, drinking copious amount of cheap red wine, returning before dawn and the long attempt to sleep. His entire life revolved around his almost psychotic obsession to write.”
Ah, the life of the writer! Although it’s not just writers who crave solitude—composers can be pretty reclusive, too. Igor Stravinsky always closed the windows of his studio before he began composing. “I have never been able to compose unless sure that no one could hear me,” he said. Gustav Mahler conceived many of his major symphonies during his summers in the countryside, and then he could not bear to see or speak to anyone on his way to work in the morning. Tchaikovsky was even worse; when composing a new work, David Brown writes, “he found any company intolerable not only during the morning but all day.”
But what if you actually enjoy company? Picasso had this problem—he liked to be amused by friends between intense periods of work, but he also hated too much distraction. At one point, he and his longtime girlfriend tried designating Sunday as “at-home” day (an idea borrowed from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), in an effort to fulfill all of their social obligations in one afternoon. Even so, as John Richardson writes, “the artist veered between anti-social sulking and gregariousness.”
Things get even trickier if you’re married and have kids. A lot of the figures in my Daily Rituals book conveniently solved this problem by finding absurdly supportive, almost self-abnegating partners. Freud’s wife not only took care of all the household and child-rearing duties, but she laid out his clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush. Thomas Mann’s wife ensured that their children made no noise between 9 a.m. and noon, his prime writing hours, and between 4 and 5 p.m., when he took his all-important afternoon nap. Gertrude Stein relied on Alice B. Toklas to manage all of the practical details of their life together.
Family is one thing; friends are another. I interviewed Anne Rice, who told me that when she’s writing a book she needs four hours of unbroken time each day—and that to get this, she must be ruthless about turning down appointments and social obligations. “Because you won’t get those four hours if you’re spending most of the day worried about getting to an appointment and back,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand it. They think, ‘Well, I only want to see you for three hours. Why can’t you write the rest of the day?’ But it doesn’t work like that. What you have to do is clear all distraction. That’s the bottom line.”