Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Book cover image

I can’t imagine this book having been a lot of effort to write. The people whose daily routines are listed all have multiple biographies out there, or interviews where they answered relevant questions (especially with Paris Review, which is quoted very often). The details included are never particularly long or profound. Nevertheless, a few interesting patterns and contrasts emerge. For example, Auden and Grass both despise working at night, Auden going so far as to say “only the Hitlers of the world work at night”. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, started writing at midnight, working until dawn. Many figures who lived before the modern times, such as Mozart, Beethoven or Kierkegaard, were avid walkers, sometimes walking for hours after lunch, whereas those who lived in the modern times refrained from walking, spending more time and energy on various drugs. Ingmar Bergman watched Dallas. Mahler’s wife was also a composer, but he told her to stop composing, which made her very unhappy.

Another interesting pattern is that many writers find the work of writing rather demanding and monotonous. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, compares getting the first draft of a novel to “pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor”. Philip Roth similarly writes that “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare… In most professions, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again”.

Beyond a few such interesting anecdotes and comparisons, however, the constant stream of rather similar daily routines gets boring early in the book. Some people eat the same thing every day, some dine out. Some work a lot, some not so much. Some walk, some don’t. Some drink alcohol, some don’t. So what? The problem is that no connections at all are made to the content of what these people created, or their character, and in the end, all routines start resembling and leaking into each other. It is quite the anticlimax to find out that a larger than life literary figure like Joyce, Kafka or Proust woke up, had breakfast, worked, and then went to sleep. One simply expects more. If this is all we will learn about them, what is the point of writing about these giants, and not some average person?