Somewhat unusual and eccentric rituals have been essential catalysts for many of the masterworks and careers that make up the creative canon. From headstands to wacky diets, our creative heroes throughout history have sworn by these carefully engineered routines.
In his book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work“, author Mason Currey explores what he calls “the circumstances of creative activity” by investigating the (sometimes mundane, more than occasionally peculiar) habits of brilliant creative people, living and dead.
Currey introduces his subject matter without shying away from the personal ruminations that led him to take on this sprawling survey: Do we become more creative by developing daily habits and routine? How do you create a meaningful (and financially viable) creative life? Is the tension between comfort and innovation fundamentally inescapable? Can carefully crafting an eccentric ritual result in a planned breakthrough?
As the world and the ways we live and work in it evolve, we’ve been left more vulnerable to distraction and creative block. The questions at the crux of “Daily Rituals” are simultaneously evergreen and prescient.
“[A]re comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?” – Mason Currey
As you may expect, an examination of the conditions that breed creativity is bound to uncover some unlikely scenarios. Creative people of all kinds are known for adhering to daily habits that can come across as anything from strange to the absurd.
Here are just some of the unusual daily habits and quirks of prolific creative talents whose work looms large in our collective consciousness:
Pablo Picasso: With a Monkey Named Monina
During the time after Picasso moved from Montmartre to Montparnasse amid his rising fame, he ate nothing but vegetables, fish, rice pudding, and grapes. His typical workday saw him work from 2:00 p.m. through dusk, but on Sundays he would not leave his apartment, which he shared with a dog, three Siamese cats, and a monkey named Monina.
Ingmar Bergman: A Strange Kind of Baby Food
The Swedish film director conducted his scriptwriting on the remote island of Fårö, where he followed the same daily schedule for decades. For eight hours of hard work, he said, he would achieve ten or twelve minutes of “real creation,” equivalent to three minutes of film. Bergman was among the virtuosos who ascribed to a peculiar dietary framework: every day he ate the same lunch, which one of his contemporaries once described as “a strange kind of baby food.”
Though thinking about it, it might not be that out of place at the modern kale smoothie bar.
John Adams: A State of Shocking Irresponsibility
The classical composer usually works from his home studio – except when he works in his identical “mirror-image” studio, which he keeps in a remote wooded area in California. In either case, he drinks endless amounts of green tea.
Beyond the forest and the tea, he insists on a “random freedom” to stimulate his work: “I somehow have this feeling that to keep the spontaneity from my creative work fresh I need to be in a state of rather shocking irresponsibility.”
Toni Morrison: Sometimes Mowing, Never Brooding
For most of her career, Morisson held down a day job, around which she would fit in her personal creative work. Most of her thinking happened during her commute or while doing mundane tasks like mowing the lawn, so that by the time she got to putting pen to paper (shortly past 5:00 a.m. each day, after watching the sunrise) the idea was already fleshed out – “I never brood,” she said.
The day job? Early in her career, she would clean a wealthy woman’s house, which later inspired her to write this piece in the New Yorker (at age 88)
Igor Stravinsky: Execute a Brief Headstand
Stravinsky composed for up to three hours a day, whether he was feeling inspired or not. He unfailingly closed his studio window each time before sitting down in order to achieve complete solitude, and had a certain way of flipping things around when he got stuck– literally. Stravinsky would pop into a quick headstand when he was at a loss for ideas, convinced that it was the only way to adequately clear his brain.
Now, here’s a challenge for you – next time you listen to Stravinsky, try it upside down?
Gertrude Stein: A Cow to Fit the Mood
The creative process was a collaborative affair for Stein, who relied on her partner Alice Tolkas to help create the ideal conditions. While Stein drank the morning coffee prescribed by her doctor, Tolkas bathed their poodle (yes, every day). Stein herself soaked in an “oversize” bathtub – so big a staircase had to be removed for the installation – after which she would write in her bathrobe. But she preferred to go to the country to seek inspiration in livestock: “If the cow [didn’t] seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies [would] get into the car and drive on to another cow.”
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sixty Beans Exactly
Each morning, Beethoven would precisely count out 60 coffee beans before brewing the cup that was his breakfast. Also part of his routine were his “unusual bathing habits,” which facilitated a deep meditative state. He would alternate between pouring pitchers of water over himself while singing, and then pacing his room, eyes rolling, occasionally pausing to jot something down – and repeat.
This is a good time to ask, is creativity genius or madness? It seems safe to say…it’s both.
Maya Angelou: No Vacancy
Maya Angelou could never work in her own home – and so each morning at 6:30 a.m. she would leave for a hotel, where she paid to have a modest room just for writing in. In it she kept a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry. She aimed to work from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., after which she was very intentional about putting it out of her mind, keeping a stark division between her work and her home.
There Is No Formula
It is possible – or even helpful – to definitively answer the questions posed at the beginning of “Daily Rituals”? Can you plan your ritual or routine to achieve creative bliss? Can you intentionally use daily habits to become more creative? Probably not, and honestly, the book doesn’t pretend to provide the solution.
Each short vignette is presented objectively and without flourish. You ultimately will form your own conclusions on the essential truths of creativity and process. Like art itself, these things are subjective.
What Currey does communicate through his collection of famous routines is that there is no formula for genius. And what is “comfortable” to one person might be missing a cow or a pet monkey for someone else. But who knows – maybe it’s nothing a quick headstand wouldn’t fix.