Mason Currey on the Daily Rituals of Famous Artists

While procrastinating on a writing assignment on a Sunday afternoon in July 2007, Mason Currey (@masoncurrey, a writer based in Los Angeles) started a blog called Daily Routines as a hobby, which was to enquire into the day-to-day habits of famous figures (mostly artists, a few philosophers and scientists) from the last four hundred or so years. For the first year and a half, the readership was limited to Currey’s friends, coworkers and family members – about a dozen people. Then, in December 2008, a story about the quest for the perfect morning routine on Slate quoted liberally from the blog and it magically went from having five to almost 18,000 visitors per day – and 80,000+ a month.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work edited by Mason Currey (2013, Knopf)

This interest in the blog culminated in the publishing of a very helpful and interesting book called Daily Rituals. To many of us, successful men seem all alike; they never lose a minute. The stories of productive people recounted here will depress those who struggle to get their work done. But Currey writes:

For every cheerfully industrious Gibbon who worked nonstop and seemed free of the self-doubt and crises of confidence that dog us mere mortals, there is a William Jamesor a Franz Kafka, great minds who wasted time, waited vainly for inspiration to strike, experienced torturous blocks and dry spells, were racked by doubt and insecurity. In reality, most of the people in this book are somewhere in the middle— committed to daily work but never entirely confident of their progress; always wary of the one off day that undoes the streak. All of them made the time to get their work done. But there is infinite variation in how they structured their lives to do so.


This book is about that variation. And I hope that readers will find it encouraging rather than depressing.

Did you know that Anthony Trollope wrote three thousand words every morning before heading off to his job at the Post Office? That Freud worked sixteen hours a day? Jean-Paul Sartre, it turns out, chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), each day ingesting ten times the recommended dose! And Descartes liked to linger in bed with his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.” Kafka, on the other hand, frustrated with his bread-and-butter job, wrote in a letter to his fiancée Felice Bauer in 1912: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuves.”

Here are two stories from the book – of a filmmaker and a writer. May they inspire us to devise our own “subtle maneuvers” to “wriggle through”:

Ingmar Bergman (1918– 2007)

Ingmar Bergman by User “Joost Evers, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

“Do you know what moviemaking is?” Bergman asked in a 1964 interview.“Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film. And during those eight hours there are maybe only ten or twelve minutes, if you’re lucky, of real creation. And maybe they don’t come. Then you have to gear yourself for another eight hours and pray you’re going to get your good ten minutes this time.” But moviemaking for Bergman was also writing scripts, which heal ways did in his home on the remote island of Fårö, Sweden. There he followed essentially the same schedule for decades: up at 8:00, writing from 9:00 until noon, then an austere meal.“He constantly eats the same lunch,” the actress Bibi Andersson remembered. “It doesn’t change. It’s some kind of whipped sour milk, very fat, anstrawberry jam, very sweet—a strange kind of baby food he eats with corn flakes.”


After lunch, Bergman worked again from 1:00 to 3:00, then slept for an hour. In the late afternoon he went for a walk or took the ferry to a neighboring island to pick up the newspapers and the mail. In the evening he read, saw friends, screened a movie from his large collection, or watched TV (he was particularly fond of Dallas). “I never use drugs or alcohol,” Bergman said.“The most I drink is a glass of wine and that makes me incredibly happy.” Music was also “absolutely necessary” for him,and Bergman enjoyed everything from Bach to the Rolling Stones. As he got older, he had trouble sleeping, never managing more than four or five hours a night, which made shooting films arduous. But even after he retired from filmmaking in 1982, Bergman continued to make television movies, direct plays and operas, and write plays, novels, and a memoir. “I have been working all the time,” he said, “and it’s like a flood going through the landscape of your soul.It’s good because it takes away a lot. It’s cleansing. If I hadn’t been at work all the time, I would have been a lunatic.”

Stephen King (b. 1947)

Stephen King by User “Pinguino”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr

King writes every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays, and he almost never lets himself quit before he reaches his daily quota of two thousand words. He works in the mornings, starting around 8:00 or 8:30. Some days he finishes up as early as 11:30, but more often it takes him until about 1:30 to meet his goal. Then he has the afternoons and evenings free for naps, letters, reading, family, and Red Sox games on TV.

In his memoir On Writing, King compares fiction writing to “creative sleep,” and his writing routine to getting ready for bed each night:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule—in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk—exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go. In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night—six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight—so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

Here is an infographic based on Mason Currey’s book.