How do the greatest minds in literature and science go about their day behind closed doors?
A fascinating peek at their daily activities is encapsulated in Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.
It also interestingly reveals that there is no universal formula to greatness, so in essence, it's a celebration of individuality and quirkiness.
Here we present five extracts from the book:
Haruki Murakami (b. 1949)
When he is writing a novel, Murakami wakes at 4:00 A.M. and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9:00. “I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Murakami has said that maintaining this repetition for the time required to complete a novel takes more than mental discipline: “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
When he first hung out his shingle as a professional writer, in 1981, after several years running a small jazz club in Tokyo, he discovered that the sedentary lifestyle caused him to gain weight rapidly; he was also smoking as many as sixty cigarettes a day. He soon resolved to change his habits completely, moving with his wife to a rural area, quitting smoking, drinking less, and eating a diet of mostly vegetables and fish. He also started running daily, a habit he has kept up for more than a quarter century.
The one drawback to this self-made schedule, Murakami admitted in a 2008 essay, is that it doesn’t allow for much of a social life. “People are offended when you repeatedly turn down their invitations,” he wrote. But he decided that the indispensable relationship in his life was with his readers. “My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty—and my top priority—as a novelist?”
Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Austen never lived alone and had little expectation of solitude in her daily life. Her final home, a cottage in the village of Chawton, England, was no exception: she lived there with her mother, her sister, a close friend, and three servants, and there was a steady stream of visitors, often unannounced.
Nevertheless, between settling in Chawton in 1809 and her death, Austen was remarkably productive: she revised earlier versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication, and wrote three new novels, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
Austen wrote in the family sitting room, “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions,” her nephew recalled.
She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.
Austen rose early, before the other women were up, and played the piano. At 9:00 she organized the family breakfast, her one major piece of household work. Then she settled down to write in the sitting room, often with her mother and sister sewing quietly nearby. If visitors showed up, she would hide her papers and join in the sewing. Dinner, the main meal of the day, was served between 3:00 and 4:00. Afterward there was conversation, card games, and tea. The evening was spent reading aloud from novels, and during this time Austen would read her work-in-progress to her family.
Although she did not have the independence and privacy that a contemporary writer might expect, Austen was nonetheless fortunate with the arrangements at Chawton. Her family was respectful of her work, and her sister Cassandra shouldered the bulk of the house-running burden—a huge relief for the novelist, who once wrote, “Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton & doses of rhubarb.”
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
“I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable,” Freud wrote to a friend in 1910. With his wife, Martha, to efficiently manage the household—she laid out Freud’s clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush—the founder of psychoanalysis was able to maintain a single-minded devotion to his work throughout his long career. Freud rose each day by 7:00, ate breakfast, and had his beard trimmed by a barber who made a daily house call for this purpose. Then he saw analytic patients from 8:00 until noon.
Dinner, the principal meal of the day, was served promptly at 1:00. Freud was not a gourmet—he disliked wine and chicken, and preferred solid middle-class fare like boiled or roast beef—but he enjoyed his food and ate with quiet concentration. Although normally a genial host, Freud could be so absorbed by his thoughts during the meal that his silence sometimes discomfited guests, who would struggle to carry a conversation with the other members of the family.
After dinner, Freud went for a walk around Vienna’s Ringstrasse. This was not a leisurely stroll, however; his son, Martin, recalled, “My father marched at terrific speed.”
Along the way he would often purchase cigars and collect or deliver proofs to his publisher. At 3:00 there were consultations, followed by more analytic patients, until 9:00 at night. Then the family ate supper, and Freud would play a game of cards with his sister-in-law or go for a walk with his wife or one of his daughters, sometimes stopping at a café to read the papers. The remainder of the evenings was spent in his study, reading, writing, and doing editorial chores for psychoanalytical journals, until 1am or later.
Freud’s long workdays were mitigated by two luxuries. First, there were his beloved cigars, which he smoked continually, going through as many as twenty a day from his mid-twenties until near the end of his life, despite several warnings from doctors and the increasingly dire health problems that dogged him throughout his later years. (When his seventeen-year-old nephew once refused a cigarette, Freud told him, “My boy, smoking is one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments in life, and if you decide in advance not to smoke, I can only feel sorry for you.”) Equally important, no doubt, were the family’s annual three-month summer vacations, which they spent in a spa or hotel in the mountains, going on hikes, gathering mushrooms and strawberries, and fishing.
Toni Morrison (b. 1931)
“I am not able to write regularly,” Morrison told The Paris Review in 1993. “I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.” Indeed, for much of her writing career, Morrison not only worked a day job—as an editor at Random House—but taught university literature courses and raised her two sons as a single parent. “It does seem hectic,” she admitted in 1977.
But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I don’t go to the cocktail parties, I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate. When I sit down to write I never brood. I have so many other things to do, with my children and teaching, that I can’t afford it. I brood, thinking of ideas, in the automobile when I’m driving to work or in the subway or when I’m mowing the lawn. By the time I get to the paper something’s there—I can produce.
Morrison’s writing hours have varied over the years. In interviews in the 1970s and ’80s, she frequently mentions working on her fiction in the evenings. But by the ’90s, she had switched to the early morning hours, saying, “I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.”
For the morning writing, her ritual is to rise around 5:00, make coffee, and “watch the light come.” This last part is crucial. “Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process,” Morrison said. “For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”
Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Dickens was prolific—he produced fifteen novels, ten of which are longer than eight hundred pages, and numerous stories, essays, letters, and plays—but he could not be productive without certain conditions in place.
First, he needed absolute quiet; at one of his houses, an extra door had to be installed to his study to block out noise. And his study had to be precisely arranged, with his writing desk placed in front of a window and, on the desk itself, his writing materials—goose-quill pens and blue ink—laid out alongside several ornaments: a small vase of fresh flowers, a large paper knife, a gilt leaf with a rabbit perched upon it, and two bronze statuettes (one depicting a pair of fat toads dueling, the other a gentleman swarmed with puppies).
Dickens’s working hours were invariable. His eldest son recalled that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”
He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk. On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time.
Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.” Dickens’s nights, however, were relaxed: he dined at 6:00, then spent the evening with family or friends before retiring at midnight.