Some insight into how artists work

A few notable passages from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.

This book is proof enough that different things work for different people and what might work for one may not work for another. These ones are my personal favorites:

“I live alone, there’s no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with,” Roth said. “My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning–this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens–and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.” – Philip Roth


“Many friends have said to me, ‘I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.’ I must behave rather as dogs do when they retire with a bone: they depart for an odd half hour. They return semi-consciously with mud on their noses. I do much the same. I felt slightly embarrassed if I was going to write.” – Agatha Christie

“My advice therefore is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.” – Goethe

“The world, it seems, will pay me to do anything but write. My routine is haphazard. I write whenever I am able, for a few days or a week or a month if I can get the time. I sneak away to the country and work on a computer that’s not connected to the Internet.” – Francine Prose

“If I am in my countryside home, at the top of the hills of Montefeltro, then I have a certain routine. I turn on my computer, I look at my e-mails, I start reading something, and then I write until the afternoon. Later I go to the village, where I have a glass at the bar and read the newspaper. I come back home and I watch TV or a DVD in the evening until eleven, and then I work a little more until one or two o’clock in the morning. There I have a certain routine because I am not interrupted. When I am in Milan or at the university, I am not master of my own time—there is always somebody else deciding what I should do.” – Umberto Eco

“[Wallace] Stevens was an early riser–he woke at 6:00 every morning to read for two hours–and unfailingly punctual in his work habits. He arrived at the office at 9:00 A.M. sharp and left at 4:30. Between work and home he walked, a distance of three or four miles each way. Most days, he took an additional hour-long walk on his lunch break. It was on these walks that he composed his poetry, stopping now and then to scribble lines on one of the half-dozen or so envelopes he always had stuffed in his pocket. At work, too, he would occasionally pause to write down fragments of poems, which he kept filed in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and he would routinely hand his secretary these various scraps of verse for typing. Although his colleagues were aware of his poetry, Stevens assiduously avoided talking about it, preferring to maintain the face of a mild-mannered, somewhat aloof businessman in all his public dealings with the world.” – Mason Currey

And then there’s this story about Carson McCullers, known for her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which I find very interesting and rather comical:

McCullers’s first novel was written thanks to a pact with her husband, Reeves, whom she married in 1937. The young newlyweds–Carson was twenty; Reeves twenty-four–both aspired to be writers, so they struck a deal: one of them would work full-time and earn a living for the couple while the other wrote; after a year, they would switch roles. Since McCullers already had a manuscript in progress, and Reeves had lined up a salaried position in Charlotte, North Carolina, she began her literary endeavors first.


McCullers wrote every day, sometimes escaping their drafty apartment to work in the local library, taking sips from the Thermos full of sherry that she would sneak inside. She typically worked until the middle of the afternoon, then went for a long walk. Back at the apartment, she might attempt to do some cooking or cleaning, tasks she was unused to, having grown up with servants. (McCullers later recalled trying to roast a chicken, not realizing that she had to clean the bird first. When Reeves came home, he asked her about the awful smell in the house; Carson, absorbed in her writing, hadn’t even noticed.) After dinner, Carson read her day’s work to Reeves, who offered his suggestions. Then the couple ate dinner, read in bed, and listened to the electric phonograph before going to sleep early.


After a year, Carson had landed a contract for her novel, so Reeves continued to put his own literary aspirations on hold and earn a salary for the both of them. Despite the pact, he would never get to try his luck as the full-time writer in their marriage. When Carson’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940, it vaulted her into the literary limelight; after that, there was never any question of her sacrificing her writing for a day job and a steady paycheck.

What can I say, we do what we can.