Daily Rituals

Can You Become a Great Writer by Emulating Flaubert’s Work Habits?
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April 17 2013 5:30 AM

Daily Rituals

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How novelists, painters, philosophers, and filmmakers find time each day to do their work.

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About six years ago, I started collecting any information I could find about the daily routines of writers, artists, and other creative people—­­first for a blog that I ran for a couple of years, and then for a book that, I'm pleased to announce, will be released next Tuesday. It's called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and it presents brief profiles of 161 creative minds—among them, novelists, painters, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, and scientists—with a focus on how, exactly, they made the time each day to do their work.

Given how much time I've spent reading and thinking about artists' schedules and working habits, you might expect that I would have some insight into what makes for an ideal daily routine. Is there some combination of sleep, work, exercise, coffee, and focused head-scratching or brow-furrowing that is most likely to lead to creative breakthroughs? Or, at the very least, are there some basic guidelines that will stave off blocks and guarantee a minimum level of intellectual output?

Short answer: no, not really. The one lesson of the book is that there is no one way—the rituals and habits that helped Artist A create a masterpiece would never work for Artist B; and, actually, they might not even work for Artist A for very long.

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One’s daily routine is a highly idiosyncratic collection of compromises, neuroses, and superstitions, built up through trial and error and subject to a variety of external conditions.

That said, there are certain behaviors that cropped up over and over again in my research. A large number of novelists and poets, for instance, wake up early in the morning and try to get some words on the page before other obligations kick in. Composers, I've found, almost invariably take a long daily walk. And if you suspect that caffeine is the real engine of a good deal of creative activity, well, you may be on to something.

In this Slate series, which will run daily for the next three weeks, I’ll be considering these outstanding rituals and habits one at a time. I'll be looking at the early risers and the night owls, the coffee drinkers and the drug users, the procrastinators and the recluses and the (gulp) sex addicts. Along the way, I'll be drawing on anecdotes from my book, as well as on material from the cutting-room floor. (And, hey, if you're thinking about buying the book, don't let this series discourage you; I will just barely be grazing the surface here.)

As I said, there is no such thing as the perfect daily routine. But if you're a practicing or aspiring creative artist in search of better work habits, you should find some useful tips and tricks here. You probably wouldn’t want to imitate Flaubert’s tortured late-night writing sessions. (“Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away,” he wrote.) And yet his habit of meeting with a close friend every Sunday to read his week’s progress out loud, might prove useful for the would-be novelist.

At the very least, I hope you’ll find some comfort in these examples. Even the so-called great minds flailed about, made false starts, endured blocks and dry spells, obsessed over trivialities, and wasted huge chunks of time. If this sounds like you—well, you're in good company.

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