Daily Rituals

Great Artists Don’t Wait for Inspiration; They Work, Work, Work
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May 6 2013 5:45 AM

Daily Rituals

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“The pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again"—John Updike.

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In the introduction to this series, I admitted that imitating the rituals and habits of great artists is not going to make anyone suddenly capable of producing great art. But I do think there is some useful advice to be gleaned from these entries—not just for struggling artists but for anyone trying to get more done each day.

For instance: You should figure out what time of day (or night) you work best, and then carve out a couple hours at that time to do your most important work. While you're at it, you should probably drink a cup of coffee or tea. A daily walk is also recommended, as is an afternoon nap. And if doing all of this means paring back your social calendar, that is a sacrifice you should be prepared to make. (But if you have to hang on to a day job, don't despair.)

Before I sign off, there is one more creative strategy that I want to address, although it's not so much a habit as an attitude. There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where, and artists channel this energy, or tap into it, or become the conduit for it.

Maybe there's some truth to this. But I hope the Daily Rituals book makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.

This idea comes up over and over again in the book. William Faulkner: "I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day." George Balanchine: "My muse must come to me on union time." Chuck Close: "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work." John Updike: "I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again." George Gershwin said that if he waited for inspiration, he would compose at most three songs a year.

This doesn't mean that inspiration doesn't exist, or that some work is not more inspired than others. It merely means that you should work each day regardless of whether you feel the urge to; it is the process of working itself that will give rise to new ideas. And with steady application, you can expect to hit inspired patches from time to time.

Ultimately, this is why I'm fascinated by routines and rituals—they are crude, semi-reliable methods of fostering a certain state of mind. The 5:30 a.m. wakeup, the steaming mug of coffee, the exercises naked at the window—none of these things matter in an objective sense. But they can help guide you to a mental state where you can produce things that do matter.

And now I have to go make another cup of coffee. Thanks for reading.

Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

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