Daily Rituals

Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and Other Artists Who Wouldn’t Dream of Working in the Daylight
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April 18 2013 5:37 AM

Daily Rituals

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Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and other artists who did great work in the wee hours.

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“I really believe in day people and night people,” Ann Beattie told an interviewer in 1980.

“I really think people’s bodies are on different clocks. I even feel now like I just woke up and I’ve been awake for three or four hours. And I’ll feel this way until seven o’clock tonight when I’ll start to pick up and then by nine it will be O.K. to start writing. My favorite hours are from 12:00 to 3:00 a.m. for writing.”

Yesterday I ran through a dozen or so examples of artists who worked best first thing in the morning, and advised readers to consider doing the same thing.  I am certainly biased in this regard—I always work best before sunrise—but I also think that Ann Beattie is absolutely right. Different people feel alert at different times of the day, and the most important thing is to arrange your day to seize your personal window of opportunity.

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So let's take a few moments to celebrate the night owls, of whom there are certainly plenty of illustrious examples in my Daily Rituals book. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did his best creative work at night, sketching at cabarets or setting up his easel in brothels. The German poet-historian-philosopher Friedrich Schiller almost exclusively worked at night; the same was true for Samuel Johnson, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and George Sand, who produced a minimum of 20 manuscript pages nearly every night of her adult life. It was not unusual for Sand to slip out of a sleeping lover’s bed to begin a new novel in the middle of the night. In the mornings, she claimed, she often couldn’t remember what she had written during these late-night writing sessions.

In a 1979 Canadian television documentary, the pianist Glenn Gould described his preferred schedule:

“I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence, mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colors of any kind depress me, in fact, and my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky on any given day. Matter of fact, my private motto has always been that behind every silver lining there’s a cloud. So I schedule my errands for as late an hour as possible, and I tend to emerge along with the bats and the raccoons at twilight.”

Franz Kafka sat down at his desk at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. and worked until 1, 2, or 3 a.m. Thomas Wolfe typically began writing around midnight, “priming himself with awesome quantities of tea and coffee,” as one biographer noted. Bob Dylan has said, "Most of the time I work at night." Michael Chabon writes from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m., five nights a week.

That last piece of intelligence comes from a profile of Chabon by New York's book critic, Kathryn Schulz, who follows a similar schedule herself. Last year, she wrote a lovely essay about being a literary night owl that should probably be required reading for anyone who suspects that nighttime workers are really just undisciplined procrastinators. (Or worse. W.H. Auden once said: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”)

In the same issue, Schulz also reviews the book Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, by the German scientist Till Roenneberg, which explains the biology behind our highly individualized internal clocks. You can read some excerpts of Roenneberg's findings here, but its most basic lesson is exactly what Ann Beattie surmised in 1980: People's bodies really are on different clocks, and there's nothing you can do to change your particular chronotype.

But what if could enhance your chronotype, or at least find a way to extend your most productive hours? Tomorrow: daily routines, creativity, and coffee.

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

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