The Myth of the Artist's Creative Routine

For all the interest in the habits of highly creative people, there's not much to learn from Don DeLillo's manual typewriter or Maya Angelou's mid-day showers.
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(Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock)

(Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock)

Charles Dickens wrote while blindfolded. Virginia Woolf took three baths a day, and always with ice-cold water. Stephen King eats a blood orange at every meal whenever he is working on a book. Joyce Carol Oates writes only in Comic Sans.

None of those things is true. Before you go and stock your kitchen with blood oranges or switch the font on your word processor, let me assure you that I invented every one of those writerly habits. But what if I hadn’t? What if you had read them in an interview or in any one of the million aggregations of writerly routines? Would you really stop taking hot showers or start blindfolding yourself when you write?

Part of the endless fascination with these lists is that maybe you would—and by following any one of the habits you might become like the artist who first practiced it. Whenever I see one of these lists, I read it. I even bought a copy of Mason Curry’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. I read it. Twice. And while I would never ask such a question, I am secretly pleased whenever someone asks an author at a reading how and when she writes.

The writer who never wrote without a few gin and tonics died young from cirrhosis. The journalist who relied on barbiturates died of an overdose. The painter who once said it was impossible to paint while listening to music married a violinist who then played constantly in his studio.

But why? One of the things you notice when you start reading enough of these lists of highly successful habits of highly successful artists is that no two routines are alike. The incessant interrogation of artists about their daily lives might only be voyeurism, in which case such idiosyncrasies are fine, but I think most of us read about their lives in order to shape our own. I read and read and read these routines thinking that if only I could find the right one to borrow then I would be more productive, more successful, more writerly.

In my sanest moments, I realize how silly this all is. It is not only the routine of any of these artists that made them successful. Not many of them even follow the routines they offer. Their creative lives are all more complicated, more disordered than the bullet points or time stamps they detail in one-off interviews. And even if they devotedly followed their own procedures, then it would be still odd to reduce the mysterious beauty of their work to these obvious patterns of waking and sleeping and typing.

By which I mean Ernest Hemingway would still have written some of America’s greatest novels if he sat at his desk instead of standing and if he had worked while barefoot instead of while wearing oversized loafers. And if Don DeLillo wrote in the evening on an electric typewriter instead of in the morning on a manual typewriter, he would still be one of our great novelists. Just as Maya Angelou would still be one of our great poets if she showered in the morning instead of midday.

The idea that any one of these habits can be isolated from the entirety of the writer’s life and made into a template for the rest of us is nonsense. What none of these lists tell you is that sometimes these highly creative people weren’t waking so early on their own, but were woken by domestic servants. Or that some of these highly productive writers also had spouses or children or assistants enlisted in the effort. Or that often the leisurely patterns of drafting and revising were possible only because generous familial support made the financial demands of everyday life irrelevant.

Some of the more scandalous aspects of these artistic routines are also tragically stripped of context. The writer who never wrote without a few gin and tonics died young from cirrhosis. The journalist who relied on barbiturates died of an overdose. The painter who once said it was impossible to paint while listening to music married a violinist who then played constantly in his studio.

There is the problem, too, that these habits are nothing special. Who hasn’t thought of waking earlier or turning off their mobile phone while trying to do creative work? Who hasn’t tried writing in different rooms with different writing implements? We are constantly confronted by the ordinariness of the routines of extraordinary artists. They all live and work with the same materials that we do. They use pen and paper and laptops; they eat food and drink coffee; they live in apartments and houses; they write in coffee shops and libraries.

That is, of course, the most depressing part of all lists. There is no secret ingredient to artistic success; no magic routine for producing art. Copying Joan Didion’s routine won’t make you write like Joan Didion. Writing on index cards won’t turn you into Vladimir Nabokov. We are all more than the pattern of our days and the materials of our work.

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