Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

creative-mind

(Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock)

The Myth of the Artist’s Creative Routine

• April 16, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock)

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.

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.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.