Creatures of Habit
By Dr Zafar M. Iqbal
Chicago, IL


Some things we do every day, more or less the same way, and day after day. Routines we all go through, almost unconsciously, but when we deviate any (or had to, for some reason), we feel something is missing that day.

Creatures of habit , we all are!

In “Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work: How Artists Work,” a recent book edited by Mason Currey (ISBN: ISBN-10:  0307273601; Knopf, 2013 ), you can read about what over 160 creative public figures such as writers, scientists, artists, conductors, film makers, politicians and other famous people used to do outside the area in which they had achieved prominence . Their routines may not be much different from some of our own daily rituals.


Many were early risers, drank coffee and did different things, each his/her own way. Proust smoked opium (supposedly for his asthma) before coffee and croissant. He, like Truman Capote and Patricia Highsmith, also worked in bed, surrounded by alcoholic drinks, cigarettes and food. Apparently, Capote “couldn’t begin or end anything on a Friday.”

Beethoven put exactly 60 hand-counted coffee beans in a cup. That’s not the only odd thing he did: he would splash himself at wash-stand, repeatedly, which spilled water everywhere, something his neighbors and others did not understand or appreciate.

Other coffee-addicts included Balzac who had 50 cups of coffee a day (and died when he was 5l). Mozart had his hair done by 6 AM, then 2 hours of composition, 4 hours of teaching before lunch.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist philosopher, would ask his assistant who brought the afternoon coffee to give him the reason for the choice of coffee that day, before pouring strong black coffee over a cupful of sugar.

Gustave Flaubert wanted to have his mother sit by his bed for a chat after he got up at 10 AM and for that he knocked on the ceiling. James Joyce played piano and sang before writing in the afternoon.

Benjamin Franklin had his “air bath” (sitting around, naked), regardless of the weather. WH Auden, a British-America poet, worked at the crosswords, with “eating, drinking, writing, shopping and even the mailman’s arrival, all ... timed to the minute,” all supported by amphetamines during the day and sedatives at night.

The American writer, Earnest Hemingway, a famous night owl who was out drinking, still liked getting up early and write because “there is no one to disturb you and it’s cool or cold and come to work and warm [up with coffee] as you write.” Others who had other commitments (job, children or both) agreed with Hemingway, and found the mornings good for writing.

Novelist-short story-writer John Cheever had an interesting schedule in 1940s: each morning, he’d get dressed in business suit, and like most commuters, take the elevator downstairs -- all the way to his favorite storage room in the basement —and strip down to his shorts and write all morning before dressing back up to come upstairs for lunch and a relaxing afternoon later.

Some faithfully maintained a rigorous schedule, compulsively kept: Anthony Trollope typed for 3 hours a morning, at the rate of 250 words every 15minutes; Joyce Carol Oates worked from 8 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon, and then from 4 to 7PM. Stephen King wrote 2,000 words every morning, thought writing “as a waking dream” and used his “schedule” to “habituate” himself like getting ready to dream, as you prepare yourself to sleep. Charles Dickens, the prolific novelist, as quoted by his son, wrote with the work-ethic that “no city clerk” could be “ever more methodical or orderly.”

While Voltaire was at his desk 20 hours a day Gertrude Stein thought that 30 minutes a day was enough to make “a lot writing year by year.” Sylvia Plath found it difficult to stick to any schedule.

Some were known for their peculiar taste and habits: Friedrich Schiller, the German poet/philosopher and friend of Goethe, liked the smell of rotting apples while he wrote.

Some well- known authors worked in areas totally unrelated to what they became famous for—jobs that required work-ethics and discipline, besides giving them some financial security: Kafka worked as an insurance officer; William Faulkner, the American novelist, wrote in the afternoons while he had a night shift at a power plant; among American poets T. S. Eliot worked in Lloyds Bank in London; William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician; Wallace Stevens, an insurance officer.

In some cases a famous person received some personal help: Freud’s wife put toothpaste overnight on his brush for the morning to save him time. George Sand, the pseudonym for the French female novelist, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, had to have chocolate and tobacco while she wrote all night. David Lynch, the American movie director and musician known for his exotic surrealist traits, meditated twice a day, and used to have his milkshake daily.

Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish movie director, worked at a remote island of Faro, off the Swedish coast. Up at 8 and he wrote scripts till noon, then had the same kind of baby-food lunch (whipped sour cream and strawberry jam with cornflakes), worked for a couple of hours more and slept. Then he walked and took a ferry to a neighboring island to get the mail and paper. He said he “never used drugs or alcohol,” except that an occasional glass of wine made him “incredibly happy.”

Composers like Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky loved their daily walk for about 2 hours. Igor Stravinsky made sure that no one heard him play, and would stand on his head to clear mental blocks. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was so regular that his neighbors in Konisberg would know it’s 3:30PM each day.

The Croatian-American inventor, Nicola Tesla, who once worked with Thomas Edison had childhood compulsion of computing his dinner’s cubic volume before eating.

Some authors were phenomenally compulsive and productive: P. G. Wodehouse wrote last 8,000 words of his ‘Thank You, Jeeves' in one day, a feat emulated by William Faulkner who wrote 10,000 words in144 hours (from 10 AM to midnight, same day).

Somerset Maugham worked on the first 2 sentences to write while in the bathtub in the morning. Woody Allen would get chilly first in the morning before his hot shower.

Ira Gershwin, according to his brother, Ira, worked 12 hours a day at the piano, composing in his pajamas.

Charles Schulz, the creator ofthe popular comic strip, Peanuts, worked alone on every strip each day of the week (nearly 18,000 in all), mostly after driving his kids to school. He always had the same lunch (ham sandwich and a glass of milk).

Thomas Wolfe worked standing up, his typewriter on the refrigerator, and “fondling himself.”Louis Armstrong had his daily ‘drugs’ and had a photo of himself sitting in his toilet saying “Leave It All Behind Ya.”

People included in the book shared some common routines: many were early risers, kept their job, took regular walks, addicted to substance of abuse, and worked wherever they could, and stuck to their schedule and rituals.

Quite apart from this book and its idiosyncratic behaviors of the selected famous persona is the flip side, i.e,, what attracted people from different walks of life. In a recent opinion piece in NY Times (10/12), Joanne Lipman described the role music played in the life of some public figures well known in other areas.

Condoleeza Rice, former secretary of State under GW Bush, was also a concert pianist, while Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a professional statistician, is a professional clarinet and saxophone player, and James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president played cello at Carnegie Hall.

Bruce Kovner, the hedge fund billionaire, is a Juilliard-trained pianist; Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft and a billionaire, a violin player who also has a rock-band. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Among the TV personalities, Paul Zahn is a professional cello-player, Andrea Mitchell, a trained violinist, Chuch Todd on music scholarship in college, played French horn.

Movie director, Woody Allen, a professional clarinet player for New Orleans jazz band, still practices every day for at least half an hour. His fellow movie-director, Stephen Spielberg, is also a clarinetist.

Perhaps Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen came up with the best explanation, coming from a contrasting field, when he said music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create,” and in the two such apparently diverse fields “something is pushing you to look beyond what currently exists and express yourself in a new way.”



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.