Monday, April 4, 2016

Kafka Kept His Day Job

Annamaria on Monday

I got the best birthday gift from my daughter and son-in-law.  A book called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey.  His subject is how artists work.   At just about every book presentation, someone in the audience asks the writer to “Tell us about your process.”  What Currey has done in his book is amass the answers of scores of artists—the work habits, not only of writers, but also painters, composers, even philosophers.  I knew as soon as I unwrapped it that I was going to love this book.  And I do.

Currey’s survey covers people from Woody Allen to WB Yeats.  Let me tell you what I have learned from it so far.

The book begins with a quote from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice:

“Who can unravel the essence, the stamp of the artistic temperament!  Who can grasp the deep, instinctual fusion of discipline and dissipation on which it rests!”

My motto all of my life: Work conquers all!

In his introduction, Currey gives the only decent answer I have been able to conclude about what constitutes good process—the question “can be resolved only by an individual.”  He quotes V.S. Pritchett about Edward Gibbon:  “Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike.  They never stop working.  They never lose a minute.  It is very depressing.”  I say this goes triple for the great women.  (See Wives and Wealth below.)

The first advice most aspiring authors get from veterans is “Keep your day job.”  Franz Kafka kept his.  He complained, “…time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straight-forward life is not possible then one must try to muddle through by subtle maneuvers.”  He muddled quite well it seems.  Otherwise we would never have heard of him.  Mozart gave piano lessons every day between 9 AM and 1.  Anthony Trollope (to distinguish him from Stanley Trollip) worked as a civil servant for the postal service until he was in his mid-50s.  By then he had published nearly thirty books.

On the other hand, Karl Marx never worked at a regular job.  He let Engels pay his bills.


Many artists work compulsively, writers included.  Ingmar Bergman thought, “If I hadn’t been at work all the time, I would have been a lunatic.”  Flaubert said, “I love my work with a love that is frantic…”   Matisse worked seven days a week.   Trollope  worked for three hours on his writing, starting at 5:30 AM every day before he went to the office.

But then Gertrude Stein wrote for only half an hour a day.

Most artists prefer to create in the morning hours.  W.H. Auden went so far as to say “Only the Hitlers of the world work at night.  No honest artist does.”  By this definition, the following are Hitlers: Georges Sand, Voltaire, Flaubert, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud.

Word Count

Many writers set themselves a word count or page goal.  I myself am one of these.  But the goals Currey reports range so widely that one could never make a guess at the optimum from reading Daily Rituals.  Here are the outer limits that I have discovered so far:  Flaubert—two pages a week; Trollope—250 words every fifteen minutes.  (He kept a ticking watch in front of him and wrote three thousand words in three hours!)   This may be what you have to do to be mega productive.  It worked for Trollope.  He lived to be sixty-seven and published forty-seven novels and fourteen other books.


Kafka complained about the noise at home.   Jane Austen had to deal with people in the room with her while she wrote.   Hers was the first entry I read in Currey’s book—not because it comes first, but because she has always come first for me.   Astonishing as it may seem, she wrote at a desk in the family sitting room, with visitors coming and going, and her family members gathered, playing cards and doing needlework.  I cannot imagine this.   To hide that she was writing (inventing the novel, some might say), she wrote on small pieces of paper that she could easily hide in a drawer or cover with a blotter.  If a guest arrived, she would grab her embroidery and pretend to be any ordinary woman.

By contrast, Gustav Mahler had a stone hut built in the woods of his estate.  He rose, dressed, and went straight there in the morning.  His servants were instructed to have his breakfast in the room when he arrived.  They came and went by a separate path so that he would not be forced to see another person on his way to work!

Wives and Wealth

When I was a wife, the mother of a young child, had a very active consulting practice, and was writing nonfiction books into the bargain, I used to say I needed a wife.  Not as a love interest.  But someone to make sure we had laundry detergent, to make dinner, to pick out the Christmas gifts.

Many of the males Currey describes had spouses who devotedly shielded them from the chores of everyday life.  Thomas Mann comes across as a type of tyrant.  His children were forbidden from making any noise whatsoever during the three hours while he worked and the couple of hours when he napped in the afternoon.   His wife was there to enforce the rules.   And to manage everything else about the household. 

Freud’s wife set out his clothing for him every day and even put the toothpaste on his toothbrush.  Evidently, Bates did not give better quality care to the Earl of Grantham than Mrs. Freud gave to her Siggie.

Gertrude Stein had Alice.  Jane Austen had her sister Cassandra who did double duty around the house so that Jane could keep her mind on Lizzie Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and not be distracted by legs of mutton or kidney pies.

Many artists came from families wealthy enough to give them squads of servants to relieve them of any day-to-day chores.  I admit that I experienced flashes of intense envy when I read phrases like “rang for the cook to prepare his breakfast.”


Coffee, my stimulant of choice, was a great favorite for many creative types.   Some made a fetish of it.  Kierkegaard had fifty sets of cups and saucers and made a ritual of choosing the right one for the day.  Then he filled the cup to the brim with sugar and poured in the coffee, concocting a syrup that he drank down before beginning work.

Lots of people used lots of booze.  Francis Bacon, it seems was roaring drunk for most of his adult life.  Patricia Highsmith said she drank heavily to sedate her manic state so she could work.

Tobacco, not popular in our day, played a role for many creative people of the past.  Freud smoked twenty cigars a day.  Highsmith, two packs a day of Gauloises, also the preferred brand of Richard Strauss, but he consumed only 8-12 compared to her forty.

Some used downright weird methods of stimulation.  Like diddling his private parts for a few minutes (Thomas Wolfe) or looking at cows (Gertrude Stein).  Evidently, Alice drove Stein around the countryside looking for just the right cow for the day, and then waited silently nearby while Gertrude sat and worked, intermittently gazing at the cow before her.


One of Currey’s sketches comes with advice on creative work.  John Cage gave it to his fellow composer Morton Feldman:  “Write a little bit, then copy it.  Because while you are copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas.”  My own variation on this is that I never stop at the end of paragraph or even a sentence.  Then, when I go back to the work, I can read the last-written paragraph from the beginning, pick up the thread, finish the sentence, and be back in the story.

Now you know what I have gleaned from Daily Rituals so far.  And I have read only to page 50—about one-fifth of the book.   I will save up the coming tidbits for another post one day.


  1. A wonderful book so far, AmA, thanks for the Reader's Digest version.

    I'm going to take your advice and leave off before

    1. EvKa, I am glad to see that you are taking my advice. when it comes right down to it, you will find the real danger lies in

    2. :-) I still remember reading a science fiction novel back around 1970 by Robert Silverberg, UP THE LINE. It was written in first person, about a fellow who was a time traveller. He got into all kinds of mischief, and was being tracked through time by the Time Patrol (whose job it was to 'protect' the time line), and while he was mostly victorious, the last chapter has him sitting at his desk, finishing up typing his manuscript of his tale, saying that time is fluid, you might win today (or yesterday), but the danger is never really over, that eventually someone will track you down in time, go back and 'edit' time, and you whole existence sill snuff out like a candle. You might be right in the middle of

      And that was the end of the novel. :-)

  2. Imagine how Wolfe and Stein might have turned out had diddling with a cow's private parts started off their daily/dairy ritual.

    I know, EvKa, it's all udder nonsense, but AmA started it.

    1. My secret dairy entry for today will make special note of the horns of my dilemma and how you masterfully abated my woes.

  3. Okay, I'm out of here. This is getting too weird, even for someone as weird as me. All this coming from two people who frequently refer to each other as 'sister' and 'brother.' Ick.

    1. Oh my, EvKa. What could you possibly have read into my simple phrases?

  4. I say drink tea and eat chocolate and stay up half the night working, blogging, reading. It's the best time of day. There is peace and quiet and it feels like "all is right with the world."

    1. How wrong WH Auden would be about you, Kathy. You are the Anti-Hitler as far as I can tell.

  5. Great post, Annamaria. What does it say about my daily rituals that I'm only now replying to your post, I wonder?

    1. I think what it says about you, Zoe, is that you are much more focused on your productivity than I am. I will try to emulate you starting tomorrow!

  6. Yes, I surely am an anti-Hitler, and so would be most people on that list, some of whom are Jewish.
    Gosh, and to think I memorized Auden's poem "September 1, 1939," about Germany's invasion of Poland when I was 17.
    I have to rethink Auden.

    1. Oh, no, Kathy. Don't rethink Auden. Flawed people can create great art. Otherwise there would be no great art, since we are all flawed. I am and remain a fan of Auden. Though I think that statement about night owls is balderdash, his poems are most definitely not.

  7. First time in my entire life that my name and the purveyor of genocide have been used in the same sentence. Half my family is Jewish. I have to recover.

    Anyway, I'll relook at Auden.