One of the big myths about creativity is that you have to wait for the muse to whisper in your ear. But most prominent writers and artists prefer not to leave anything up to chance. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” said painter Chuck Close in Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Or as Jack London famously put it, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Here are unique rituals of five successful artists.
Writer Stephen King starts every day at 8 to 8:30 a.m. and doesn’t stop until he reaches his daily goal of 2,000 words, usually between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Before sitting down to write, he takes a multivitamin with a glass of water or cup of tea and makes sure the papers on his desk are arranged meticulously. “The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day,” he told his biographer, Lisa Rogak, “seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
Choreographer Twyla Tharp’s dance begins at 5:30 a.m., when she wakes up, throws on her workout clothes, and hails a cab to her gym on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put into my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab,” she wrote in her book, The Creative Habit. “The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”
Storyteller and radio host Garrison Keillor avoids the lure of the internet by writing on a legal pad with a rollerball pen. “I don’t think that one should sit and look at a blank page,” he revealed to the website 99U. “The way around it is to walk around with scrap paper and to take notes, and simply to take notes of the observable world around you…I think everything—everything—starts with the observable world.”
Author Maya Angelou’s solution was to go into isolation. She had trouble writing in her beautifully appointed home because, as she said, “I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” So she rented a small hotel room with a bed, a wash basin, and little else. “I try to get there around seven, and I work until two in the afternoon,” she told interviewer Claudia Tate. “If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.” On returning home, Angelou showered and prepared dinner, so that when her husband arrived, she wouldn’t be totally absorbed in her work. But sometimes after dinner she would read to him what she’d written that day. “He doesn’t comment,” she added. “I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.”
Like many novelists, Bernard Malamud stuck to a disciplined routine—from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day—which usually resulted in a page or two of finished copy. But he scoffed at the idea of mimicking the work rituals of great writers. “You write by sitting down and writing,” he once said. “There’s no particular time or place—you suit yourself, your nature…. The real mystery to crack is you.”