The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon

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Wine is part of my creative process. How I use it has been influenced by other writers. Why reinvent the wheel?

Sometimes, peculiar routines are the key to sanity… and productivity.

For years, I wrote from 11pm-4am or so, fueled by carefully timed yerba mate tea, Malbec, and Casino Royale left on repeat in my peripheral vision.

But who am I? Let’s explore the odd and effective routines of several creative icons: Maya Angelou (author), Francis Bacon (painter), W.H. Auden (poet), and Ludwig van Beethoven (composer).

Here’s an appetizer, before we get to the full routines:

Maya Angelou rented a “tiny, mean” hotel or motel room to do her writing;
Francis Bacon preferred to work with a hangover;
W.H. Auden took Benzedrine the way many people take a multivitamin; and
Beethoven counted out 60 coffee beans (exactly!) each morning, and developed his compositions through walking and obsessive bathing.

Enjoy the detailed profiles below.

All were excerpted from one of my favorite books–Daily Rituals: How Artists Work–which contains nearly 200 routines of some of the greatest minds of the last four hundred years: famous novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians…

Maya Angelou

Angelou (b. 1928) is an American author and poet best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which began in 1969 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou has never been able to write at home. “I try to keep home very pretty,” she has said, “and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” As a result, she has always worked in hotel or motel rooms, the more anonymous the better. She described her routine in a 1983 interview:

“I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. I keep a hotel room in which I do my work–a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. 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. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. 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.”

In this manner, Angelou has managed to write not only her acclaimed series of autobiographies but numerous poems, plays, lectures, articles, and television scripts. Sometimes the intensity of the work brings on strange physical reactions–her back goes out, her knees swell, and her eyelids once swelled completely shut. Still, she enjoys pushing herself to the limits of her ability. “I have always got to be the best,” she has said. “I’m absolutely compulsive, I admit it. I don’t see that as a negative.”

Francis Bacon

Bacon (1909–1992) was an Irish-born British painter whose abstract portraits of grotesque, distorted figures made him one of the most distinctive and controversial artists of the postwar era.

To the outside observer, Bacon appeared to thrive on disorder. His studios were environments of extreme chaos, with paint smeared on the walls and a knee-high jumble of books, brushes, papers, broken furniture, and other detritus piled on the floor. (More agreeable interiors stifled his creativity, he said.) And when he wasn’t painting, Bacon lived a life of hedonistic excess, eating multiple rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.

And yet, as the biographer Michael Peppiatt has written, Bacon was “essentially a creature of habit,” with a daily schedule that varied little over his career.

Painting came first. Despite his late nights, Bacon always woke at the first light of day and worked for several hours, usually finishing around noon. Then another long afternoon and evening of carousing stretched before him, and Bacon did not dawdle. He would have a friend to the studio to share a bottle of wine, or he would head out for drinks at a pub, followed by a long lunch at a restaurant and then more drinks at a succession of private clubs. When evening arrived, there was a restaurant supper, a round of nightclubs, perhaps a visit to a casino, and often, in the early-morning hours, yet another meal at a bistro.

At the end of these long nights, Bacon frequently demanded that his reeling companions join him at home for one last drink–an effort, it seems, to postpone his nightly battles with insomnia.

Bacon depended on pills to get to sleep, and he would read and reread classic cookbooks to relax himself before bed. He still slept only a few hours a night. Despite this, the painter’s constitution was remarkably sturdy. His only exercise was pacing in front of a canvas, and his idea of dieting was to take large quantities of garlic pills and shun egg yolks, desserts, and coffee–while continuing to guzzle a half-dozen bottles of wine and eat two or more large restaurant meals a day. His metabolism could apparently handle the excessive consumption without dimming his wits or expanding his waistline. (At least, not until late in his life, when the drinking finally seemed to catch up with him.) Even the occasional hangover was, in Bacon’s mind, a boon. “I often like working with a hangover,” he said, “because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.”

W. H. Auden

Auden (1907–1973) is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets. Born and raised in England, he became an American citizen in 1946. Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his long poem The Age of Anxiety.

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, then Auden himself was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. The poet was obsessively punctual and lived by an exacting timetable throughout his life. “He checks his watch over and over again,” a guest of Auden’s once noted. “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival–all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.” Auden believed that a life of such military precision was essential to his creativity, a way of taming the muse to his own schedule. “A modern stoic,” he observed, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

Auden rose shortly after 6:00 a.m., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 a.m., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. (He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”) Auden usually resumed his work after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6:30 sharp, with the poet mixing himself and any guests several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine, followed by more wine and conversation. Auden went to bed early, never later than 11:00 and, as he grew older, closer to 9:30.

To maintain his energy and concentration, the poet relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine–“the chemical life,” he called it–for twenty years, until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco–although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven (1770–1827) was a German composer and pianist, and one of the most famous and influential composers in classical music.

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care–he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00pm, taking the occasional break to walk outdoors, which aided his creativity. (Perhaps for this reason, Beethoven’s productivity was generally higher during the warmer months.)

After a midday dinner, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much of the rest of the afternoon. He always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of music paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts. As the day wound down, he might stop at a tavern to read the newspapers. Evenings were often spent with company or at the theater, although in winter he preferred to stay home and read. Supper was usually a simple affair–a bowl of soup, say, and some leftovers from dinner. Beethoven enjoyed wine with his food, and he liked to have a glass of beer and a pipe after supper. He rarely worked on his music in the evening, and he retired early, going to bed at 10:00 at the latest.

Beethoven’s unusual bathing habits are worth noting here. His pupil and secretary Anton Schindler recalled them in the biography Beethoven As I Knew Him:

“Washing and bathing were among the most pressing necessities of Beethoven’s life. In this respect he was indeed an Oriental: to his way of thinking Mohammed did not exaggerate a whit in the number of ablutions he prescribed. If he did not dress to go out during the morning working hours, he would stand in great de?shabille? at his washstand and pour large pitchers of water over his hands, bellowing up and down the scale or sometimes humming loudly to himself. Then he would stride around his room with rolling or staring eyes, jot something down, then resume his pouring of water and loud singing. These were moments of deep meditation, to which no one could have objected but for two unfortunate consequences. First of all, the servants would often burst out laughing. This made the master angry and he would sometimes assault them in language that made him cut an even more ridiculous figure. Or, secondly, he would come into conflict with the landlord, for all too often so much water was spilled that it went right through the floor. This was one of the main reasons for Beethoven’s unpopularity as a tenant. The floor of his living room would have had to be covered with asphalt to prevent all that water from seeping through. And the master was totally unaware of the excess of inspiration under his feet!”

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To download the nearly 200 daily routines in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, click here.

Posted on: December 16, 2013.

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88 comments on “The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon

  1. You said “wrote.” Does this mean that you don’t write from 11-4 anymore?

    I find myself a huge fan of your routine. I do have one twist. I like to wake up after writing all night, chug some coffee, and get writing done.

    During the afternoon I usually rest, train, or just waste time.

    Like

  2. It’s funny how quirky we really are when in intense concentration, our natural child-like states come out. Steve Jobs said something to the effect of “some of the best times he has had was while working crazy hours, laboring to launch a new product” and I have the same experiences looking back at times I was probably suffering but also enjoying what I was doing.

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  3. Great excerpts! I’m also very fascinated with the routines of artists and those who inspire… am heading to buy the book after this. Question: how do such artists support themselves, and their odd schedules or lavish lifestyles, financially? Also curious as to their ages during these periods of strict routine, and whether or not many have children!

    Like

  4. I’m really loving this book club.

    One possible SMALL addition that could make it awesomer…? Maybe you sharing your own kindle highlights? (if you have them)

    Dunno if that’d be realistic/useful, but I’d certainly be super interested in seeing your highlights on the books you recommend.

    if not, I still fucking love your shit.

    Like

  5. Big fan of waking up at 5-5:30 am and working till 11-12 with a walk and snack at 10. I used to be a night owl but find these hours much more productive. Making electronic music these days and I am much more focused and creative working in this time frame. Stand up desk helps too.

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  6. Benjamin Franklin took “air baths”. He spent time in the nude in his room.

    Penn Jillette and Teller would work together in Penn’s bathroom, as Penn sat naked in the bath tub, with Teller sitting on the toilet seat, and they hammered out an act.

    So interesting. My process as a father of two is different. 4 minutes here writing up a script for my Kickstarter project. 7 minutes there programming for it. 3 minutes again to to make some art for it. All while bouncing my daughter on my knee, or getting dinner ready for the family. Getting “present” quickly is what it takes, I suppose. :)

    Thank you Tim for the article.

    Like

  7. This is typically kind of posts I love on your blog Tim.
    Fantastic, thanks for sharing rare and sharp knowledge.

    P.S. My dream is once you share your experiences as business angel, of “best practices” or best “80/20″ pattern you’ve been observing in startups.

    I listened to your interviews and as entrepreneur your advices are extremely useful. Would love now knowing more and deeper specifics.

    Maybe an idea for a book called “4 hour pattern of success in entrepreneurship” ;-)

    Like

  8. Tim, I hope you agree that the most important habit is the habit that works for each of us, it may appear crazy to others but if it functions, it functions well. You I believe pay a lot of attention to how your body and mind respond to foods, environment and other stimulus and that I believe is excellent. If we listen to ourselves we find out what works and what does not for each of us.
    I know I am on track and following my needed path if I still feel happy and energetic after a day of work, managing the home, taking care of the children and everything else that comes along. Continued success to all, David

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  9. This is pretty much my routine, though perhaps with fewer chemicals. I’m awake at 5:30, occasionally write from bed, sometimes fall back asleep, work a little more, then by somewhere between noon and 2:00 my brain is shot and it’s time to eat something. After that I’m pretty worthless. It takes a lot of doing nothing to recharge and maybe a bit of madness to be willing to do it.

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  10. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” I ? that!

    More than the time of the day I believe is the quality of the time & space; one that defines who you are so you can just be yourself there. Quietness is another factor.

    I read somewhere that chaos has the ability to stimulate creativity. Does this happen to you?

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  11. Interesting! Thank you for the book recomandation Tim!
    I think that daily routine is different form everyone of us: it largerly depends on the environment we’re in and the people we have relationships with. I woke up for an entire week at 530, but then most of my friends and relatives wanted to see me after work and I had to stay up until late night so it wasn’t possible for me. I had to change my sleep routine for them, though waking up very early gives you a boost of adrenaline.
    I think that having a hotel room for writing is really helpful, jk rowling also did that. I just think that from a healthy point of view, drinking too much alcool is just not good, but it’s very interesting to have a closer look at the life of an artist. Thank you for sharing! :)

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  12. Getting up early – what I do best. Since I was a teen I started waking up at 4 in the morning. I love the quiet of the morning hours when my brain is “freshest”. It’s easy to get clear thinking done at that time (which, as a trader, is what I have to do). Wake up early, sleep early. That’s my motto.

    Like