How creative geniuses tapped their spark

For many of history’s most celebrated creative geniuses, a routine was more than a luxury – it was essential to their work. Here are some common elements in their lives that allowed them to produce the works for which they are still famous.

A private workspace

Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky hinge never be oiled so that she always had a warning whenever someone was approaching the room where she wrote. William Faulkner, lacking a lock on his study door, detached the doorknob and brought it into the room with him. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door – they’d blow a horn to draw him out. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office; only his wife knew the address and telephone number.

A daily walk

For many artists, a regular stroll was essential creative inspiration. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon, and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour jaunt but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that doing so would make him ill. Ludwig van Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Nineteenth-century composer Erik Satie did the same on his long hikes from Paris to the working-class suburb where he lived, stopping under street lamps to jot down notions that arose on his journey; it’s rumoured that when those lamps were turned off during the war years, his productivity declined too.

Accountability metrics

Anthony Trollope wrote for only three hours a day, but he required of himself a rate of 250 words per 15 minutes. Ernest Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart “so as not to kid myself.” American psychologist B. F. Skinner started and stopped his writing sessions by setting a timer, and he carefully plotted the number of hours he wrote and the words he produced on a graph.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck

Hemingway put it thus: “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.” Arthur Miller said, “I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, do you see? I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.”

With the exception of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – who rose at 6 a.m., spent the day in a flurry of music lessons, concerts and social engagements, and often didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m. – many would write in the morning, stop for lunch and a stroll, spend an hour or two answering letters, and knock off work by 2 or 3 p.m. “I’ve realised that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same, is a fool,” wrote Carl Jung. Or, well, a Mozart.

A clear divide between important work and busywork

It’s amazing (and humbling) to see the amount of time each genius allocated to answering letters. Many did their writing, composing, or painting in the morning and did the “busywork” of answering letters in the afternoon. Others would write letters when the real work wasn’t going well. But these historical geniuses did have one advantage: The post would arrive at regular intervals, not constantly, as email does.

A supremely supportive partner

Martha Freud, wife of Sigmund, “laid out his clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush,” notes Mason Currey in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Gertrude Stein preferred to write outdoors, looking at rocks and cows – and so on trips to the French countryside, Alice B. Toklas would shoo a few cows into the writer’s line of vision. Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, took over most of the domestic duties so that Jane would have time to write: “Composition seems impossible to me with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb,” Jane once wrote. And Andy Warhol called friend and collaborator Pat Hackett every morning, recounting the previous day’s activities in detail. “Doing the diary,” as they called it, could last two full hours – with Hackett dutifully jotting down notes and typing them up every weekday morning from 1976 until Warhol’s death in 1987. (The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Hackett, was published in 1989.)

An often limited social life

One of Simone de Beauvoir’s lovers put it this way: “There were no parties, no receptions … It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.” Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an “at-home day” from Stein and Toklas – so that they could “dispose of the obligations of friendship in a single afternoon.”