A friend of Frank Lloyd Wright’s once observed that for as long as she had known him, the architect seemed to spend the day doing everything but actually working on his building designs. He held meetings, took phone calls, answered letters, supervised students — but was rarely seen at the drafting table. The friend wanted to know: When did Wright conceive the ideas and make the sketches for his buildings? “Between 4 and 7 o’clock in the morning,” Wright told her. “I go to sleep promptly when I go to bed. Then I wake up around 4 and can’t sleep. But my mind’s clear, so I get up and work for three or four hours. Then I go to bed for another nap.”
Wright was hardly unusual in this habit. In researching “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” I came across story after story of creative artists who did their most important work — and sometimes their only work — just as the sun was rising. (Of the 161 figures in the book, about a third got up at 7 a.m. or earlier.) If I were going to extrapolate one lesson from the book, it would be this: Get up early and go straight to work, making a cup of coffee if you like but not doing much else before sitting down, and take advantage of that time before the myriad demands of daily life have a chance to take hold.
Indeed, many artists are early risers because they have little other choice; working early in the morning is a tried and true method of fitting creative work into busy schedules. The 19th-century novelist Frances Trollope is a good example. She did not begin writing until the age of 53, and then only because she desperately needed money to support her six children and ailing husband. In order to squeeze the necessary writing time out of the day while still acting as the primary caregiver to her family, Trollope sat down at her desk each day at 4 a.m. and completed her writing in time to serve breakfast. Her son Anthony Trollope later adopted a similar schedule, getting up at 5:30 a.m. and writing for two hours before going to his job at the post office.
Fast forward to the fall of 1962 and you have Sylvia Plath following a similar schedule. At the time, she was using sedatives to get to sleep, and when they wore off at about 5 a.m. she would get up and write until her children awoke. Working like this for two months, she produced nearly all the poems of “Ariel,” the posthumously published collection that established her as a major new voice in poetry.
Some people get up early out of necessity, but others find that there’s something special about that early-a.m. feeling. The Irish novelist and playwright Edna O’Brien works in the morning, she has said, “because one is nearer to the unconscious, the source of inspiration.” As it happens, I also prefer to work early in the morning — not because I feel nearer to the unconscious but because I still feel semi-conscious. Being half-awake, body tired, squinty-eyed, and more than a little grumpy is, for me, the best state for concentrated writing. I simply don’t have the mental or bodily energy to be as distraction-prone as I am later in the day.
One of my favorite habits from the “Daily Rituals” research came from Nicholson Baker, who also prefers to work just after waking. “The mind is newly cleansed but it’s also befuddled and you’re still just plain sleepy,” he told me in an interview. “I found that I wrote differently then.” Baker likes this feeling so much that he developed a strategy to squeeze two mornings out of one day. He will get up around 4 or 4:30 a.m. and write for an hour and a half — but then he goes back to sleep until 8:30 and gets up again, this time turning his attention to “daylight kind of work,” like transcribing an interview or editing what he wrote during the first morning session.
So far I’ve mentioned a lot of writers, and indeed the early-morning work habit seems to be particularly common among literary types. The Paris Review’s invaluable archive of author interviews is stocked with stories of early-bird novelists and poets: Ernest Hemingway, who wrote “every morning as soon after first light as possible”; Toni Morrison, who rises before dawn, makes coffee and waits to “watch the light come” before she gets to work; Haruki Murakami, who gets up at 4 a.m. and writes for five or six hours.
I did not run across as many examples of visual artists who got up before dawn to work, although there are certainly a few. Francis Bacon would wake around sunrise and paint for a few hours before lunch. According to a 2002 New York Times Magazine profile, Gerhard Richter wakes at 6:15 a.m. (but he doesn’t go to his backyard studio until 8). The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister has said that he gets up at 5 a.m. every morning “simply because it’s more exciting to start working than to turn around and sleep some more.”
Then again, you don’t necessarily have to be working, exactly, during this time. Milton devoted the morning to solitary contemplation in bed, beginning at 4 a.m. (5 a.m. in the winter). Immanuel Kant had his servant wake him at 5 a.m. for an all-important period of meditation, accompanied by a cup or two of weak tea and a pipe of tobacco. George Balanchine rose before 6 a.m., made a pot of tea, and read a little or played a hand of Russian solitaire while he gathered his thoughts. Then he did his ironing for the day. “When I’m ironing, that’s when I do most of my work,” he once said.
Mason Currey is the author of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.”
© 2013, Slate