On Rising Early and Artistic Success

Mason Currey (Slate), author of the excellent Daily Rituals, shares details of artists’ lives

6d531-early-morning-window-sunlightA 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, 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. (Later in this series, I’ll be looking closely at artists who also held down full-time day jobs.) 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. [Read More]

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