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Life

How to Live Like a Legend

One week of copying and pasting the daily regimens of great minds.

routines of rich and famous
Illustration by Gel Jamlang

Monday, 10:57 a.m.: Currently sitting atop freshly washed blue gingham sheets, my pillows fluffed neatly behind me. My pajamas are crisp, the top a bright-white button-down with vertical stripes in primary colors. A freshly brewed cup of coffee is on the nightstand to my right; notebooks, pens, and pencils arranged just so to my left. In lieu of a typewriter, my laptop is perched on top of my knees, ready to receive my thoughts for the next four hours straight. Capote Week has officially begun.

***

It all started on a whim some somber Sunday evening. Assessing the amount of work awaiting me in the days to come, I felt preemptively drained. My anticipatory anxiety drove me to my usual Internet haunts: listicles that teach you how to work smarter, not harder; detailed bullet-journal walk-through videos; Pomodoro Technique primers. Still, the week ahead loomed large. I couldn’t find a productivity hack that I hadn’t already tried — and to no avail, at that.

I’d just about resigned myself to muddling through on my own when I remembered a book I’d bought months earlier but never found the time to crack open — something about the routines of famous writers and artists. Perhaps there was a hack or two worth trying in there. I approached my bookshelf, dragging my finger along each title until I found it: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey.

“One’s daily routine is … a series of choices,” Currey writes in the book’s introduction. “In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time … willpower, self-discipline, optimism.” What follows is a collection of 161 vignettes capturing the daily routines of luminaries ranging from Louise Bourgeois (insomnia) to Ayn Rand (Benzedrine), Buckminster Fuller (catnaps) to Tom Stoppard (chain-smoking). I was flipping through in search of one great idea, a quick fix for my flagging productivity, when suddenly it occurred to me: Why dabble when you could go all in?

***

Tuesday, 12:17 p.m.: I’ve never been much of a coffee drinker, and from what I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. Milk and sugar are helping to soften the taste a bit, but once I get it down, I begin to experience what I can only describe as heart palpitations. My hands start to shake, and I swear my left eye is mildly twitching. I’m cranking out these emails, though.

***

Hemingway came first. Simone de Beauvoir was an early contender, but her habit of meeting with friends between one and five o’clock wouldn’t gel. The only friends of mine that are free during those times on a weekday are my cats, and they’re not great conversationalists. Hemingway, on the other hand, kept a routine that was challenging but not impossible: rise at first light, write until noon while standing up, answer letters when the writing isn’t going well. Further research revealed that noon was his preferred time for physical activity: “He takes a knotted walking stick and leaves the house for the swimming pool where he takes his daily half-mile swim.”

I dove into bed early that night, my alarm set to coincide with dawn. It turned out to be a successful week. When I was forced to stand at my mantel for six hours straight, even the thought of procrastination struck me as a personal affront to my knees. I worked quickly and efficiently, sometimes even powering through my to-do list well before noon. To be clear, it’s not like I was writing A Moveable Feast, but if Hemingway did it by adhering to this ritual, certainly I was on my way to producing something worthwhile by doing the same. I’d attached a personal superstition to the act of performing Hemingway’s, but it did keep me on task.

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***

Wednesday, 3:09 p.m.: I take back what I said about coffee. This sherry is a lot. I’m fully committed to this Truman Capote cause, but I’ve drawn the line at picking up cigarettes on his behalf. That said, Ruth, my downstairs neighbor with the thick Irish brogue, is smoking up a storm and it’s seeping up through the floorboards, making it feel as if I’ve got an ashtray in bed with me. I think that counts.

I’ve been in bed for three days straight, and I’m starting to feel a bit trapped. A heavy-lidded feeling is spreading from my face to my chest and all throughout my body, which is making my copywriting assignment feel less arduous, but I’m not sending anything out until I can revise while sober.

***

I quickly slipped back into my regular non-routine after Hemingway Week. I woke up whenever I had to based on last night’s sleep or the next day’s appointments, flitting from deadline to deadline but not really picking up steam until the evening. I’d soon squandered the head start Hemingway had given me and returned to Daily Rituals seeking another routine to adapt from one of the greats.

David Lynch’s routine involved seven cups of diner coffee and a chocolate shake, which seemed hazardous to my health — that was out. Thomas Wolfe fondled himself before writing sessions, seeking a certain “good male feeling” — pass. I tried Knut Hamsen’s middle-of-the-night work routine, attempted to work in near-darkness à la Nikola Tesla. I found that simply stepping into the shoes of an established writer, artist, philosopher, or engineer cleared the clutter from my brain. So it required vigorous exercise one week and chocolate for lunch the next — who was I to argue with Joan Miró or Voltaire?

Capote’s daily habit seemed like one I might enjoy. Much like I do, he preferred to work lying down, either in bed or on a couch. The major difference was that he preferred to do it while constantly smoking and drinking: “As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis,” he explained in 1957. I usually don’t drink — at all — but the slacker within told me that I could use a week of coziness à la Capote. It’s not laziness if you’re mimicking a great writer, I reasoned, and the idea of sipping a cocktail while cranking out prose seemed glamorous in theory. I decided to give it a five-day trial.

***

Thursday, 7:23 p.m.: Damn, Truman, you really lived like this? My face feels hot. I feel like telling someone off. I believe that’s the martini talking. Trying to channel this buzz through my keyboard, and it’s thrilling to plow through an essay without instinctively editing myself. On another note, this whole bedridden situation is for the birds. I’ve never wanted to sit in a proper chair so badly. Why is it so hot?

***

They’re not all winners. Some routines leave me physically sore, like Tchaikovsky’s, which involves walking for exactly two hours each day after lunch. Others push the limits of my sleep schedule: Hemingway Week was effective, but I’m simply not a rise-at-dawn type of gal. Still, by borrowing the routines of others, I somehow discovered one of my own — to throw myself wholeheartedly into the rituals of giants and let the rest fall into place. They supply the details, the quirks, the superstitions. All I have to do is work. “Routine … is a sign of ambition,” W.H. Auden once wrote. I’m aiming for greatness by living like those who achieved it.

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***

Friday, 9:46 a.m.: According to the book, Capote never started or finished anything on a Friday, so I’m allowing myself a creative interpretation. Today, I will neither start nor finish any assignment or beverage. No coffee, no tea, no sherry, no martini. Thanks for everything, Tru. It was good for my writing, but as it turns out, I’m a lightweight.

Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.