How to Live Like an Artist, by Author Mason Currey

Illustration by Steph Davidson

You’d do well to find a supportive spouse.

While there are people who had day jobs—Anthony Trollope worked at the post office for 35 years—most were either independently wealthy or had a spouse (a wife, usually) who took care of day-to-day operations so they could go about writing or painting or composing. Sigmund Freud’s wife even put toothpaste on his toothbrush.

You do have to carve out a few hours a day to work. Most artists don’t work long hours, often just three or four a day, but they work every day. They have routines. Frank Lloyd Wright designed his buildings around 4 a.m. Ernest Hemingway stopped when he felt he could go on. He believed in leaving something in the tank, so to speak, that makes you want to pick up the next day where you left off.

You don’t have to cultivate an eccentric habit, but if you have one, you’re in good company. Friedrich Schiller kept rotting apples in his workroom. He said he needed their decaying smell to feel the urge to write, whatever that’s about.

Not many drink while they work, but a lot seem to pull off an amphetamine habit. W.H. Auden took Benzedrine every morning like a multivitamin. Jean-Paul Sartre used Corydrane, fashionable among Parisian intellectuals at the time. He’d take 20 a day, chewing them like candy. It made him really, really productive. It’s tempting to look into that. —As told to Claire Suddath

Currey is author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.