Book of the Month: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work edited by Mason Currey (2013)

Critical Evaluation

The Onion published an essay recently called “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.” The piece was satire, but it’s how many of us respond to the question Mason Currey raises in his entertaining new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. “How do you do meaningful creative work,” he wonders, “while also earning a living?”

A product of the author’s now-defunct blog, Daily Routines, Daily Rituals assembles the regimens of 161 assorted creative geniuses into a lean, engaging volume. Its brief entries humanize legends like Hemingway and Picasso, and shed light on the working lives of less popular contemporary geniuses, like painter Gerhard Richter, choreographer Twyla Tharp and illustrator Maira Kalman.

The book makes one thing abundantly clear: There’s no such thing as the way to create good work, but all greats have their way. And some of those ways are spectacularly weird.

John Wilwol, “’Daily Rituals’ Of The Brilliantly Creative.” NPR, April 30, 2013.

 

First Excerpt

Nearly every weekday morning for a year and a half, I got up at 5:30, brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write about how some of the greatest minds of the past four hundred years approached this exact same task — that is, how they made the time each day to do their best work, how they organized their schedules in order to be creative and productive. By writing about the admittedly mundane details of my subjects’ daily lives — when they slept and ate and worked and worried — I hoped to provide a novel angle on their personalities and careers, to sketch entertaining, small- bore portraits of the artist as a creature of habit. “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once wrote. I say, tell me what time you eat, and whether you take a nap afterward.

In that sense, this is a superficial book. It’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning. But it’s also, inevitably, personal. (John Cheever thought that you couldn’t even type a business letter without revealing something of your inner self — isn’t that the truth?) My underlying concerns in the book are issues that I struggle with in my own life: How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day? And when there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give things up (sleep, income, a clean house), or can you learn to condense activities, to do more in less time, to “work smarter, not harder,” as my dad is always telling me? More broadly, are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?

I don’t pretend to answer these questions in the following pages — probably some of them can’t be answered, or can be resolved only individually, in shaky personal compromises — but I have tried to provide examples of how a variety of brilliant and successful people have confronted many of the same challenges. I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self- discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well- worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

This was one of William James’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Ironically, James himself was a chronic procrastinator and could never stick to a regular schedule (see page 80).

As it happens, it was an inspired bout of procrastination that led to the creation of this book. One Sunday afternoon in July 2007, I was sitting alone in the dusty offices of the small architecture magazine that I worked for, trying to write a story due the next day. But instead of buckling down and getting it over with, I was reading The New York Times online, compulsively tidying my cubicle, making Nespresso shots in the kitchenette, and generally wasting the day. It was a familiar predicament. I’m a classic “morning person,” capable of considerable focus in the early hours but pretty much useless after lunch. That afternoon, to make myself feel better about this often inconvenient predilection (who wants to get up at 5:30 every day?), I started searching the Internet for information about other writers’ working schedules. These were easy to find, and highly entertaining. It occurred to me that someone should collect these anecdotes in one place — hence the Daily Routines blog I launched that very afternoon (my magazine story got written in a last- minute panic the next morning) and, now, this book.

 

Second Excerpt

Henry James (1843-1916)

Unlike his restless, compulsive older brother, Henry James always maintained regular working habits. He wrote every day, beginning in the morning and usually ending at about lunchtime. In his later years, severe wrist pain forced him to abandon his pen for dictation to a secretary, who would arrive each day at 9:30 A.M. After dictating all morning, James would read in the afternoon, have tea, go for a walk, eat dinner, and spend the evening making noes for the next day’s work. (For a while he asked one of his secretaries to return in the evenings for further dictation; to keep her alert, he would lay bars of chocolate beside her typewriter as she worked.) Like Anthony Trollope, James started a new book the instant the old one was finished. Asked once when he found the time to form the design of a new book, James rolled his eyes, patted the questioner on the knee, and said, “It’s all about, it’s about—it’s in the air—it, so to speak, follows me and dogs me.”