Essential Reading: Mason Currey on the Importance of “Daily Rituals”

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Recently, I decided to revisit one of the books that made me want to write about creativity, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. I wasn’t disappointed.

Daily Rituals delves into the process and lifestyles of many important figures, not just in visual art but in literature, music, choreography, film and even philosophy. The book takes each of these artists and thinkers and then goes into great and fascinating detail about their daily routines: how they structured their day, when and how they ate, worked, and played.  As the author puts it, “All of them found the time to get their work done. But there is an infinite variation on how they structured their lives to do so.” The book proves that there are many ways to success in creative disciplines and is captivating as well as inspiring.

When to Work and How Much:

While it is the variety of the experiences recounted in Daily Rituals that really engages the reader, there are some practices that these creators have in common. The majority of them started work in the morning, mostly between the hours of eight and ten and then worked until lunch. W.H. Auden went so far to state that “Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” The novelist Günter Grass also believes only writing during the day was the only way to go because as he says “it comes too easily.”

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

This is not true of everyone of course. The short story writer Ann Beattie can only write between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 AM. The playwright Tom Stoppard says, “I never work in the mornings unless I’m in real trouble.”

There is of course another issue that many creative people have to deal with. How do you do your thing if you also have a 9-5 job? Toni Morrison, for instance, worked at first in the evening after each day at her job in publishing, but had switched to early mornings by the 1990’s saying she lacked intelligence and wit after dark.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The poet Wallace Stevens balanced a successful career as an insurance lawyer with his poetry, which he would compose while walking to work. Currey quotes him as saying that a job, “introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and have nothing to worry about money.”

One aspect of routine that varies drastically among all the figures in this book is how much to work. Some kept long hours, like Voltaire who worked eighteen to twenty hours a day or Karl Marx who labored from when the British Library opened in the morning at 9:00 until well into the night.  Most worked between two and five hours a day, the limit it seems for the intensity it takes to concentrate on creative projects. Gertrude Stein put in as little as ½ hour, explaining that even that little work every day would add up to a lot after a year.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The Importance of Routine:

One writer who really understood the value of routine was the German author Thomas Mann. As Currey reports it, he was up and ready to go by 9:00 AM. Then he would steal himself away in his study, completely shutting himself off from everyone including his family. He would limit himself to composing his fiction until noon which would force him to take his work slowly and carefully. Then he could attend to other matters in the afternoon. This kind of regimented schedule worked well for him and allowed him to progress at a relatively consistent rate.

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Thomas Mann

Others were able to get work done despite their relaxed attitudes. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, reportedly lay in bed and chatted with his mother well into the morning. His writing took him a long time as well. During the writing of Bovary, Flaubert only wrote two pages week, taking nearly five years to complete the novel.

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Urge to Create:

Patricia Highsmith, author of such classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley (one of my favorite film adaptations) and Strangers on a Train, saw writing as a compulsion. Not working led to unhappiness.“’There is no real life except for working, that is to say in the imagination,’ she wrote in her journal. Fortunately she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.”

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith wasn’t the only person to need to work to be happy. As Freud put it, “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable.” But he also understood the value of relaxation. He would take three month vacations with his family during the summer.

Environment and Distraction:

Freud’s onetime friend and later bitter rival in the psychoanalytic community, Carl Jung, also is described by Currey as being a ‘workaholic.’ At the same time Jung demanded something else that is important for the creative disposition: the right kind of environment. He built a home for himself called Bollingen Tower, which contained only the essentials needed to do his work: no electricity, phone, or even running water. This allowed Jung a simple existence, one that he could fill with his psychoanalytic writing, but also with physical labor which he loved.

Carl Jung in his study room _cropped

Carl Jung

Not everyone can work in a conventional environment. As Anne Rice mentions in the book, for some limiting distractions is essential if you want to get anything done. For others, like illustrator and author Maira Kalman, just the ‘right amount’ of distraction, cleaning, ironing, taking a walk.

Anne_Rice

Anne Rice

It is interesting to note just how many creative people discussed in this book took long walks and napped during the day. Apparently these activities, considered time-wasting and frivolous by many over-worked Americans, are quite beneficial to the creative mind.

The Struggle for Discipline:

The urge to create, that drive to express is something that comes up again and again in Currey’s book. Not everybody works that way however. Many struggle to find the work ethic to keep a routine going. Sometimes attempts at a rigid and defined discipline could falter even for the most productive of figures. Take the case of Benjamin Franklin who worked out a very calculated and considered routine for himself.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

“The plan worked, up to a point. After following the course several times in a row, he found it necessary to go through the course just one in a year, and then one every few years. But the virtue of order—‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”—appears to have eluded his grasp.”

What’s great about this passage is that it acknowledges a struggle that many of us have with creative projects: that of staying focused, staying on track, seeing our work through. Many of us (myself included) are great at coming up with a plan but when it comes to accomplishing our goals we have trouble. We falter, sometimes we even fail.

Another great example of someone who constantly struggled with a consistent work ethic was William James. The philosopher who was obsessed with the ideas of routines and believed, whole-heartedly, that one needed to regiment time, focus, and be decisive, was an epic procrastinator.

As Currey relates, “James kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive and lived a disorderly, unsettled life.” He was obsessed with routines but was not able to enact the sorts of routines he recommended to others.

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William James

Another famous example of a terminal procrastinator was the creator of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. He had a great deal of difficulty rising in the morning and mostly worked at night after returning from taverns.

Bad Habits:

Rituals can be detrimental as well as beneficial in life as in creation. A constant theme in the book is that of the ritual of drink. It is something that has been tied to both the act of creativity and the social life of creative types for centuries. Sometimes it is a positive force. Some writers, for instance, see it as a way to loosen up their minds, to get ideas flowing. But it can be taken too far.

The Post-Impressionist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec basically drank himself to death. His hard-hitting lifestyle which allowed him to depict the Paris cabarets and brothels which he loved, along with the late nights and constant alcohol consumption that came with them, would kill him at the age of only thirty-six.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Fiction writer John Cheever too had a drinking problem managing to hide it for much of his adult life, eventually spending more time drinking than writing. He also, during the early part of his career, had quite a famously unconventional way of working, getting dressed like he was going to the office and then riding the apartment elevator down to the basement, undressing, and beginning to write.

Jackson Pollock too was notorious for his self-destructive habits, including drinking, that would eventually kill him in a drunk driving accident. It is interesting then that his most productive period occurred when he moved with his wife to Long Island, far from the New York alcohol-soaked art world.

paul-jackson-pollock

Jackson Pollock

Why Creatives Have Routines:

There are many myths about creative people: that they are undisciplined, that what they do takes little skill or effort, that they are lazy. The most important success of Currey’s book is to prove that these are indeed untrue. Though many creative people have unconventional lifestyles, most need a strong work ethic to get anything done at all. Writing a book, painting, directing a film: these all take a great deal of work and so one needs to manage ones time wisely.

Most creatives eat, sleep, work, and play at regular times. Many work during the day. Some who live crazy bohemian lifestyles burn out quickly and get little done, and many of those who have difficulty with creative discipline struggle in order enact routines in their life and work. But even those things that may seem like procrastination can be helpful. Naps, walks, and drinking that may come across as luxuries to some are often beneficial in creative work.

In the end,  Daily Rituals is essential reading for anyone who is interested in creativity. It is an revealing and enlightening account of what it is to be a creative person and can act as a kind of blueprint for creatives to get some stability in order to do their best work.

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4 comments
  1. Reblogged this on M. Clement and commented:
    I’m sure that you have all come across the charts and articles that have come out recently about how the great minds of the past spent their days. One of my professors make a point of telling us all the time that Einstein had only seven suits so that he would have to think about it when he got dressed in the morning. This has become increasingly more relevant to make as I am fast approaching the day where I won’t have a due date set by a professor, and benchmarking assignments to make sure that I am finishing things on time. How I spend my time, and the time of day that is most conducive with my creativity and work habits is critical, so I suppose I should start to find those answers now. I found an article on Visual News which led me to this one. I can tell you now that I have already added this book to my reading list. The irony in this is figuring out the time to actually read this, but I know that the most important lesson here is making sure that you make the most of your time but remembering that everyone has their own process which should be respected. Find what works for you.

    Thanks for following!
    -M. Clement The Artist

    For a short version of this post I suggest the Visual News article. http://www.visualnews.com/2014/05/05/essential-reading-mason-currey-importance-daily-rituals/

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