Daily Rituals: How Artists Work | Book Review

IMG_1554Coffee. I need coffee. Coffee means work is about to begin. I imagine my brain is some kind of super computer from a sci-fi TV show; coffee boots all the lights and gizmos up. I also need daylight. I’m at my most productive in the morning, right when the rest of the world is either shrugging off sleep or trudging to work, but early afternoon works, too. But I have to be careful, because if I let myself waste time right off, it’s extremely difficult for me to get back on track. Nighttime only works when I’m under deadline and desperation is setting it. And I like quiet best, so I can really, truly focus, but the ambient nothingness of coffee shops or libraries works, too. I usually write alone, but I do have my writing person I work really well with, the one who helps me stay on track and offers up good synonyms as needed. My other thing is that I dislike writing in short bursts; I want a good 3-4 hours of dedicated time before I call it quits. Again, I like focus; I like when the rest of the world melts away and it’s just me and the words.

That is how this particular writer works.

And as it turns out, I’m no special snowflake in this. In fact, if Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work proves anything, it’s that my creative process is average. Painfully so. Other fans of the “writing for three or four hours in the morning” schedule include Patricia Highsmith, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Igor Stravinsky, and Maya Angelou. Auden contemptuously said of night owls, “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does,” which made me feel very smug indeed. (I also like imagining the hilarious overstatement of ‘Hitlers of the world’ being delivered with complete sincerity. I mean, come on.)

Okay, okay, so what is this book? Daily Rituals is a collection of entries about the work processes of various writers, painters, composers, philosophers, scientists and et cetera. It’s one of those trivia-esque books where the reader isn’t forced to make their way through in any particular order, but instead, are welcomed to skip around as they like. (I immediately jumped to Stephen King’s entry like the unwashed plebeian that I am. In case you were wondering, King writes every day of the year, beginning in the morning around 8 and not stopping until he reaches his quota of 2000 words.)

That’s actually a decent look at what most of the book is – daily work schedules. (Though for a few artists, like Marilynn Robinson, it’s more a matter of not having a daily schedule. “I really am incapable of discipline.”) And I get that this may not sound like the most scintillating of subjects, but there’s definitely some weird&whacky techniques artists have used to stay productive. Benjamin Franklin, for example, would sometimes write during his daily “cold air baths,” which involved sitting naked in a drafty room for an hour or so every morning. Glenn Gould was known to immerse his hands in scalding hot water for 20 minutes, pop a Valium or two, and spend his late evenings and really, really early mornings talking on the phone to whomever would listen. Ayn Rand took a whole lot of Benzedrine to combat chronic fatigue and would refuse to leave her desk until the day’s work was done, once working 30 hours straight.

It’s true that these stranger factoids were the ones I read out loud to my roommate, but the plodding, boring schedules were the ones I found most aspiring. I liked hearing how Maya Angelou wrote in hotel rooms, because, “It’s lonely and it’s marvelous.” I liked how Jane Austen fit writing into the rhythm and routines of her family’s home, and how she dealt with constant interruptions. And I liked the straightforwardness of Saul Bellow’s routine: “I simply get up in the morning and go to work, and I read at night. Like Abe Lincoln.”

Artists of all stripes, and especially beginning ones, can get really caught up in the process. We want to think that there’s a secret code to be cracked and once we figure it out we’ll be speedily on our way to being extremely productive. But if Daily Rituals is saying anything it’s that there is no secret code. But we knew that.

Bernard Malamud put it this way: “How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help.” To me, discipline here is just showing up. It’s sitting down at your desk (or standing up if you’re a fancy person) and putting in the time. It’s returning to your work time after time and not giving up. I’ll admit, that’s a lesson I’m forced to learn over and over again.

I asked some of my friends who do creative work what their artistic rituals and productive processes look like and these were their answers:

“I like to have background noise when I write. I prefer a mix or a radio station suited to the theme of the story, but anything is preferable to silence. I do enjoy writing in coffee shops, but I’m like one of those people who can sleep anywhere: There are places I like to write, but I’ll do it pretty much wherever I end up. If I can have mental space to concentrate, I can sit down and hammer it out.” – Jennifer (blog: Hey Milwaukee)

“I’m never productive when I’m relaxed. It sounds really unpleasant, but I’ve noticed that I do my best creative work when I’m putting off something else important. If it’s just me and an empty Saturday, I won’t get anything done. But if I have five things to do and time to do two of them, I’m golden. On top of this, I usually work in silence. I’m not sure if I /need/ the quiet, or if I just don’t think to turn music on, but the gentle tension of intense focus in a sunny, echoey room is great for my creative output.” – Elise (tumblr: Sparrow Soup)

“I think I’m one of those rare few who loves to get up early and work. I was far more productive when I had a later-starting job and could just plow into creative things for the first hour of my day. Music helps me get in the flow (no lyrics – I’m easily distracted), but it’s not necessary if I’m working in bits and pieces rather than for long chunks of time. I prefer to settle in for an hour (or longer!) but sometimes that just doesn’t work out, and it pays to be flexible. I like to work in coffee shops (but only if I have headphones), because it’s fun, interesting and a good way to be “social” while still being productive. Nothing really beats sitting down in my own space and just plugging in. I think being surrounded by my own stuff and at my own setup helps me focus. Did I mention I’m easily distracted?” – Claire (tumblr: Orockthro)

“I need a sense of movement while I work. The best snippets come to me while I’m driving home, walking to the store, or taking a hike along a nature trail. Even waking up early, watching the morning open up with a cup of coffee will set me right for the rest of the day, give me a sense of moving forward. Sometimes I’ll measure my steps in words. Sometimes, at work, I’ll recite phrases in my mind dozens of times before I put it to paper. Perhaps these could all be construed as avoidance techniques, but I always seem to meander back to the art eventually.” – Erica (tumblr: O, Architexture!)

Here’s to meandering back to the art.

Book stats:
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
Mason Currey
2013. Hardcover: 278 pages.

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