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Daily Rituals

From Beethoven to Kafka to Warhol, artists reveal the daily rituals that help them create.

By Anna Clark / May 13, 2013

Daily Rituals By Mason Currey Knopf Doubleday 304 pp.

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Ernest Hemingway rose by 6 o’clock in the morning, no matter what escapades had taken place the night before, and he wrote his first drafts in pencil on onionskin typewriter paper. He tracked his daily word count on a chart – so as not to fool himself, he said.

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Nikola Tesla, the inventor and scientist, arrived at his office at noon and lowered the blinds; he worked best in the dark.

Maya Angelou can’t concentrate on her writing at home, so she leaves each day by 7 in the morning to work in hotel or motel rooms – “a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin.”

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey, presents the working habits of 161 creative people, including novelists, composers, scientists, poets, psychologists, filmmakers, and philosophers. Collected here are patterns that are both idiosyncratic and predictable: Coffee, unsurprisingly, was an essential part of the day for everyone from Ludwig van Beethoven to Thomas Mann to Flannery O’Connor.

As Currey tells us in the introduction, the book is “about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing, rather than meaning.”

Therefore, he keeps it simple: “Daily Rituals” comprises short vignettes – some as small as a paragraph, others stretching to a page-and-a-half – that are headed only by the artist’s name and dates. Currey apparently built this book out of his popular Daily Routines blog, which he began writing in 2007.

Currey’s great service is to have brought together information on the daily routines of a vast range of people, collected from “biographies, magazine profiles, newspaper obits, and the like.... As much as possible, I’ve let my subjects speak for themselves, in quotes from letters, diaries, and interviews.... And when another writer has produced the perfect distillation of a subject’s routine, I have quoted it at length rather than try to recast it myself.”

The vignettes provide an easy way of moving in and out of the book – one can imagine an artist making the reading of one or two entries a part of his or her own daily ritual. Photographs of artists at work enliven the pages. The neutral, and sometimes slyly comic, tone brings forth just enough of Currey’s voice to keep the text lively without making it more about the observer than the observed.

What is odd, though, is the unexplained randomness of the book’s order. It opens with W.H. Auden (his intensive writing is punctuated by vodka martinis and amphetamines) and it ends with Bernard Malamud. At one point, it moves from Soren Kierkegaard to Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin to Anthony Trollope to Jane Austen, without art or chronology or even alphabet as a structure. This isn’t exactly a flaw; the surprising juxtapositions have their appeal. But the lack of structure can also feel like an overlooked opportunity to imbue the book with meaning and also to create a more cohesive experience for the reader.

Another surprising disparity: the number of women versus men. Of the 161 creators featured in “Daily Rituals,” a mere 26 are women. That’s about 16 percent. Some of this, of course, may be because female creators have had less opportunity to do their work throughout much of history. And even if that hadn’t been the case, few observers might have thought female artists important enough to bother to record their work habits for posterity. Even so, there are many 20th- and 21st-century women Currey could have included but did not.

That said, however, through sheer accumulation of stories, “Daily Rituals” presents a convincing case about the way that art is created. Undercutting the myth that geniuses are simply visited by the muse, Currey’s book reveals the workaday difficulties that each artist encountered and had –  in his or her own way – to meet. “All of them made the time to get their work done,” Currey writes. “But there is infinite variation in how they structured their lives to do so.” All of us with the instinct to create can take heart.

Anna Clark is a freelance writer in Detroit.

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