Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mason Currey: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

dailyritualsMy copy of this book happens to be the American edition, but the UK edition actually has the more accurate title: Daily Rituals. How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work. And that’s pretty much all the description you need.

This is basically a large collection of anecdotes about creative people and how they managed – to use Kafka’s phrase – to ‘wriggle through’: that is, to combine the demands of life and work, or sometimes fail at the balancing act, usually at a cost to the former.

The majority of the artists are authors (both classic and contemporary), with some composers, painters and film directors thrown in. Different eras, genres, and personality types are covered, but interestingly, I could see that the most productive people in their chosen line of work tended to have these things in common:

(a) being a morning person;

(b) using some sort of stimulants in order to be a morning person (these may range from copious amounts of coffee to amphetamines);

( c) going for walks when they get stuck, or to avoid getting stuck;

(d) having a routine in the first place.

That’s about it. Beyond that, the fascinating thing about these people that every one of them had (or has) a routine that looked like themselves. Whether it was to devote yourself entirely to your work, like Marcel Proust or Immanuel Kant, or to devote yourself to the social life and then write at night whenever possible, like Samuel Johnson; whether it was to be almost inhumanly productive despite having a day job, like Anthony Trollope, or to despair over every note despite having all the freedom in the world to compose, like Frédéric Chopin. Some were workaholics like Simone de Beauvoir; some, like Gertrude Stein, would only work for half an hour each day – and sometimes needed to have certain cows in their field of vision in order to manage even that. (Don’t ask.) Some structured their life around their creative habits, and some had to work their creative habits around the demands of everyday life. Somehow they all ‘wriggled through’ – even Kafka, in his own way – and that is what makes this book such an inspiring read. Some of these people may have been tortured souls, but they still wriggled through, one way or another.

Some of the more recent people mentioned in this book resonate with a modern reader in specific ways, such as the composer John Adams whose good-humoured battle against online distractions I found especially comforting to read about. (Also his endless cups of green tea marked him out as a kindred spirit to me.)

Mind you, if your routine looks like you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it works for you: many of these artists also managed to make things far too difficult for themselves. Some readers may take comfort in the fact that even such famous and seemingly very productive people like James Boswell and William James were chronic procrastinators and chronically anxious about all the time they were wasting. Boswell was fond of making grandiose promises to himself, and then failing at them; he even envisioned a peculiar waking-up bed that would force one to get up at the appointed hour. One may be a morning person who does one’s best work in the early hours, but that doesn’t mean one is able to get up. . .

I think creative people would find a lot to enjoy in this book. It might give them new routines to try out, or to confirm them in their belief – and resolution – to stick to a routine that feels right. No routine can be constructed unless you know what kind of a person you are. Do you need a rigid schedule or solitude in order to do your best work? Then give yourself permission to do so. Anyone with a day job, family, friends, and other daily commitments can’t possibly lead such an obsessively work-centric life as some of the people introduced in this book, but you can take some of the time that belongs to you and structure it in a way that meets your needs. If you don’t give yourself permission to do this, nobody else will.

This is a book to dip into every now and then, not one to read through at one sitting. It probably comes as no surprise to anybody that these tidbits can get rather repetitive. The book is peppered with humorous touches – like Kierkegaard’s syrupy beverage that contained more sugar than coffee, and the occasional funny quotation, like W. H. Auden’s: ‘Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.’ (Auden was one of those non-Hitlers who had to resort to amphetamines in order to do their work in the early morning hours.) But that doesn’t change the fact that lives of coffee, writing, brisk walks and sometimes peculiar and/or obsessive-compulsive habits don’t exactly make for stories of high adventure. I’m reminded of something I once read; I can’t remember the exact quote and I can’t remember the source, but to paraphrase: Politicians are generally uninteresting people who lead interesting lives, whereas poets are interesting people who lead uninteresting lives. What else can be expected of people who spend so much time inside their own heads?

Heartily recommended, however; especially if you’re a creative sort yourself.

Picador, paperback, 2014. 288 pp. ISBN: 1447271475

3 comments on “Mason Currey: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

  1. Jackie
    January 22, 2015

    I was looking forward to this review and it did not disappoint. But I’m appalled at the whole morning person scenario—gasp! This book sounds like one to be read in small chunks to avoid the repetitive nature and I like the idea that they have modern artists as well as historical ones. I’ll definitely be looking for this one!

  2. Kate
    January 23, 2015

    morning person, check. Start-up liquids, er, no. Going for walks when stuck? Only when there’s an errand to be run. Online distractions, oh god don’t go there. What does it say about how famous creative types manage with deadlines? I’m good at those.

  3. Angela Young
    January 23, 2015

    So … I’m online distracting myself by reading your review which has given me another convenient distraction … I’ll order the book! But seriously thank you for this review: it’s comforting to know (before even dipping into the book) that those who scaled the heights struggled and that even those of us in the foothills need to know ourselves and find a routine that works. Now … to turn off my emails and Google … .

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