A Painter’s Bookshelf: Daily Rituals
December 18, 2016
Recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser—never forgetting how one link dropped undoes indefinite number. —William James
I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine really. And then, occasionally, something sticks. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm. —Arthur Miller
Always struggling to create working discipline in my creative life, I snatched up Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals, hoping to glean a few actionable tidbits from this compilation of anecdotes on the working habits of 161 writers, musicians and artists, from Voltaire to Abramović. Culled from Curry’s blog of the name, the book is a fast and entertaining read. Though I wasn’t struck by proverbial lightening bolts while reading, after digesting the book I did formulate one hugely-important overriding maxim for myself. More about that below.
A disclaimer in the book’s introduction sets a modest stage:
“…this is a superficial book… it’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.”
I suspect the book has been so wildly popular, precisely because it looks behind the curtain of the creative process. Not exactly a “how to” book, Daily Rituals is nevertheless instructive. In the introduction Curry purports to address (if not answer) the big hairy questions we all ponder:
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?
When there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give some things up or can you learn to condense activities, to work “smarter”?
Are comfort and creativity incompatible? Or is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?
The book is not organized around these questions (in fact, an organizing principle was not obvious to me), and leaves the reader to his or her own conclusions. Helpful patterns do emerge, however:
Wake Up. Creatives rise around the clock. At one end, rose Proust typically did not get up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon; on the other end,
Balzac rose at 1am.
Work Routine. This category too yielded no regularity. As a visual artist, I was astonished (jealous?) to discover how few hours most of the writers purport to work day, usually just a few hours before noon. Many set word limits for themselves and then, working day completed, went on to the other parts of their lives. (To be fair, many writers held/hold down paying jobs—Trollope, Cornell, Eliot, Joyce.) Some, like Simon de Beauvoir did, work in two shifts, adding an after dinner session to the morning routine. Philip Roth reports all-day work. Conversely, Gertrude Stein habitually wrote only 30 minutes a day. Descartes believed idleness was essential to good mental work. Henry Miller had to switch routines midway through life, realizing that he was a morning person. Francis Bacon’s routine was chaos. One look at his studio, faithfully reproduced in The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, tells you all you need to know.
Bed. A big part of the routine, especially for writers… Proust wrote exclusively in bed, his head propped up by two pillows. Truman Capote always wrote “horizontally.” I particularly relish the image conjured up by James Joyce’s sister of the writer in bed”smothered in his own thoughts.”
Edith Sitwell, who was reputed to have slept in a coffin from time to time (one would have thought that would be Anne Rice’s territory…), also enjoyed her bed. “All women should have a day a week in bed,” she quipped. At the end of one particularly long day working in bed, she observed: “I am honestly so tired that all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open.”
Although Frida Kahlo is not included in this book, one is reminded of her lengthy and involuntary stays in bed. So driven to work, she rigged ingenious set ups , which allowed her to paint while nearly immobilized.
Food. For breakfast, coffee or tea, toast and, more often than not, cigarettes. It seems that hardly anyone in the book skipped breakfast or at least the first meal of the day. (Possibly the advice imparted by a recent graduation speaker—”Never start something new on an empty stomach”—is already common wisdom among creatives.) Lunch and dinner are also recorded, mostly as social events with family or friends.
Stimulants. Daily Rituals offers irrefutable confirmation that creatives consume copious amounts of alcohol, occasionally while working. (Or used to, at any rate. Maybe that has all changed in today’s health-conscious world.) Francis Bacon was legendary, living a life of “hedonistic excess, eating many rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.”
Patricia Highsmithalways downed a stiff drink before starting work, in order to calm her manic energy level. Toulouse-Lautrec was well-known for his nights of binge drinking. That routine probably cost him his life—he died at 36.
Smoking. Many many cigarettes of course, but also cigars (Georges Sand famously; Thomas Mann, continuously), and some pipes. Bathus had a most evocative description of the uses of smoking:
“I’ve always painted while smoking. I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking double my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas.”
Other habits & diversions: Creative people spend lots and lots of walking. (A body in motion is a powerful ideation tool.) And working at regular income jobs. On the subject of breaks, composer John Adams sensibly says: “The problem is that you do get run out of creative energy and sometimes you want to take a mental break.”
And indulge in your guilty pleasures! PG Wodehouse reportedly never missed an episode of “The Edge of Night” afternoon soap opera.
On the pain and joy of the craft. Writers compete for superlatives on the distress of working. Philip Roth: “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare.” Styron similarly complains: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” Ira Gershwin observed of his brother, George: “To me George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work. He never relaxed.”
On the other hand, joyful work be yours, if you happen to be a creative Gustave. The Austrian Mahler: “You know that all I desire and demand of life is to feel an urge to work!” The French Flaubert quipped: ” After all, work is still the best way of escaping from life!”
Among visual artists, Matisse was perhaps the most relentless worker, even telling “all sorts of tales” to get his models to work on Sundays. “I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them just because they have boyfriends.” Matisse had the great fortune to basically enjoy everything. “I am never bored,” he often admitted.
I’m not sure Daily Rituals provides overt answers to the big questions Curry poses at the onset. In the aggregate, its overwhelming message is that creative work, like all work, is often just relentless grind. One has to find the ways to muscle through. On a personal note, I try to live by Chuck Close’s well-known adage:
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
Amidst our creative toil, who among us has not at times felt Kafka’s lament:
Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.
If the 161 anecdotes in Daily Rituals offer any collective wisdom, it is that there is no one way to achieve regular production. We engage in whatever habits work best for one’s own creative process, as long as the habit is regular. In a 2005 NY Times article, Michael Kimmelman noted:
Out of routine comes inspiration. That’s the idea, anyway. To grasp what’s exceptional, you first have to know what’s routine.
My hugely important maxim? Find a process and trust it.
Twyla Tharpe—The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
More Artist Routines—How We Work
John Deakin: Photographs
Eric Fishl—Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
NY Foundation for the Arts—”Ten Habits of Successful Artists“
A Painter’s Bookshelf reviews