Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — Mason Currey

Daily Rituals is charming, and almost every entry feels like the right length; if anything, I would have liked each to be slightly longer, perhaps because the quirks and weirdnesses of the famous artists described provide justification for the quirks and weirdnesses of non-famous artists.

daily_ritualsThe answer to the title is “divergently,” but with some patterns. Many like walks, routines, and stimulants. Exasperation with TV is common, and even the non-writer artists tend to read. Many artists also exasperated lovers and spouses through their compulsions and tics. Given the low remunerative value of art and the low probability of success through recognition, being an artist is a compulsion for many of those described within—Currey even uses the word in his description of Patricia Highsmith: “Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable.” Daily Rituals may be best read by anyone romantically entangled with or biologically related to artists, as well as any artists who want to justify their own weird predilections. I love it when people explain myself to me.

Currey wants to answer questions like, “are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?” But they don’t have answers, because artists work in all sorts of places in all sorts of ways. It’s like asking about alcoholics: people who really want to drink will drink in elegant bars like Pouring Ribbons or chug Natty Lites in a dark Chinatown alley. Most might prefer the former to the latter but will settle for the latter when necessary. Currey also writes:

“The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices.

Most of the artists in here establish routines whenever they can, much like the writers in Writers on Writing. The number of people who need routine, who need defaults, speaks to its utility, among artists or anyone trying to accomplish a task with an artist’s dedication (like entrepreneurs, who might be the artists of the modern age). Distraction might also be handier than ever, giving rise to essays like “Disconnection Distraction:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

If you get into that habit, you’ll be well-informed on unimportant news and less likely to make the thing that becomes the news. One question you might ask is: “Are you reading or making the news?” Aim for the latter. The former isn’t wrong, exactly, and it’s worth reading a lot, but as a secondary, not a primary, activity. Reading the news on the Internet or checking e-mail are especially dangerous in this regard because they can feel like working though they’re not.

I mentioned the compulsive aspect of art. That reappears again and again. Currey writes of Simone de Beauvoir that “when she took her annual two- or three-month vacations, she found herself growing bored and uncomfortable after a few weeks away from her work.” Long, pointless idleness is is boring, like binging on TV, but that’s because most artists seem to like what they do, or like it like an addict likes. Voltaire’s secretary “estimated that, all told, they worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. for Voltaire, it was a perfect arrangement. ‘I love the cell,’ he wrote.”

Such stories may be why, in Currey’s words, “Looking at the achievements of past greats is alternately inspiring and utterly discouraging.” The line made me laugh because of the juxtaposition of opposites, but also because he’s expressing a fundamental truth: if you look at the work as work, it can be “discouraging,” since so many artists do so much of it, but if you look at it as an extended form of play, it should be “encouraging.” It should also be “encouraging” because you can do it too—if you want to. Which means the limiting factor between you and art is you—which oscillates back to discouragement.

Still, Daily Rituals is at its heart a manual for dealing with and/or understanding someone with an artistic disposition, which might be described as imagination and execution. A surprisingly large number of people seem to imagine that being an artist is all about the “imagination” part and not much at all about the execution part; wandering around coffeeshops, bars, and parties, doffing a funny hat, and making enigmatic pronouncements is not the majority of what being an artist, broadly defined, is about. It’s about results, and Daily Rituals is about getting them and enabling the conditions necessary to get them. “Necessary” is the key word: a condition may be necessary but not sufficient, and it’s possible to treat a daily ritual as an empty ritual with no real output.

There are also a fairly wide range of ways to succeed. Some artists do spend a lot of time drunk or at parties. At least one prefers to work hungover, which would make me crazy. The artists appear approximately split between those who like noise and those who prefer quiet. I’m among the latter and can barely believe that anyone really gets anything done in noisy coffeeshops, tapping on laptops, but enough successful writers have testified to the contrary that I’m forced to believe them. The fundamental idea remains, however, that artists are artists because of their output. That’s it.

Some passages in Daily Rituals are funny; you wouldn’t expect this book to be a comedy and yet I laughed frequently. Two examples:

[John Cheever] had what appears to have been an unusually robust sex drive (the actress Hope Lange, who had a brief affair with Cheever, said that he was ‘the horniest man [she] ever met’) combined with frequent bouts of impotence, probably brought on by his alcoholism but no doubt made worse by his sexual guilt and a frequently rocky marriage. All of this was distracting from his work, especially since Cheever placed a high value on the salutary effects of erotic release. He thought that his constitution required at least ‘two or three orgasms a week’ and he believed that sexual stimulation improved his concentration and even his eyesight: ‘With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.’


The German poet, historian, philosopher, and playwright [Friedrich Schiller] kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom; he said that he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.

%d bloggers like this: