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Posted on May 9, 2013
By Gabriel Thompson
“Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”
Precisely one day before this book review was due, I walked from my Oakland apartment to my Oakland office, a 20-minute southbound stroll on Telegraph Avenue. The scenery isn’t particularly inspiring: The stretch includes multiple funeral homes, a dark freeway underpass that reeks of urine, and—more often than not—a new batch of glimmering glass along the curb, evidence of fresh auto theft. But the walk, especially when I’m up against a deadline, can help nudge my mind onto a productive path, and on the best of days I stride into an opening line and quickly get lost in the assignment.
Not always though. On this day, I brewed a small pot of coffee, cracked my knuckles, loosened my shoelaces, opened up a new Word document, and then spent 90 minutes sending emails, taking out the trash, and wandering down a trail of tweets and article links that ended, somehow, in a long essay about the board game Monopoly. By now it was nearly noon and I felt the first pangs of urgency. So I launched a software program I’d recently downloaded, Freedom, which prevents a computer from going online for a prescribed period, and wrote the words that you’re now reading. Two hours later I closed my laptop and stepped outside to eat a falafel sandwich, then returned to finish off the job, drinking two more cups of coffee in the process.
These are hardly riveting details, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling my ears perk up when I overhear writers of all sorts discuss their workaday habits. Any nugget of information, however small, can seem to be the star by which I ought to navigate the rocky shores of my self-discipline. If someone tells me that his or her daily writing schedule consists of three 36-minute sessions, with 14-minute breaks in between—well, let’s just say I’ll be carrying around a stopwatch for a few days. In fact, I discovered my new friend Freedom, which I paid $10 to download, after reading an interview with an author who said it had boosted her productivity.
Such slavish devotion to the study of writers’ habits is undoubtedly silly. “There’s no one way—there’s too much drivel about this subject,” novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud said when asked about his writing routine. “You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help.” In this reading, the fact that I purchased a program to prevent online activity—as opposed to, say, not going online—is either evidence of discipline (I paid for something that is forcing me to work) or a soon-to-dissolve layer of “sympathetic magic” that hints at a profound lack of self-control.
I came across Malamud’s words at the end of a compact, quirky and frequently delightful new book edited by Mason Currey, “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” which describes the routines of more than 150 creative people, including playwrights, composers, painters and writers. The entries are mostly short hits of two pages or less, cobbled together from a variety of sources—interviews, biographies, obituaries—and include a wide range of people, some of whom I’d never heard of before.
“In a sense, this is a superficial book,” Currey writes in the introduction. “It’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.” In another sense, of course, it’s as deep as one can go: To a large extent, our regimens are what define us. As Currey notes, “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.” Some writers may not need the scaffolding of a routine to raise them above the chaos of living or the pull of inertia; Somerset Maugham, who wrote “Of Human Bondage” along with 77 other books, considered himself addicted to writing. But for the rest of us, life without set procedures—or at least the constant search for them—can be hard to imagine.
Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of odd behavior on display. German writer Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer of rotting apples nearby, motivated by the smell of decay. Wolfe, who stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and wrote standing up, using the top of a fridge for a table, found inspiration in fondling his genitals, which generated a “good male feeling.” Beethoven would be at home in any of the oh-so-serious coffee shops: Each morning he counted out exactly 60 coffee beans per cup—the perfect amount, he’d decided—and then spent the afternoon dumping pitchers of water over his hands and pacing, taking notes as he sang. (The water from his marathon bathing sessions leaked through the floor, leading to conflicts with his landlord.)
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