By Gabriel Thompson
“Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”
A book edited by Mason Currey
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.
To see long excerpts from “Daily Rituals” at Google Books, click here.
“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.)
Other routines are designed less to unlock creativity than to create a system that encourages silent sitting, refusing to give in to what Ayn Rand memorably called “the squirms.” (For Rand, a key fight against the squirms was ingesting huge amounts of amphetamines.) Here it can get intense as well. In writing “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen sealed “himself in his Harlem studio with the blinds drawn and the lights off, sitting before the computer keyboard wearing earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold.”
“Daily Rituals” is better nibbled than eaten quickly. Read in one sitting, some of the entries can grow repetitious—there is much talk of morning versus evening writing, of walks and meals and smoking pipes. But there are also satisfying details that stick to the ribs: Gertrude Stein enjoyed looking at “cows and rocks between writing intervals,” and Richard Wright penned the first draft of “Native Son” while perched atop a bench on a hill in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, his face buried in a yellow legal pad even during rainstorms.
Although plenty of the profiled artists admitted to struggles with procrastination, others maintained a superhuman output. George Sand, we are told, generated at least 20 pages a night. For roughly 15 years, William Faulkner often wrote at least 3,000 words a day. Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to publish a new book for each season, has said that her productivity isn’t so extraordinary, considering that she writes eight hours a day.
Having a day job helps some artists keep a sense of perspective. For much of her career, Toni Morrison worked as an editor at Random House, taught university classes and raised two sons alone. The luxury of a Franzenesque life devoted solely to the craft—if luxury’s the right word—wasn’t in the cards for Morrison. But the limits on her free time had a liberating effect. “When I sit down to write I never brood,” she said. “I have so many other things to do, with my children and teaching, that I can’t afford it. I brood, thinking of ideas, in the automobile when I’m driving to work or in the subway or when I’m mowing the lawn. By the time I get to the paper something’s there—I can produce.”
Of all the artists, I took the most comfort in the remarks of Martin Amis. “Everyone assumes I’m a systematic and nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person,” he told The Paris Review. In truth, he admitted, he typically writes only from 11 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon. “Two hours,” he said. “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.”
Amen. That’s my new goal.
Gabriel Thompson has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, The Nation and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.”