Tag: Mason Currey

Daily Routines of Famous Creatives: Artists, Writers, Composers

daily rituals by mason currey

What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?

After reading Mason Currey’s fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.

But if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one, won’t work for another.

However, whether you’re looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.

Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.

Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.

Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.

For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.

Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”

Exercise.
“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.

Lie down.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

He isn’t the only one.

Marcel Proust, Currey writes …

wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You’re putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.

Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn’t,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”

Err, if you’re really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”

Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.

early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family

Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I’ve found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know, you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, i’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”

Avoid email.
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)

Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.

I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he believed that “idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don’t overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.

Philip Roth — One Skill That Every Writer Needs

Philip Roth

daily rituals by mason currey

In his book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey explores Philip Roth.

Roth is full of insight. His comments on writing, taken from Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker, stuck with me.

“Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare,” Roth said in 1987. “Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare. … There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs it the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business.

“All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.”

As for his routine, Roth says:

My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning–this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens–and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.

William James on Habit

William James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.

***

In his book, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey explores William James’s thoughts on Habit.

“Recollect,” (James) wrote, “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 an indefinite number.” The importance of forming such “habits of order” later became one of James’s great subjects as a psychologist.

William James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle famously said. “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

In 1892 William James (1842-1910) delivered a lecture to teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was eventually incorporated into his book Psychology: The Briefer Course.

James argued that the “great thing” in education is to “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding or regretting of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my hearers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.

In his 2006 biography of James, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson wrote:

James on habit, then, is not the smug advice of some martinet, but the too-late-learned, too-little-self-knowing, pathetically earnest, hard-won crumbs of practical advice offered by a man who really had no habits—or who lacked the habits he most needed, having only the habit of having no habits—and whose life was itself a ‘buzzing blooming confusion’ that was never really under control.

We know a few of James’s tendencies. In Daily Rituals Mason Currey writes of James:

He drank moderately and would have a cocktail before dinner. He stopped smoking and drinking coffee in his mid-thirties. … He procrastinated. As he told one of his classes, “I know a person who will poke at the fire, set chairs straight, pick dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation—simply because that only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests.”

Currey got me wondering more about James.

With a bit of research, I discovered that in 1887, James penned Habit, a short book exploring the philosophy and psychology of habit (archive.org).

James starts by hitting on what a habit is and how habits come to dominate our lives. 

Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results. … The great thing, then, in all education, is to make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and to guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

He brings this full circle in showing us how our unconscious directs us to familiar patterns.

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing.

The Acquisition of a new Habit

James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.

The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

Don’t Allow an Exception until the new habit is Rooted in your Life

The second Maxim is: Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right. As professor Bain says “The peculiarity of the moral habits, contradistinguishing them from the intellectual acquisitions, is the presence of two hostile powers, one to be gradually raised into the ascendant over the other. It is necessary, above all things, in such a situation, never to lose a battle. Every gain on the wrong side undoes the effect of many conquests on the right. The essential precaution, therefore, is so to regulate the two opposing powers that the one may have a series of uninterrupted successes, until repetition has fortified it to such a degree as to enable it to cope with the opposition, under any circumstances. This is the theoretically best career of mental progress.”The question of ‘tapering-off,’ in abandoning such habits as drink and opium-indulgence, comes in here, and is a question about which experts differ within certain limits, and in regard to what may be best for an individual case. In the main, however, all expert opinion would agree that abrupt acquisition of the new habit is the best way, if there be a real possibility of carrying it out. We must be careful not to give the will so stiff a task as to insure its defeat at the very outset; but, provided one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering, and then a free time, is the best thing to aim at, whether in giving up a habit like that of opium, or in simply changing one’s hours of rising or of work. It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.

Act on Every Resolution you Make

A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.

James reminds us that if we cannot act we will not change.

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.

Hemingway’s Routine

daily rituals by mason currey

In his book, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey dug into Hemmingway’s 1958 Paris Review interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

On how Hemingway composed his work, Currey writes:

He wrote standing up, facing a chest-high bookshelf with a typewriter on the top, and on top of that a wooden reading board. First drafts were composed in pencil on onionskin typewriter paper laid slantwise across the board; when the work was going well, Hemingway would remove the board and shift to the typewriter. He tracked his daily word output on a chart — “so as not to kid myself,” he said. When the writing wasn’t going well, he would often knock off the fiction and answer letters, which gave him a welcome break from “the awful responsibility of writing” — or, as he sometimes called it, “the responsibility of awful writing.”

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I know it sounds strange but I love learning about how people go about creating things. So you can imagine my delight when I came across Mason Currey’s new book Daily Rituals, which describes how 161 inspiring minds maneuver the “many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do.”

daily rituals by mason currey

Some wake up early. Some sleep in late. Some drink too much. Some won’t touch the stuff. Just as no two people are the same, no two routines are the same.

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. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self- discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well- worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William James’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Ironically, James himself was a chronic procrastinator and could never stick to a regular schedule.

The book is full of detail, anecdote, and advice.

Consider …

W.H. Auden on passion: “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the say, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

“(Francis Bacon’s) idea of dieting,” Mason writes, “was to take large quantities of garlic pills and shun egg yolks, desserts, and coffee—while continuing to guzzle a half-dozen bottles of wine and eat two or more large restaurant meals a day.”

Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

“(Patricia Highsmith) had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms,”

We’ll be taking a closer look at some of these inspiring minds in the days ahead.

From the Jacket:

Franz Kafka, frustrated with his living quarters and day job, wrote in a letter to Felice Bauer in 1912, “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.”

Kafka is one of 161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations”. . . Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day . . . Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.”

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself that each morning he write three thousand words (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for thirty-three years during the writing of more than two dozen books . . . Karl Marx . . . Woody Allen . . . Agatha Christie . . . George Balanchine, who did most of his work while ironing . . . Leo Tolstoy . . . Charles Dickens . . . Pablo Picasso . . . George Gershwin, who, said his brother Ira, worked for twelve hours a day from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers . . .

Here also are the daily rituals of Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, John Updike, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, and Igor Stravinsky (he was never able to compose unless he was sure no one could hear him and, when blocked, stood on his head to “clear the brain”).

Daily Rituals just might inspire you.