Tag: W.H. Auden

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.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

the pleasures of reading in an age of distraction; Alan JacobsA lot of people think that reading, especially critical reading, is on the decline. The thinking goes that we spend too much time distracted on devices. And when we turn the devices off long enough to read a book, we read the intellectual equivalent of junk food.

Author Alan Jacobs takes the opposite point of view in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He argues that not only is reading alive and well in America, but we suffer from confidence issues: we wonder whether we read well, with proper focus and attentiveness, and with genuine discernment.

Jacobs’ message is simple. “Read what gives you delight, and do so without shame, whether it be Stephen King or the King James Version of the Bible.”

Jacobs’ book is in contrast to the “more methodical and directive approach of Mortimer Adler’s classic on how to read intelligently.

So this is what I say to my petitioners: For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “cosmical and ethical hygiene.”

Great Books

On Great books, Jacobs writes:

Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.

He is not alone in that thinking. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote:

When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

The Pleasure of Books

What should you do if you’re reading a book that fails to delight you?

For if this particular book is not giving me pleasure now, it may give me pleasure later, if I allow it to do so. Maybe it’s just starting slowly but will pick up speed; maybe I haven’t fully grasped the idiom it’s working in but eventually will figure it out; maybe the problem is not with the book but with my own powers of concentration because I slept fitfully last night. …

Many maybes. But in any case, I have to decide whether to persevere, and for a long time my default position was to continue. Indeed, I was twenty years old before I failed to finish a book I had started: it was The Recognitions, a novel by William Gaddis, and I gave up, after an extended period of moral paralysis, at page 666. That day I grieved, feeling that I had been forced from some noble pedestal; but I work up the next morning with my soul singing. After all, though I would never get back the hours I had devoted to those 666 pages, the hours I would have spent ploughing through the remaining four hundred were mine to spend as I could. I had been granted time as a pure and sweet gift.

Reading Guides

On How to read a book and similar guides, Jacobs writes:

And one of the primary reasons I am so suspicious of How to Read a Book and similar guides is that they promise to help us offload accountability for our reading: they say, implicitly, that self-knowledge and discernment aren’t needful because experts can take care of that for us.

For more on the subject, I highly recommend reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in conjunction with How to Read a Book. Those of you interested in better understanding how technology affects reading—Jacobs is a fan of the Kindle—should add The Shallows, and Cognitive Surplus to this list. Make no mistake, these books won’t agree with one another, but they will expose you to different points of view.

W.H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae

We live in a multi-tasking world, but every so often we get lost in a task. We become so lost in what we are doing that time flies. We miss a meal, not because we are busy, but rather, because we are so lost in what we are doing that we fail to notice we are hungry.

“And only those who have experienced that complete absorption of the self in something else,” writes Alan Jacobs in ,”something beautiful, know also what it means to have misplaced that capacity; only we know the anxiety that arises from the fear we may never have that again,” writes Alan Jacobs in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Jacobs argues that these moments are why attention is wroth cultivating: “not just because it’s good for you or because it can help you ‘organize your world,’ but because such raptness is deeply satisfying.

In his series of poems, Horae Canonicae, W.H. Auden captures this desirable condition:

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.