Daily Rituals: How Artists Work author Mason Currey puts forth a great look into the creative process by ritual from gathering hundreds of interviews, letters, diaries and photographs of famous people. Currey seeks to understand what leads each person to their creative process by letting us in on their daily rituals. These showed how easy or difficult it was for an artist, composer or writer to succeed.
Currey has assembled 161 creative geniuses into this lean volume that can be read cover to cover or opened to any page. The book includes a range of creative people from Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart to less popular contemporary geniuses like performance artist Marina Abramovic, illustrator N.C. Wyeth and choreographer Twyla Tharp.
There are many things to glean from the writings but one theme is clear… there is no right way to create great work but every artist has their way.
While each of the daily routines described are unique there are many similarities running through much of them. The majority of the routines began early in the morning and always with some form of breakfast. Prolific writer Anthony Trollope awoke every morning and was at his writing desk by 5:30am. He paid a servant extra to bring him coffee exactly at that time everyday. Trollope would then write until it was time for him to go to his job at the post office.
Composer George Gershwin started the morning with a standard breakfast and then immediately begin composing, sitting at the piano in his robe, pajamas and slippers. He sometimes worked until midnight without ever changing clothes. Issac Asimov grew up in his dad’s candystore which operated 6:00 am to midnight. Later in life he took this working attitude to his writing. Waking at 5:00 am and getting to work as quickly as possible Asimov would write as long as he could. He kept this routine seven days a week and even holidays.
Another big theme throughout was the use of drugs and or alcohol. The biggest drug of choice was caffeine/uppers. Prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos believed that “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Soren Kierkegaard preferred his coffee with sugar, lots of it: “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim,” his biographer observed. “Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.”
Ayn Rand struggled early in her career to produce until a doctor prescribed Benzedrine to boost her energy levels. It did the trick as she went on to write the epic, The Fountainhead. Her drug use continued for three decades. Author Patricia Highsmith needed cigarettes and a swig of vodka just to get out of bed and into the mood for working. Later in life she would mark the bottle of how much she was allowed to drink in the morning as to not hamper her work during the day.
While most in the book were happy to produce even a small daily amount of creative work there were a few that could put out epic amounts. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, wrote the last 8,000 words of Thank You, Jeeves in a single day. William Faulkner once wrote 10,000 words between 10:00 a.m. and midnight. But these are exceptions to the rule. After reading the book it was comforting to know that the majority of great artists had moments of struggle, block and sometimes hatred of the creative process.
Mason Currey did a great job of giving insight to what it’s like for creative geniuses to work on a day to day basis. Daily Rituals is filled with detail and anecdote. It’s great reading and for any creative person it’s a book that should stay within arms reach.