It's the new black.
Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), an intriguing study of the daily routines practiced by artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, poets, and others. His work has appeared in Slate, Print, and Metropolis. He lives in Brooklyn.
Gaudy: In your profile of Ingmar Bergman, you include the quote, “If I hadn’t been at work all the time, I would have been a lunatic.” The “cleansing” power of work and artistry that Bergman describes — and its corresponding sanity — appear to be a theme throughout your book. Could you talk more about that?
MC: You’re right that this idea comes up over and over in the book. Sigmund Freud said “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable,” and numerous other figures echo this sentiment. I don’t know if it’s because the work was truly “cleansing” for them — or, perhaps more likely, because these artists were simply obsessed with their work, and any time away from it made them moody and anxious.
I should note, however, that this doesn’t mean all of these artists found their work effortless or enjoyable. One of the themes I wanted to tease out in the book was this tension between the difficulty of doing good work and the frustration and boredom of not working. Edward Abbey probably put it best: “A writer must be hard to live with: when not working he is miserable, and when he is working he is obsessed.” The same could be said for any number of artists in the book.
Gaudy: Another theme is the fear of distraction. From Mahler to Mann, many artists appear to have been terrified of losing their creative focus, which induced several of the more severe routines. What are your thoughts on the challenge that current technology — smartphones, Twitter, free WiFi — poses to contemporary creators?
MC: It certainly seems that we live in a more distracting age. In the book, I describe how the novelist Somerset Maugham always placed his desk in front of a blank wall, because he found it impossible to write while looking at a view. I’m sure most contemporary writers wish that they just had to worry about a distracting view! I know that in my own life it’s a constant challenge to disengage from the Internet — and the contemporary writers, composers, and painters I interviewed for the book all expressed a similarly fraught relationship with technology. But I think what the book really shows is that if you want to do meaningful creative work, you have to carve out some time each day for the task — and nowadays that means carving out time when you’re unavailable for e-mail, phone calls, text messages, and so on. You have to be ruthless about protecting yourself from these and other distractions.
Gaudy: What surprised you most about what you found in writing Daily Rituals?
MC: I was surprised by the number of “successful” amphetamine users I ran across in my research. Before I started working on the book, I was well aware of writers like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson who used speed to fuel their writing binges. But, in the book, Graham Greene, W. H. Auden, Ayn Rand, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others used amphetamines in a much more methodical and even kind of boring way. The drug was just another way for them to stay focused and productive. There’s a great Auden quote about how, for him, amphetamines were merely one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen.”
Gaudy: How has the process of learning about others’ daily routines changed or shaped your own rituals?
MC: I’ve always been a morning person — I have a much easier time doing focused work, especially writing or editing tasks, in the early-a.m. hours. Before I started working on the book, I would only get up super early if I had some sort of deadline. But compiling the book made me realize that if I really work best in the early morning, I should take advantage of that time every day, not just during busy periods. So now I make a point of getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. pretty much every day, weekends included, and putting in some time on whatever my most important project is.
Our thanks to Mason for participating in the interview.
Note: Gaudy editor Gabrielle Linnell received a free review copy from Knopf and enjoys it very much, especially with a ritual cup of tea.