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Mar 27 2015

Daily Rituals: The Nuts and Bolts of Creation

by Rebekah B

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Hello readers,

Have you ever wondered how famous writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, composers, scientists, filmmakers, poets, philosophers, or inventors actually go about the business of creating new art, ideas, books, concepts? As it turns out, there are as many ways to combat anxiety and to be productive as there are personalities. The main thing is to get the job done, and the majority of creative people rely on sometimes rigid routines in order to produce the desired quantity of work. Many creative people struggle with the act of creation, and I am well familiar with the art of procrastination and the anxiety that can surround the creative act. Each creative individual resolves his or her existential angst in a highly personal manner, and this book provides much insight (in minute detail) into this aspect of the creative process.

A truly fascinating book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, written by Mason Currey and published in 2013, is a compilation of descriptions of the work and life habits of 161 renowned individuals ranging from Jane Austen to Beethoven. A profile of more than three or four pages, and often much less, is devoted to each individual, and it would seem that channeling the compulsion to create requires for many not only devotion to art but also a dedication to rote habits. Details of eating habits, social activities, various idiosyncrasies, when, how, and where the artist worked, as well as routines involving physical exercise, are all explained in precise detail, many of which are amusing. For example, Thomas Wolfe, who measured 6’6″, would work standing up using the top of a refrigerator as his desk!

Each of these mini-biographies brings insight into the work and personalities of the likes of Franz Kafka, who struggled to find time to write between long shifts, with frequent overtime hours spent working in an insurance agency, and little privacy, as he shared a cramped apartment with numerous family members. His nightly writing rituals were preceded by ten minutes of exercise executed naked in front of an open window, followed by an hour-long, semi-solitary walk with a friend, such as Max Brodt, and dinner with his family…after all of which he would sit down to write at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., working until well after midnight. The writing session would be followed by more physical exercise, followed by attempts to sleep, which were mostly thwarted by an overactive mind.

Some of the personalities in the book are quite eccentric, such as inventor Nikola Tesla, who worked regularly and compulsively from 10:30 each morning to 5:00 the following morning, and who had a variety of scripted rituals–such as taking his evening meals at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where he dined in solitaire. Prior to each meal, Tesla would require that he be supplied with 18 freshly-pressed linen napkins with which he would clean the already spotless tableware. When his meal would arrive, he would also compulsively, mentally calculate the cubic contents of each dish, a habit developed in childhood that he pursued until the end of his life.

A common trait to many of these biographies of prolific creators seems to be the practice of regular physical exercise as well as the embracing of a regular work schedule, for some diurnal and others nocturnal. While some of the creative people profiled in this book needed to work a salaried job in order to pay the bills, others had financial means allowing them to create their own schedules. Some, such as Thomas Mann or Anthony Trollope, could work as little as three hours a day on their creative work, while others, including Philip Roth, would regularly produce eight or more hours per day of work. Roth eventually divorced and realized that the single life was more suited to his personality and literary habits, as he no longer felt constrained to keep a spouse or partner company in the evenings.

The image of the artist as a hedonist and substance abuser (of which there are many in this book–Jean-Paul Sartre or Toulouse Lautrec come to mind) who awaits the visit of a muse in order to find the inspiration to work is, however, a rarity among these productive individuals. Patricia Highsmith was one of the few who absolutely required that writing be pleasurable and would work only when inspiration struck. Apparently, habit and routine are by consensus a better way to channel the muse than simply waiting for her to knock at the studio door.

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