I finished reading Mason Currey‘s Daily Rituals recently. It’s one of those books that you have to read with a highlighter in one hand and a hot cup of tea or coffee in the other. A notebook might be nice, too, but it’s not required.
I can’t remember how I first heard about this book (probably from Arts & Letters Daily, one of two websites I must read every single day if I’m going to feel complete before I tuck in at night — the other one being NPR.org), but I’m sure that when it happened, I must have immediately opened a browser tab and searched for it on Amazon. I went to several Barnes & Noble shops over the next few weeks, but not one of them had a copy. I guess I could have called each one rather than wasting so much time and gas traipsing from one to the other, but I like going to bookstores. Bookstores are my Tiffany’s — nothing bad could ever happen to you in there. You get rid of the mean reds, blues, violets, and blacks.
Except, of course, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, which was the case in my search for Currey’s book.
I wanted to give my local bookstore a chance to make me happy, especially after the disappearance of not one, but all of the brick-and-mortar bookstores in my town last year, but I finally gave in and ordered it from Amazon.com. Once I had it in my hands, I devoured it in two sittings.
It’s actually a pretty short, quick read. Currey collected interviews, essays, and vignettes about various creatives — over 200 of them — from Stephen King to Henri Matisse, Somerset Maugham to Twyla Tharp. You can dive in and read a one- or two-page written snapshot of how each creative professional worked, their routines and habits, even their tools. It’s not meant to be a little encyclopedia of artists, and Currey doesn’t really even bother explaining who these notable figures are. If you pay any attention at all to the worlds of arts and literature, you will likely at least have a passing familiarity with just about everyone featured in this book (Louise Bourgeois, Friedrich Schiller, Knut Hamsun, and Maira Kalman, are just a handful of folks mentioned whom I had to look up on Wikipedia), but really, it’s not really necessary.
Currey goes into intimate detail with many of his subjects, from Picasso’s habit of sleeping late and rising late as well, getting to his studio by 2pm to begin his work of the day; to Alexander Graham Bell’s own regimen of working around the clock, which he eventually had to modify to take his wife’s pregnancy into consideration. If you’re looking for techniques on how to be creative, or tips on how to call forth the muse when you’re stuck on a paragraph or a blank canvas, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
What I got instead, however, was a deep appreciation for the sacrifices artists must make in order to engage in the hard, unrelenting work of creating something: a book, a painting, a piece of music, or a piece of software. Austin-based writer, artist, and blogger Austin Kleon frequently laments the creative’s practice of sharing only finished work with the world and hiding all the messy, gut-wrenching process that made that work possible. Currey’s answer to that was this book, a wide-open door into what artists throughout history have had to do in order to make time and room for the act of creation in their lives. Whether it meant working feverishly around the margins of a day job, or a family’s demands, or crafting a rigid schedule of daily hours, these folks got it done.
I have it on my desk now as a reference, right next to a lot of history books and notebooks (and receipts, pens, random Post-Its, and folders), and dip into it frequently. I’m still working on a schedule that works for me and the many things I juggle with on a daily basis (home, work, dogs, volunteering, extended family needs, reading, and writing), and this book reminds me that others with far more demands on their time were able to carve out the space in their lives to make art.