BOOK REVIEW: ‘Daily Rituals’

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DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK
By Mason Currey
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 304 pages

How do writers and other artists create their work? Our library of mental images includes visions of poets communing with nature, novelists burning the midnight oil whilst scribbling away in cold and lonely attics, composers tinkling phrases on the piano then dashing the notes down as their minds race with inspiration. Scenes of Mozart working furiously late at night in the movie “Amadeus” and portraits of a tousle-headed Beethoven contribute to these images. But do they correspond to reality?

In “Daily Rituals,” Mason Currey examines the habits and rituals of 160 creative artists and thinkers. It turns out that by his own account, Mozart’s days were so filled with lessons, concerts and visits that the only time he could compose was late at night, often until one in the morning. Beethoven, on the other hand, started after making his morning coffee and continued until his afternoon walk.

Indeed, most creative artists, whatever their medium, emerge from this anthology as creatures of habits they developed to make their work possible, A few are night owls. Thomas Wolfe began writing around midnight; Balzac rose at 1 a.m. and wrote for seven hours, took a nap, then worked for another six or seven hours. Ann Beattie’s favorite hours for writing are from midnight to 3 a.m., while Marilynne Robinson says she has “benevolent insomnia”: “I wake up, and my mind is preternaturally clear.”

Ms. Robinson is unusual in not writing when she doesn’t feel like it, noting that she “tried the work ethic thing a couple of times,” without success. Usually, however, artists desperately need to work so they construct environments that entice them to create.

For most, that means starting early, and settling into their working space for several hours. Anthony Trollope rose at 5:30 a.m. and wrote for three hours before breakfast, noting, “It was my practice to allow myself no mercy,” and credited his regime with permitting him to “reliably produce 250 words every quarter of an hour.” His contemporary Charles Dickens also started early and demanded great productivity of himself. Among later writers, William Faulkner, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov got to their desks early and as regularly as commuters getting to their offices. William Styron credited his regular middle-class life with a wife and four children as a “stabilizing” influence, explaining that the bohemian life would not have suited him.

Indeed, many writers have found the need to earn a living at a mundane job framed, and even helped, their work. Wallace Stevens, an insurance company executive, found his work stimulating. Philip Larkin — a librarian — wrote for two hours in the evening and said that during the following day’s work, he subconsciously resolved any blocks.

Others battle their blocks more dramatically. Woody Allen takes showers, even letting himself get cold so he can relish standing under a stream of hot water. Both Igor Stravinsky and Saul Bellow did headstands when they reached impasses in their work. Gertrude Stein liked Alice B. Toklas to drive her to the countryside, where she could sit and observe cows. Somerset Maugham avoided the problem by facing a blank wall as he wrote because the views of the French Riviera, where he lived, were a distraction. Conversely, Dickens’ desk always faced a window, and it always had flowers, and his family always had to keep quiet while he wrote.

Quiet, or at least working space away from the claims of others, is essential to most creative people. But there are exceptions. Jane Austen, who never lived alone, wrote in the drawing room, hiding her work under a blotter when visitors came. Saul Bellow answered the phone, dealt with students and chatted to friends while writing. Leopold Mozart marveled that his son could work amid constant “rush and bustle.”

Anyone hoping to elicit the secret of creativity from this book will find endless variations on general rules. Most creative artists are early birds rather than night owls. Most prefer not to have a day job. Most rely on stimulants such as coffee — Balzac drank up to 50 cups a day — cigarettes, uppers, downers and most common of all, alcohol. Many work obsessively, though asked if he was a 9-to-5 man, Graham Greene replied, “Good heavens! I would describe myself as a 9-till-a-quarter-past-10 man.” Some authors and artists are odd; most are not — except that their creations illuminate our lives.

“Daily Rituals” documents their working lives from memoirs and interviews, which the author ably pieces together. Initially, he published them as a blog, and it shows. Individually, most are fascinating, but read consecutively, they quickly pall like too many candies gobbled one after another. This is a book for dipping into — perhaps at bedtime or while vacationing — which is not to say that it doesn’t offer food for thought — and quite a lot of fun.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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