While at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara recently, I picked up a delightful little book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Knopf, 2014) by Mason Currey. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for anything about writers’ lives. I’ve thrilled to the pictures of their libraries, the Jill Krementz photos of their desks, and here in Currey’s book, the details of their writing practices. Although the author himself calls his work a “superficial book,” the creative process is so intriguing that one cannot separate the life from the creative act. How we live is how we create, as we are creating our art and life each day when we get up out of bed. It’s all art and it’s all good. So Currey’s work is well worth the trip through the pages.
What comes through immediately is how thorough the book is researched. Currey takes great pains to include voluminous notes and bibliography so the reader can delve more deeply if necessary, but what he has done so successfully here is pull together all the disparate fragments of writers and artists talking about how they work, the schedule they keep, the little games they play to create. The easiest place to find such information is the Paris Review interviews, but Currey also draws from other sources, like autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, journals, newspaper and magazine interviews, and the writers’ and artists’ work. That is the best part of the book: Currey draws in such a wide variety of creative people. He does not just examine the creative lives of writers, but includes painters, architects, musicians and philosophers.
The other startling thing about the creative types profiled in the book is the rampant drug use. The writers and artists on these pages utilize drugs, both legal and otherwise, to stimulate creativity, maintain creative focus, or to come down after the creative act. It’s all here: valium, amphetamines, opiates, even a mixture of uppers and aspirin called Corydrane, “fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists (and legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market).” Who used this? Jean-Paul Sartre, of course. Alcohol was popular, including absinthe, that green-tinted, anise-flavored drink preferred by early twentieth century writers and artists. Many of the people profiled here had tremendous trouble sleeping. Almost every artist was an insomniac, and therefore, required medication to get a few hours’ sleep. Many slept less than four hours a night, or in some cases, worked for 24 to 36 hours straight before sleeping for 15 or twenty. For all the different rituals and procedures the artists went through to get to the creative state, it is also interesting how much in common they all shared in the search for the creative spark.
We also learn about the artists’ day jobs. Commonly known occupations like T.S. Eliot’s bank gig are fleshed out here, but we also learn that George Orwell couldn’t get anything written until he started working at a book store. Only then could he carve out time to write. Anthony Trollope wrote 24 books during his 33 years at the Post Office, the very epitome of time management. Edmund Wilson was obsessed with having sex and recorded his encounters down to the most minute detail in his journals. Does that qualify as a day job? It’s interesting, nonetheless. Currey tells the story of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and how their relationship had a “creepy sexual component.” They had agreed early on to have an open relationship, but they had to tell each other everything about their encounters with other lovers.
The book is not great literature; it is gossipy and filled with tabloid fodder. But that also makes it a good read. In criticism, there are those who believe the work should be examined on its own without consideration of the author’s life or milieu. However, the atmosphere in which the work germinated, the place, time, date, and history of when pen struck paper, all give valuable clues to the author’s work. What was he or she reacting to in life? How did world events impinge on the creative process? These are good questions to ask, and therefore, Mason Currey’s book adds juicy details to the writer or artist or intellectual’s creative life. I also found comfort in my own rituals for creativity. For those of us who procrastinate, who suffer depressions and discouragement, who need fourteen cups of black coffee to pick up the old fountain pen, validation can be found between these covers. That reminds me: time for another hit of Café Verona.