Book Review: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Author Mason Currey Writes of the Virtues of Routine

Readers are likely to split sharply on the value of Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a collection of very brief descriptions of the routines of creative people — writers, mostly, but also artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists, inventors, and choreographers. Those who are looking for an in-depth discussion of the creative process will be deeply disappointed, with Currey himself admitting that “this is a superficial book.”

However, readers who simply want a glimpse into a large number of interesting lives will be delighted. Because each entry is so short — from less than a page to four or five pages at most — there’s never time to get bored. Daily Rituals began as a blog, and each entry is polished, playful, and anecdotal yet succinct. Like any good blogger, Currey knows that keeping it short is the best way to prevent a reader from clicking to another website.

Zooming from one creative type to the next, it is difficult not to notice two commonalities shared by the vast majority of Currey’s subjects. For one, most of the people profiled seem to worry very little about money. Their affluence allows them to spend their days locked away from other people, sometimes working frenetically in the throes of inspiration, other times just napping on the couch or sharpening their pencils. In many cases, this financial freedom is due to success related to earlier creative work, but often a trust fund of some sort lurks in the background, providing a welcome respite from the demands of the outside world.

Indeed, it would have been nice to have heard more about people who earn a living at day jobs yet also manage to squeeze in creative time. However, if most of the 161 entries in Daily Rituals are to be trusted, office work is hardly conducive to creativity. And the starving writer so dedicated to his work that he spends his last dollars on ink (or a printer cartridge) rather than a loaf of bread is very much the outlier, if not an outright myth. (And, yes, in this book it is he who is creating far more often than she.)

If economic security is a clear necessity for creativity, Currey suggests that routine itself is even more essential. In fact, Currey’s blog was called Daily Routines, and he seems to have switched to the grander-sounding “Rituals” primarily because his original title “connotes ordinariness and even lack of thought.” Interestingly, the creative people themselves seem unconcerned about acknowledging the importance of a fixed daily timetable. William Styron proudly quotes Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” W.H. Auden agrees: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” For Flannery O’Connor, who was suffering from Lupus when she did much of her best work, a predictable schedule was even more vital; she once wrote to a friend, “Routine is a condition of survival.”

Daily Rituals is one of those books that can be read straight through, but lends itself equally well to casual browsing. It’s fun to learn the idiosyncrasies of one’s favorite writers, and there’s plenty of casual inspiration to be drawn from these pages. The book, appropriately, ends with a quote from Bernard Malamud, who acknowledges that no single routine will result in universal success: “Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.”


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