Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book: Daily Rituals - How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work by Mason Curry


Daily Rituals focuses on the routines of creative types such as artists, writers, composers, and directors, as well as the the occasional scientist and psychiatrist, and is packed with colourful profiles and quotes.

The profiles are short and snappy, and the book proved quite inspirational; it certainly had me pondering about when I work best in different modes (e.g creative, persevering, admin, physical, cerebral, etc), and how one might experiment with different approaches. The profiles also serve as a reminder that putting the time and effort in to an endeavour is almost always a pre-requisite for achieving quality output, something that is blindingly obvious and yet easily forgotten.

As expected, there were few common themes in terms of habits. People find what works for them and they go about doing it. There is no magic bullet. Some wake very early in the day, some wake later, some wait for inspiration to strike, but most just go to it, inspiration be damned. Drinking coffee and going for walks were two things that stood out as particularly common features. Taking walking breaks, for example, featured in the patterns of Dickens, Mahler, Kierkegaard, Darwin, Beethoven, and Flaubert. Vigorous exercise was less common, although the author Murakami runs marathons and the artist Jean Miro practiced running and boxing for an hour a day. There is a lesson here: many people today are drawn to their e-mails and electronic devices when they want a break from the task at hand, but these breaks continue to tax the brain instead of giving it a deserved, restorative rest.

Procrastination is looked upon severely by the likes of the psychologist William James, and Samuel Johnson, whereas Descartes believed it an essential component to good work. I quite like Maira Kalman's (artist and designer) take: "I procrastinate just the right amount", "there are things which help me get in the mood to work. Cleaning for one. Ironing is great. Taking a walk is always inspiring."

Several authors managed to squeeze in writing entire books around their day jobs, and full-time authors would know when to call it a day, recognising that any further effort would prove counter-productive, which was typically after just three to four hours of writing each day. And there is something to learn from Hemingway's practice of stopping at 'a place where you still your juice" so you are eager to return the following day.

Curry leaves the best quote to last, which sums it all up:

"There's no one way  - there's too much drivel about this subject. You are who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There's no particular time or place - you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he's disciplined, doesn't matter....Eventually, everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you." - Bernard Melamud (author)

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Quotes:

"I write when the spirit moves me", Faulkner said, "and the spirit moves me every day"

"For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart" - Morton Feldmen.

"I am not very bright or witty or inventive after the sun goes down.", says Toni Morrison, who rose at 5:00 to make coffee and watch the sun rise, commenting that "It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense."

On Joyce Carol Oates - Given the number of hours she spends at the desk, Oates points out her productivity is not really so remarkable. 'I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a single day's work, it is a single page, and these pages add up." ..."I have acquired the reputation over the years of being a prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don't work as hard or as long."

Oates again, on how it isn't always easy: "Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a dirty peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor."

William James writing on the value of forming habits: "The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for who the lighting of every cigar, drinking of every cup, the time and rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation."

William James also confessed to severe procrastination, telling one of his classes: "I know a person who will poke the fire, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without predetermination, simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests."

Yeats on writing literary criticism to earn money: "One has to give something of one's self to the devil that one may live".

Franz Kafka: "time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straight-forward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers."

Woody Allen on using the slithers of time available: "I think in the cracks all the time."

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