In the introduction to his best selling book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey writes how for a year and a half, he got up at 5.30am, brushed his teeth, made a cup of coffee and sat down to write about how some of the greatest minds in the past 100 years approached the same task – that being, to carve out the time to do their work and organise their schedules in order to be creative and productive.
So, after researching the creative habits of writers such as Woody Allen, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Truman Capote and many more, we wanted to ask Mason what he had learned about his own writing – and whether he has any quirky writing habits of his own. Here he is in his own words.
Lots of our readers fit in writing as a hobby around their day jobs, as you started Daily Rituals out of a blogging project, do you have any tips on how to keep motivated and focused on a (non-paying!) creative pursuit?
MC: For me, having a deadline—and people who were going to be disappointed or annoyed if I didn’t meet that deadline—was hugely important in staying motivated and focused. In the past, I had attempted some personal writing projects that went nowhere, in part because I was well aware that no one knew or cared if I finished them. So I would recommend that writers do whatever they can to put some outside pressure on themselves. That could mean joining a writing group, finishing a magazine assignment (even a non-paying one), or just promising copy to a person whose opinion you respect. The key is to have a firm deadline accompanied by a good dose of fear and anxiety about blowing it.
“I would recommend that writers do whatever they can to put some outside pressure on themselves.”
It may also be worth keeping in mind that many, many great writers only actually wrote for a few hours a day. As Martin Amis has said, “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.” I think that’s true. So while it may not be ideal to write around a day job, it is possible. Some writers, like Anthony Trollope, Henry Green, and Wallace Stevens, even found that having a job was a stabilizing influence on their work—not to mention the fact that it removed the pressure to earn a living by their writing.
Do you believe that people can learn about their own writing/creative habits through reading about the habits of others? What do you think they can learn? (Or is this just another form of procrastination?!)
MC: Well, certainly this can be a form of procrastination. (It’s one of my favorites!) But I do believe that reading about others’ work practices can be useful—both in terms of borrowing strategies and habits for your own work, and more broadly, in realizing that even supposed “creative geniuses” often really struggled with their work on a daily basis. I think it can be comforting for people to know that they’re not alone in feeling doubtful and apprehensive about their creative process. In fact, that doubtful state may even be necessary for doing meaningful creative work.
What did you learn about your own creative practice through researching and writing the blog/book? How did it improve/change how you work?
MC: I’ve long known that I’m a “morning person”—that I do my best work first thing in the morning, the earlier the better. But before starting this book, I would only get up really early if I had a pressing deadline or was in the midst of a crunch period at work.
“I do my best work first thing in the morning, the earlier the better.”
Researching the book, however, made me realize that if the early mornings truly are my best work period, I should be taking advantage of them every day, not just when I have a deadline. So now, even though I don’t particularly like to get up so early, I drag myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. every weekday and try to seize those first couple of hours, when I enjoy extra-strong focus and concentration.
Lots of the writers you focused on in your book were writing pre-internet. Do you think the net has helped or hindered people developing effective creative habits – why?
MC: I don’t want to sound like a total Luddite, because I certainly appreciate the many wonderful benefits of the Internet, but all in all I would say that it has hindered people’s creative habits. The Internet has made it so much harder to have the long stretches of uninterrupted solitary time that are the basis of most creative work. The Net is especially effective at stealing away those periods of boredom and daydreaming that can lead to insights and breakthroughs—now so many of us fill those gaps by checking e-mail or scrolling through our favorite blogs. So I think contemporary writers and artists need to have more self-discipline than ever, and must be incredibly vigilant about setting aside distraction-free time every day.
Out of all the writers’ and artists’ routines you researched in Daily Rituals – which do you personally identify with the most and why?
MC: Honestly, I don’t identify so much with these figures’ actual routines as with the way they talk about their routines. Frequently, in the letters and diary entries I found, there is this certain kind of comically exasperated tone that I can very much relate to—this combination of real distress at the obstacles the writer is trying to surmount, and an awareness of how ridiculous it all is at some level.
Flaubert’s letters are particularly rich in this regard. “Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away,” he writes during the composition of Madame Bovary. Or here’s Kafka in 1912: “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.” That’s basically my life motto.
Do you have a quirky creative habit that you’d like to share with us? If not, can you tell us your favourite quirky creative habit that you discovered as part of your research?
MC: I do have one mildly quirky habit. I wrote this book in a drafty, poorly insulated Brooklyn apartment, so I often dressed in a lot of layers. In particular, I got in the habit of wearing this one hooded sweatshirt, with the hood up. And I got so used to it that now I find I can’t write without wearing this sweatshirt with the hood up. The hood acts almost like blinders—it forces me to concentrate only on the screen or page in front of me.
“I do have one mildly quirky habit.”
As for favorites from my research, it’s hard to choose just one. I found that composers tended to have really interesting habits—for instance, that Beethoven would count out exactly 60 coffee beans for his morning cup. Or that Tchaikovsky superstitiously believed in taking a daily walk of precisely two hours in duration, and would refuse to return home even five minutes early. Or that, when he felt blocked, Stravinsky would execute a brief headstand, which, he said, “rests the head and clears the brain.”
Published by Macmillan, Daily Rituals is available as a paperback.