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Recommended Reading: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

From Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway and Haruki Murakami to Toni Morrison: learn the daily rituals and habits that helped fuel these authors’ creativity.

Photo by Simaron (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I dream of being the great Canadian novelist. I dream of unseating Margaret Atwood as the queen of Canadian literature. As I reflect on my own writing process and how I fit writing into my life, I often wonder about how other writers do it: what are the routines and habits that have fueled their creativity? Their productivity? Enter Mason Currey’s marvelous book.

In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Currey explores the lives of novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians to uncover their routines and patterns, the activities of their daily lives that helped contribute to their work.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Think that it’s hard to fit a writing practice into your life? Writer and poet Gertrude Stein wrote for about a half hour per day:

In Everybody’s Autobiography, Stein confirmed that she had never been able to write much more than a half hour a day — but added, “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.” Stein and (her partner Alice B.) Toklas had lunch about noon and ate an early, light supper. Toklas went to bed early, too, but Stein liked to stay up arguing and gossiping with visiting friends — “I never go to sleep when I go to bed, I always fool around in the evening,” she wrote. After her guests finally left, Stein would go wake Toklas, and they would talk over the entire day before both going to sleep.

Toni Morrison always worked to fit writing around her day job:

Morrison’s writing hours have varied over the years. In interviews in the late 1970s and ’80s, she frequently mentions working on her fiction in the evenings. But by the ’90s, she had switched to the early morning hours, saying, “I am not very bright, or very witty, or very inventive after the sun goes down.” For the morning writing, her ritual is to rise around 5:00, make coffee, and “watch the light come.” This last part is crucial. “Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process,” Morrison said. “For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

Stein and Morrison are two of the 161 people Currey profiles in his book. Reading about the habits of productive people is a great way to examine your own writing processes. What is the signal in the transaction that enables you to do great work?

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  1. Over the time, I found out that my best writing comes at night, when everyone else is sleeping. I like to end my day with writing a few hours. At that time the ideas just pop into my head. i always had the best ideas when I lay in bed in the evening, so I started writing in the late hours.
    Okay, I admit: Another reason is that I don’t really have time to write the rest of the day. But for me it works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s also true for me. Nights are quiet, with far fewer distractions. I also get lots of ideas in the shower as well as in bed. But lying down for a few (or more) moments usually opens up creativity.

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  2. There is also the seemingly scientific notion that the mind–even the creative mind–works best within a sense of structure; therefore, if you have the same time set aside each day for writing, that is in itself ‘the signal’ that opens the floodgates of expression… (So to speak; that last bit was more wishful thinking than science) That being said, my best time for writing is in the morning, my best time for the all important editing–of what I just wrote that morning–is in the evening

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  3. For me my best writing times are either super early in the morning when everyone is asleep, from 5am-7am, or very late at night, again, when everyone is asleep. I guess there is a common denominator for me…I do my best writing when people go to sleep.

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  4. So I don’t have to get up at 5 am? This is a relief. And yet what will my excuse be? Doing my 30 minutes now. Right after I check email. And put away groceries. And wrap a birthday present. And organize some drawers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s wonderful how exercises not only the body, but the brain. Reading the book, many of the folks profiled had some sort of daily exercise — most often walks. I usually listen to podcasts when I walk. I should probably just listen to my brain freewheel and see where that takes me.

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      1. I have never thought of trying podcasts in my run. It sounds like a good idea. I should try it once I am a better runner. Right now its all a me to me mental pep talk to keep me going. Though I must tell you when you get an amazing idea you have to stop & make a note of it then or else it all cools down by the time you are back home.

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  5. Oh, I think I need to read this book. I love the line “Watch the light come.” That is such a magical time of day! Thanks for sharing.

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  6. I like learning about the way other people work, but I’m mostly interested in seeing how their methods are similar or dissimilar to my own. Whenever I listen to creators speaking on the topic of creating, I find myself going, “Whoa, me too! WHOA!! ME TOO!!” Heh heh. Not on every point, but always some.

    If the people who buy this book are the same people who endlessly seek out and/or write blog post after blog post about “Writers’ Block,” “Where to Find Inspiration,” “How to Write,” etc, I don’t think it’s going to unlock any doors for them.

    You’ve simply got to to write because you enjoy it, and then find your own personal time, place, or state of mind when you can enjoy it the MOST.

    …oh, and then keep heading back to that “place” all the freakin’ time. :D

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree and disagree on your point about people who endlessly seek out about “writers’ block”. I know an amazing artist that had painter’s block for a year, in a middle of an amazing an idea. I think sometimes we get too overwhelmed about saying/creating the perfect thing. Anyway that’s my thoughts.

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      1. I don’t think you’re disagreeing with me. :)

        I’m not saying writers’ block doesn’t exist – it absolutely does, and the best of the best artists throughout history can be counted among the afflicted.

        That said, if Shakespeare had spent all his time with his quill scratching stuff like, “Alack! The ink in this dastardly, insufferable appendage in my grasp doth refuse to flow! Shall I compare thee to a pain in the rump?!”

        …well, we wouldn’t have his vast catalog of plays and sonnets to torment unenthusiastic high school students with, now would we?

        What I’m saying to these melancholic writers out there is to stop spinning your wheels and just get to fuckin’ work. Write something EXPECTING it to suck and along the way you may very well find your inspiration.

        Just now I was typing a contrary Facebook comment, and it turned into about 600 words on a topic that’s sure to piss a lot of people off.

        Perhaps I’ll post it to my blog?

        You HAVE checked out my wicked-awesome blog, haven’t you?
        ;)

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      1. Hey Krista,

        You’re right, the discussion was straying and I was the one feeding it. Sorry about that. It won’t happen again.

        To get back on point, I didn’t know there were “comment guidelines,” so I’ll be sure to familiarize myself.

        That said, if “any comment” with profanity is to be deleted due to “Blogmatic” Law (heh heh), with respect, I’ve got to voice my objection.

        I believe it would be better to follow the SPIRIT of such a rule rather than the LITERAL interpretation, because if Margaret Atwood herself were to comment with helpful insights on the creative process, I’d like to think you wouldn’t garbage her comment because she used a “curse” word.

        Incidentally, I met the woman while I was in university and she swears like a sailor, so…if she DOES stop by? Well, fair warning.

        James Ash

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      2. Point taken — I respect your opinion. In this case, your profanity was part of the off-topic conversation. We’ve got readers as young as 12 joining us here at The Daily Post. We do feel the need to make sure comments stay respectful and G-rated, considering the wide variety of folks we’re lucky to have joining us here.

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  7. I would say that I probably do best in the morning when I have free time. I’d like to be able to at night as I’m more of a night owl, but by the time I am free from distractions I know I have to go to bed or risk being exhausted in the morning. I think I’ll check this book out though and see how those more successful than I were able to accomplish their work.

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  8. I will have to give a full day or half a day to my writing just to get a post I’m thinking up on Word press. the ideas come but I can’t compose them sometimes.

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  9. I’m less interested in the best time to write than I am in what process they use. Do they write out in long hand on paper? Type directly on their computer? What is their revision process?

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  10. While i am by no means a WRITER, I find NOT trying to fit it in makes for better writing – as letting go of the expectation for the right words to pop up at the right time creates undue pressure, and thereby stunts creativity – for me, anyway! Sometimes the best ideas come at unlikely moments – like in the middle of a business meeting! The best option then, is to discreetly jot down key-words and then expand on them later on…happy writing! :)

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  11. Interesting to see that writers have different approaches to their art. Hemingway, as the story goes, wrote while standing up at a desk. I write whenever the mood strikes me. I think this books is well worth reading. I will check Amazon tonight.

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  12. I enjoyed reading this blog about the book. Interesting how different writers approach their art. Hemingway, as the story goes, wrote while standing up at a desk. I write when the mood hits me. I will check Amazon tonight.

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  13. For me, it’s mainly setting the target low enough that the pressure is off. Two pages a day means I get something produced at a good rate and it’s working out well for me so far.

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