The Habitual Genius: Q&A with Mason Currey

mason currey

There is a stubbornly persistent fantasy about how great art gets made: Inspiration strikes like a hurled-down thunderbolt, and the artist works feverishly to capture it in a single burst of creative frenzy. The reality, a new book called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by author Mason Currey suggests, is exactly the opposite. Many of the greatest creative minds in history had extremely regimented working lives, centering their existence around an unvarying set of daily rituals. From waking at the exact same time every day, to meditation, coffee, long walks, and naps – the habits varied from person to person, but remained surprisingly constant for each.


Though he focused on artists, the results of Currey’s survey make a powerful argument for the value of workaday rituals for anyone who wants to pursue a passion in the face of other obligations, like a day job or a family. Frank Lloyd Wright woke every morning around 4 a.m., worked for a few hours, and then went back to bed. Franz Kafka preferred to start around 11 p.m. and call it quits in the wee hours of the morning. He and plenty of others found time for art on the margins of a day job, while others managed to steal a few hours for work even while they were raising young children. Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote the incandescent poems of “Ariel” after her sleeping pill wore off in the early morning, while her daughter and son were still asleep. Part of the power of any routine, Currey explained, is that sticking to it eliminates the myriad excuses for not working that tend to crop up when there is no boss around to crack the whip.


Currey started collecting artistic rituals on a blog in 2007. His daily audience was often in the single digits until Slate linked to his site in 2009. Suddenly, he had thousands of readers, and a few editors and literary agents urged him to turn the blog into a book. By researching countless biographies of famous artists at the New York Public Library, scouring old diaries and correspondence and conducting original interviews with contemporary artists, Currey built up an archive of rituals that are instructive to anyone who craves a more disciplined approach to their work. The Financialist caught up with him recently to talk about the lessons mere mortals can learn from the daily routines of great artists.


TF: Do you have a favorite ritual from your research?


MC: I really liked a story about the filmmaker David Lynch. I don’t think he does this anymore, but for many years he would go to a retro Los Angeles diner called Bob’s Big Boy. He would wait until 2:30 in the afternoon, after the lunch rush, and order a chocolate milkshake. He’d drink that with 5, 6 or 7 cups of coffee, and the sugar and caffeine would give him all these ideas, which he would write down on little napkins. The counter of Bob’s Big Boy was essentially his office.


TF: What surprised you about the routines you uncovered?


MC: One thing I found comforting was that artists who seemed to live very crazy and dissolute lifestyles, even people who were famous alcoholics or drug users, actually had very methodical approaches to their work. Even someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was famous for staying out all night drinking, would set aside some time every day to write.  The British painter Francis Bacon, who was an alcoholic, a drug user and a pretty heavy partier, woke up at sunrise and painted until noon. Only after that did he go out and carouse with his friends.


These people worked in spite of those addictions and proclivities – not because of them. But a lot of the writers, in particular, only seemed to be able to write for two to three hours every day. Some people seemed to have trouble filling the rest of the day, and sometimes it seemed as though the things they did to pass the time got out of control.


TF: Why did you find it comforting that even the “wild-child” artists had routines?


MC: It was comforting to see how much hard work went into these people’s creative lives and how much they struggled. These were some of the greatest artists of the last few hundred years, and you might imagine that maybe it was easier for them, or that they had some sort of secret. But it becomes obvious pretty quickly that they were locked in a constant struggle with their work – for most of them, it was never easy.


Over and over again, people talked about how they couldn’t wait for inspiration in order to work because they would wait forever and never get anything done. It turns out that creative work really is a matter of sitting down and grinding it out every day. I guess maybe that’s depressing, too. You think, “Oh my God, even the people we think of as geniuses had a hard time!”


TF: You mentioned that you, personally, were looking for a perfect routine. Did you find it?


MC: I was working a full-time job as a magazine editor when I was putting the book together, so I was especially interested in reading about people who were juggling day jobs with their creative projects. I learned that you really can do both a full-time job and a creative project if you make a conscious effort to set aside some time every day. For my part, I got up early in the mornings and worked on the book for two hours before I went off to my day job. Even though the book is done now, and I could have any schedule I want, I still find myself getting up at 5:30 every morning. Those two hours or so when it’s dark, and no one else is awake, and I’m still a little groggy – that’s my best time. I feel like I would be a fool to not take advantage of it every day. Small daily increments of work can really add up to something.  Plus, even if I fritter away the rest of the day, at least I have those two good hours every morning.


TF: A lot of other writers seemed to work very early in the morning. Why do you think that is?


TF: If you work when you first get up, there aren’t as many other things to distract you. And a lot of people have the most mental energy after they first wake up – you haven’t had a chance to wear yourself out yet. But I do think different people have their best mental energy at different times of the day. Some people say they can’t work in the morning, and I believe that because I can’t work in the evening to save my life. So, one of the lessons of the book is that you should figure out when you’re at your sharpest and then do whatever you can to carve out a couple hours at that time of day.


TF: What if I don’t feel like I have the time to figure out my new ritual? What’s your best suggestion?


MC: If you were going to pick one specific habit to improve your daily routine, I would recommend taking a walk – and preferably a long walk alone with a pen and paper in your pocket. A lot of writers walked, and it seemed like every great composer took long walks every day.


Many people in the book talked about how they had their best ideas and biggest breakthroughs when they stepped away from their work. The problems that they were trying to solve at the desk only became clear when they stepped back, let their brains think about something else, and did something mindless. Taking walks was one way to do that, but there were also people who talked about taking a shower, doing the dishes or cleaning the house.


The amount of coffee these people drank is also pretty incredible. Caffeine seems to be a truly useful stimulant for creative activity. If people are not already coffee drinkers, they may want to consider taking it up.


TF: Is having a daily ritual helpful for non-artists? If you’re crafting a business plan instead of a novel, should you have a routine like this?


MC: I think these lessons are applicable to anyone. Everyone has a project that is a higher priority than anything else, but very busy people sometimes let their schedules control them. Many of the people in the book, however, were only able to accomplish what they did by arranging their lives around their central projects and letting other things slide. Those people aren’t necessarily good role models for living a happy life; many of them lived hectic and often rather miserable lives. But I think they show the power of relentlessly focusing on one thing and arranging your life to put that thing first.


TF: So, having a routine doesn’t guarantee you’ll fit everything in?


MC: People who wanted to do this kind of creative work often had to give something up. They ignored their families or lived in poverty or just had difficult, uncomfortable lives in order to hone their craft. I’m certainly not recommending that, but I think it is important to realize that you have to pick and choose – you can’t do it all. Some people managed by leaning on their families or spouses. There’s that old cliché that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, and it does seem like behind every great artist, there was someone taking care of the details of their day-to-day lives. I don’t think most of us can expect to rely on our partners or families quite as much as some of the people in the book did, but you have to be willing to delegate some parts of your life if you want to be obsessed with a project.


A lot of these people also sacrificed their social lives or tried to concentrate them into a particular portion of the day or week. Picasso, for example, liked to socialize, but he also hated being distracted from his work. So, he was always veering between having people over and pushing them out. He and his girlfriend tried making Sundays their designated social day, and opened their home to visitors on that day only.


TF: For readers who don’t already have a daily ritual, what would you recommend?


MC: The truth is, the particulars of a ritual don’t really matter. It makes no difference if you drink coffee or sharpen pencils or walk around the block before you get to work. But having some kind of daily ritual can be an extremely valuable method of easing yourself into a certain state of mind, one where you can focus your mental energies in a certain way that allows you to be creative and productive. People always want to know what the best or most useful rituals are, but there’s no formula: You just need to figure what particular combination of habits works best for you.


Photo of Mason Currey, above, by Stephen Kozlowski.