I recently picked up Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work after seeing the cover at City Lights Bookstore, at San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, once the home of beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac. I’ve always been fascinated by the routines, rituals and creative practice of artists — from writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre Bonnard.
When you are moved by a particular book or a painting, it’s hard not to wonder about the life of the writer or the painter, what induced its genesis, how it was created. It is a curiosity out of admiration and a tiny hope of, perhaps, being able to recreate the process with one’s own work.
The book contains a glimpse of the lives of about 161 artists — writers, painters, thinkers, philosophers — in a few pages detailing their routines and at times quirky habits while doing their work. I am thankful for Currey’s work on this compendium as it enlightens and entertains, in a way that calms the nervous and anxious writer’s heart.
I am always most curious about writers and I’ve featured a few writers here on my blog and in others. Reading and writing about them has always been a joy. After coming back from the Philippines, I read Bob Ong for the first time after it was recommended by a close friend. His book Stainless Longganisa is part-memoir/part-writing manifesto, and it is filled with references only Filipinos would understand — truly unmissable.
I’ll never forget Ong’s words on not letting the space alotted for our words go to waste. There are things to be written, ideas to be shared and ultimately, worlds that unravel between the writer and the reader. And there’s nothing quite like that intimacy, all on paper.
And then there’s Marcel Proust, the French writer whom I’ve actually never read before. I read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and it was a detailed picture of the writer’s work and life, from the lavish parties he attended to the writing he did in bed. I have an illustrated copy of In Search of Lost Time that I’ve yet to open, and I think this will only nourish my understanding of his work.
I wrote about how reading the book can give birth to a different way of looking at the things around us, however grand or mundane. Proust was a sickly man, who was domestically helpless, who wrote with an adequate bedside lamp. He managed his day-to-day existence with hired help who fed and clothed him, as he wrote scrupulously.
There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his. (Marcel Proust)
And then there’s Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a book I read a couple of years ago. I was still living in Oakland at that time and Dillard was with me every time I crossed the Bay Bridge underwater, in the shuttle on the winding, uphill streets of San Francisco. I remember being mesmerized, enchanted by Dillard, who wrote about birds flying under her chair and locking herself in a cabin, devoid of the world so she can write.
Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair. (Annie Dillard)
Her practice consisted of avoiding appealing workplaces, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark. The work of Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds me of this, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Sympathizer. Dillard preferred to revel in her solitude, a feat in itself that sought to highlight the passage of time and how we spend our days.
Reading has always been, and will always be my first love. Writers also cannot stress this enough — that in order to write well, one must read a lot. Dillard mused on what constitutes a good life, what an appealing daily schedule looks like. It is her, who said after all, that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less, time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. (Annie Dillard)
I also just finished Stephen King’s On Writing: A Craft of the Memoir, as he documents his childhood and what has informed his writing throughout the years. He provides the reader an in-depth look on his experiences, life lessons and warns forthcoming writers of the perils of shortcuts and easy way outs; the book review will be out this Tuesday on Libromance.
At the core of Currey’s book and at the heart of Ong, Dillard and King’s routines is the act of putting pen on paper (or fingers on the Macbook) and writing away. Nothing is clearer and simpler than the act itself, no matter how many workshops one takes, or whatever fancy tools one uses (I got a trial version of Scrivener, a writing software, once to help me write a book only to discover that it made the whole process more daunting). The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
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All photos & infographics from this post are lovingly made by the cool folks at Info We Trust.