If you attend author readings, you know that some of the most frequently asked questions involve a writer’s methods: Do you write every day? Longhand or computer? Morning, noon or night? This fascination with writerly habits is really an attempt to understand the slippery mystery of creativity rather than its bare mechanics, and it provided the impetus for Mason Currey’s immensely popular Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (2013). Currey took some flack because he only included 27 women in that book, so as a corrective he has put together a follow-up volume, Daily Rituals: Women at Work.
Of the 143 artists profiled, 63 are writers (a handful of others count writing among their multifaceted accomplishments). The rest run the gamut—visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, choreographers, actors, performance artists, composers, costume designers, one scientist (Marie Curie) and a few who share that peculiarly French occupation, the salonniére, or a host of literary salons. Most are Western, and the majority are white (a fact that may open up Currey for further censure), but the selection is broad enough in disciplines and chronology to offer an interesting cross section of daily approaches to art. We learn that Edith Wharton wrote in bed each morning, avoiding houseguests until noon. At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Harriet Jacobs wrote “at irregular intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties.” Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple in the brief hours when her daughter was at school, while Katherine Anne Porter, whom Marianne Moore called the world’s worst procrastinator, wrote in fits and starts, producing only one novel and 27 stories despite living to 90.
Many of these profiles underscore the struggle to carve out creative time amid wifely or motherly duties, as well as other constricting expectations placed on women. Painter Stella Bowen ceded to the needs of her husband, Ford Madox Ford, lamenting, “Pursuing art is not just a matter of finding the time—it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.” Others, such as painter Lee Krasner and actress Lynn Fontanne, cherished the symbiosis they shared with their equally accomplished husbands. Workaholics like Coco Chanel, Edith Head and Martha Graham subsisted on very little sleep, while Tallulah Bankhead admitted, “I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, and I hate to be alone.”
There are many pearls of creative wisdom strung throughout Daily Rituals. Still, the overriding lesson one takes away from this charming book is that the path to achievement is as specific to each artist as her art is unique to her vision. We cannot replicate genius by copying another’s idiosyncrasies—we need to cultivate our own.