“It’s no easy business to be simple.”
Gustave Flaubert had a terrible time keeping his life and art simple in the ways he wanted them. Of course, he did manage to achieve something through his years of toil and search for le mot juste, and the discipline of his rituals helped. Carl Jung echoed the same sentiment from his famous Bollingen Tower where he lived without electricity or running water. “These simple acts make man simple, and how difficult it is to be simple!”
But it’s a lot more than simplicity that serious creatives are trying to achieve through their various sets of rituals. We all have to find our own. That’s my biggest takeaway from Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This amazing little book captures something we all seek without the typical “self-help” packaging.
Rituals are many things: compulsions, addictions, lifelong commitments, superstitions, psychological and spiritual beliefs, practices and patterns of behavior. They may help you live longer or shorter, louder or quieter. They may be a self-imposed discipline or develop organically. You can be rich or poor, with or without kids or significant others. One thing rituals have in common for everyone: They give order to life’s chaos, and order is what everyone needs for serious creative labor.
If he completed a novel before his three hours were up, Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one.”
The psychologist William James believed the more we hand our daily lives over to the benevolent force of habits “the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” Easier said than done. W.H. Auden lived life according to a relentless timetable (“eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival–all are timed to the minute”) but, amphetamines powered his days and sedatives sent him to sleep at the allotted time at least until they lost their effectiveness. Easy or not, rituals do help. Stephen King says,
Your schedule exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep.”
Other takeaways from the 161 brief biographies? Most serious creatives are morning people. Not all, but most find that extra time by waking up very early. It also narrows your other choices. You’re not going to be as inclined to socialize in the evenings and you might even curb a few other evening appetites, such as excessive drinking or watching a bunch of mindless TV.
Also, don’t quit your day job, take lots of walks, and stick to a schedule.
And if you’re going to (ab)use substances, do so with an end in mind. Auden, Ayn Rand and Graham Greene had their Benzedrine, the mathematician Paul Erdös had his Ritalin and Benzedrine. Countless others worked well with vodka, whiskey or gin. Coffee has been near-universally championed for centuries. Beethoven measured out his beans (60), Kierkegaard poured black coffee over a cup full of sugar, the resulting concoction had the consistency of mud. Balzac drank 50 cups a day. And while Balzac died of heart failure at 51, it’s interesting that many of the representative creatives did not die early. Many seemed utterly fulfilled from their creative pursuits.
Not everyone is going to be as metronomically disciplined as Charles Dickens, or as obsessive and eccentric as Dmitry Shostakovich, but the good news is you don’t have to be. Nicholson Baker, for instance, creates a new routine of rituals for each novel he writes. Maybe that’s the final lesson one gleans from Daily Rituals, work with the end in mind.