Carroll Gardens author reveals ‘How Artists Work’

Brooklyn BookBeat: New book explores daily routines of 161 masterminds

Brooklyn-based writer Mason Currey has recently released “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” in which he investigates the daily habits of 161 renowned writers, painters, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. Photo by Stephen Kozlowski

Most of us know what made Beethoven and Charles Darwin famous. Most of us can recognize at least a couple of Andy Warhol’s works, and can probably name a Jane Austen novel. But most of us know very little about the daily routines of these inspiring figures. According to Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklynite Mason Currey, in his new book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” (Knopf/Random House), reveals just that. Intrigued by the lifestyle patterns and choices that enabled these geniuses to produce such important work, Currey investigated the seemingly mundane details that comprised the lives of 161 novelists, painters, poets, playwrights, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. His findings – while based upon “ordinary” habits – are fascinating.

Anthony Trollope forced himself to write three thousand words every morning (specifically 250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) before going to his “day job” at the postal service. George Gershwin worked for twelve hours a day, starting late in the morning until midnight, and enjoyed composing while in a bathrobe and slippers.  Currey profiles numerous others whose idiosyncrasies included such practices as taking timed naps, drinking numerous cups of coffee, and chewing on copious amounts of Corydrane tablets (which consist of amphetamine and aspirin).

Among those profiled – through interviews, letters, and diary entries – are Woody Allen, Pablo Picasso, Charles Dickens, and Karl Marx. Currey explores what his subjects ate, where they slept, and when they slept – divulging how their everyday practices empowered them to create work that made history.

Brooklyn Eagle recently checked in with the author. He tells us how artists’ daily routines seem to have changed over time and reveals that book actually evolved from his own procrastination.


How did the idea for this book originate?

The project started in a fit of procrastination. Several years ago I was working as a magazine editor, and I went into the office on a Sunday afternoon to try to knock out a story due the next day. But, as often happens to me in the afternoon, I just couldn’t concentrate. I’m a classic “morning person,” capable of considerable focus right after waking but pretty much useless after lunch. That afternoon, to make myself feel better about this predilection, I started searching the Internet for stories about other writers who, like me, could only work first thing in the morning. I kept finding all these great stories about writers’ and artists’ daily routines, and it occurred to me that someone should start collecting them in one place. So I started my Daily Routines blog that afternoon, and after a couple of years I had the opportunity to turn the idea into a book.

You profile so many fascinating people; how did you decide on your list of subjects?

I tried to focus on major, well-known figures in their fields, whose names will be recognizable to most readers with an interest in the arts. I think part of the appeal of the book is its high-low aspect, how it juxtaposes great minds with their mundane daily habits. I also tried to create a relatively diverse mix of professions—not just writers but painters, composers, philosophers, filmmakers, choreographers, and others. Beyond that, I was really just looking for the best stories, and for people whose working habits seemed to say something interesting about the creative process.

Did you notice any patterns when gathering your information? …Were there any rituals that were surprisingly common? 

Yes, there are several habits that crop up over and over in the book. A lot of artists get up very early or stay up very late to do their work, for fairly obvious reasons—many of them find that they can concentrate best when the rest of the world is asleep and there are few distractions. As you would expect, drinking coffee is a very common ritual, as is taking a long daily walk. (Composers especially seem to need a walk as part of their creative routine.) And I was particularly interested in people who managed to hold down a day job while doing creative work on the side. This requires an especially effective routine, and there are several such examples in the book.

Many of your subjects are from previous generations or even centuries. Would you say their routines seem much different from those of modern artists you’ve observed? 

Yes, certainly. Most of my subjects from the 17th and 18th centuries tended to be independently wealthy, or else they had a patron who supported them financially. Often, these figures had servants to take care of the practical details of their lives and they could follow pretty much whatever daily routine they liked. By contrast, so many of the more contemporary figures juggle creative work with day jobs, freelance gigs, family commitments, and a variety of other obligations. Contemporary artists as a whole seem more harried and seem to have a harder time avoiding distractions.

As a Brooklyn resident, you probably know (or at least have the chance to observe) a variety of artists in your community. What are some of the most common (or bizarre) ‘daily rituals’ you’ve noticed amongst fellow Brooklynites? 

For me, the most interesting daily rituals are the ones that are not really possible to observe in your neighbors. In the book, I tried to tell stories not just about what kind of rituals artists’ followed, but how these rituals were part of a larger strategy for getting their work done. Almost everyone in the book is working in the face of some kind of obstacle, whether it’s money troubles or health problems or writers’ block or something else, and their various daily rituals—the early-AM wakeup, the umpteenth cup of coffee, the precisely-timed afternoon nap—were attempts to circumvent these obstacles, to get into the right state of mind for creative activity for some period of time each day, even when the circumstances were less than ideal.

So, unfortunately, it’s hard for me to casually observe this kind of thing in my fellow Brooklynites. That said, I’m always interested in how other people occupy themselves on their subway commutes. You see people reading, writing, processing e-mail, playing video games, applying makeup, and just staring into space. I think most New Yorkers probably have a whole host of small subway rituals, and it can be fascinating to observe these various stratagems.

Brooklyn is known to cultivate a rich artistic community…why do you think that is? 

Well, I think New York has always attracted aspiring artists, and as Manhattan has become too expensive for most young artists, many of them have settled in Brooklyn. Although, of course, Brooklyn has a lot going for it beside its proximity to Manhattan—there’s a vibrant literary scene and wonderful independent bookstores and galleries, not to mention all the restaurants and bars. It’s a stimulating environment.

Are you working on any new projects? 

I’m trying to figure out a new book project. I have a few ideas knocking around, but nothing that feels like “the one.” I hope to have a better answer to this question soon!

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