Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Democracy of Doing

I'm paging my way through Daily Rituals by Mason Currey - a collection of accounts of the creative process as experienced and enacted by over 160 artists, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists and composers. In his introduction to the book, Currey talks about how these accounts - culled from biographies, autobiographies, interviews, letters and personal journals - can seem superficial, concerned more with the production of great work than with any analysis or appreciation of the work itself. He also uses the term 'small-bore portraits' to describe the perspective taken on personalities such as Jung, Marx, Freud, Voltaire, de Beauvoir, Mozart, Beethoven, Fellini and Matisse (to name just a few).

It sounds promising, although there is always the lingering doubt that this kind of portraiture, determined to charm, will devolve into something saccharine and slightly precious.

I'm only about 40 pages and a couple of dozen accounts into the book, and those doubts have been firmly dispelled. I'm not sure how Currey's managed it, but he's taken some of history's best known figures and fixations and shown them in an idiosyncratic and humane light that is simultaneously inspiring, endearing and reassuring.
Inspiring because there isn't a single instance of genius documented here that isn't accompanied by a commensurate measure of grit and gumption. The doing of work has always been difficult, and yet there is evidence to show that it can, in fact, be done. And that it must be done, even if it has to be endured. Inspiring also because in hearing these first and second hand accounts of work and working, we get a sense of what it means to be driven, moved and animated by a love for what one does.  

Endearing because everyone is portrayed in the context of their relationships and immediate domestic environments. I learn that Beethoven's method, involving the slopping of liters of water on his arms and face, aroused much laughter among his household help, that Toulouse-Lautrec came up with cocktail recipes to create the feeling of 'a peacock's tail in the mouth,' that Kierkegaard's coffee was a treacly treat that made his fingers 'tingle,' that Jung enjoyed big breakfasts and Bergman, cornflakes for lunch. There's something to be said for the ordinariness of routine and the light it throws on a person, no matter how complex and idealized he or she is otherwise.

And reassuring because the struggle involved in creating something memorable and worthwhile has evidently, always been the same. The devices we use to trick ourselves into states of productivity and creativity are part of a long, illustrious tradition that predates anodyne notions of 'time management.'  

Reading this book, I realize in a way that I haven't before that time is not something to be 'managed.' It is neither to be saved nor squandered but spent choicefully, and learning how to make those choices well is the essential challenge. But at the end of that series of challenging choices is a body of work.

And what about those of us who are neither poets, painters nor philosophers engaged in solitary pursuits? Whose schedules depend on bosses, clients, children? Maybe there is no body of work to show at the end - just books read, movies watched, connections made, health regained, maybe even money made on the stock-market.

But there's no absolving oneself from making the choice, from opening up the necessary windows of opportunity to do.  Read about Mozart (p. 16) who courted patrons and Constanze and composed in between. Or Anthony Trollope (p.23) who held down a post-master's job while writing over twenty books. Or Bergman (p.13), who would spent eight to ten hours on a set to get three minutes of film.

Reassuring because doing is, ultimately, democratic. Harder for some than others, but doable (and done) nonetheless.  

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