DAILY RITUALS : WOMEN AT WORK

As promised, here are some excerpts to give you a glimpse of “Daily Rituals : Women At Work”. It was written after “Daily Rituals : How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get To Work” where Mason Currey realised he had not left enough space to women’s artists (in the first volume, of the 161 figures included, only 27 were women). I couldn’t advise you enough to read it as the context in which these women created is way more explained in the book and makes it absolutely thrilling to read. 

When faced with with the prospect of developing a new piece, Pina Bausch’s immediate response was closer to despair than enthusiasm : “Each time is a torture. Why am I doing it? After so many years, I still haven’t learnt. With every piece I have to start from the beginning again. That’s difficult. I always have the feeling that I never achieve what I want to achieve. But no sooner has a premiere passed than I am already making new plans. Where does this power come from? Yes, discipline is important. You simply have to keep working and suddenly, something emerges – something very small. I don’t know where that will lead, but it is as if someone is switching on a light. You have renewed courage to keep on working and you are excited again”. 

Margaret Mitchell estimated that with a few exceptions, each chapter of Gone with the wind was rewritten at least 20 times.

According to Colette, her husband would lock her in her writing room and wouldn’t allow her to emerge until she had completed her daily quota of pages. “A prison is indeed one of the best workshops,” she wrote many years later. “Four hours’ claustration before I was free again”. Colette eventually divorced and began publishing in her own name. 

Lillian Hellman posted a warning on the door of her study : THIS ROOM IS USED FOR WORK. DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT KNOCKING. AFTER YOU KNOCK, WAIT FOR AN ANSWER. IF YOU GET NO ANSWER, GO AWAY AND DON’T COME BACK. THIS MEANS EVERYBODY. THIS MEANS YOU. THIS MEANS NIGHT OR DAY. 

According to Birgit Nilsson the secret to her success was due to comfortable shoes. 

Katherine Anne Porter’s novel, Ship of Fools, took her twenty years to write. But she said : “It doesn’t actually take me a long time to write. I write at top speed, but there are long intervals because things form slowly and I don’t write until it is about absolutely ready to go”.

“When I had my first child, and I would be in the studio but I wouldn’t be working, and I would just be staring – I felt really guilty about it”, Julie Mehretu said. “But then I realised, it is such an important part of the process and so much comes from that process of just connecting with the work”.

Joan Mitchell progressed slowly, sometimes spending months on a single painting. “The idea of action painting is a joke”, she said. “There is no action, here. I paint a little. Then, I sit and I look at the painting, sometimes for hours. Eventually, the painting tells me what to do”.

Coco Chanel worked six days a week, and dreaded Sundays and holidays. As she told one confidant, “That word, ‘vacation’ makes me sweat”. 

Katherine Mansfield was a master of the writerly art of procrastination. “All was to be written but I just didn’t write it. I thought I would but I felt tired after tea and rested instead. Is it good or bad in me to behave so? I have a sense of guilt but at the same time I know that to rest is the very best thing I can do…”. 

From the age of 21 till the end of her life, Edna Ferber sat down at the typewriter every morning at 9 am and aimed for one thousand words a day. 

“Few people can be so tortured by writing as I am” Virginia Woolf said. “Only Flaubert I think”. For most of her life, she stuck to a daily routine of writing from 10 am to 1pm, and she used a diary to keep track of her output and chide herself for unproductive days.

When Rachel Whiteread hits a creative block, which does happen, there is no magic formula for overcoming it : “You just carry on working and making drawing and just doing the same things over and over again”.

For outdoor writing and sleeping, Bourke-White employed “a piece of garden furniture on wheels, with a little fringed half-canopy on top” she wrote. “It was wide and luxurious and when it was made up with light quilts and a candle on each side, and reflected in the swimming pool, it was a child’s dream of a bed made for a princess”. Margaret Bourke White was so focused on her work, that when her friend Nina Leen, the Life photographer, asked her for lunch, she said : “I am writing a book and there is no hope for a lunch before several years”. 

When a fan once asked Gertrude Lawrence’s doctor what vitamins she took to be so energetic, the doctor replied : “Vitamins should take Gertrude Lawrence”. 

By the 70’s, Agnes Martin’s gallerist in New York was selling her work for increasingly large sums. Still, she never upgraded her lifestyle beyond the most primitive living conditions. For years, she worked in a studio with no electricity or running water and slept in a camper mounted in the back of a pickup truck. 

Alice Walker has said that for new books, she requires gestation periods of a year or two before she actually put pen to paper. She used that time to think deeply about the book and to “just clear the horizon for one thing. In order to invite any kind of guest, including creativity, you have to make room for it”. 

“I have found that the key to not being blocked is not to worry about it. Ever” said Carole King in a 1989 interview. “If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back and try again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it one, it will be back. It always come back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it”. 

Even though Susan Sontag believed that writing every day would be best, she was never able to do so herself. Instead she wrote in “very long, intense, obsessional stretches” of 18, 20 or 24 hours. “My writing is extremely painstaking and painful, and the first draft is usually awful”. The hardest part was to get that initial draft. She would rework it many times, going through 10 to 20 drafts, regularly taking months to complete a single essay. “When I was writing the last pages of the Benefactor, I didn’t sleep or eat or change clothes for days. At the very end, I couldn’t even stop to light my own cigarettes. I had David stand by and light them for me while I kept typing”. 

Marguerite Duras said of her writing process : “It is like a crisis I handle as best as I can”. Writing wasn’t something she did regularly or on any kind of timetable. Instead, when a book idea came to her, it obsessed her and took over her life. She wrote her 1950 novel The Sea Wall in eight months. “Working at her desk without a break from five in the morning to eleven at night”. 

Penelope Fitzgerald was a star student at Oxford in the 1930’s and was widely expected to go on a brilliant literary career. As it turned out, she didn’t publish her first book until she was 58 years old. Eleven more books followed and her last novel The Blue Flowers made her an unlikely literary celebrity at age 80. “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it”. 

Kate Chopin spent only an average of one or two mornings a week on the physical act of writing. Her son Felix said : “I have seen her go weeks and weeks without an idea, then suddenly grab her pencil and old lapboard and in a couple of hours, her story was complete and off to the publisher”. 

According to Anna Pavlova’s husband and manager, Victor Dandré, while she was on tour, “the whole of Pavlova’s life was regulated by the clock and nothing was allowed to interfere with the routine”. “People imagine that as ballerinas, we lead a frivolous life”, she said, “but the fact is we cannot. We have to choose between frivolity and our art. The two are incompatible”. 

Maggi Hambling is wide awake at 5am every morning, “full of optimism, “and with a cup of tea she goes straight to her studio”. “The first thing I do every day is to draw in a sketchbook to renew the sense of touch, much as a pianist practices scales”. 

Maggie Nelson says that a lot of her writing starts as intensive “reading cycles” during which she’ll make notes in the margins of books. “And then it seems like I’ve hit some kind of tipping point where the research should be over and the writing part should happen”. 

Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, earned enough money to support herself solely by writing, a rare feat for a woman in Victorian England. By forcing herself to start working for only 15 minutes, she found that she was spared from “those embarrassments and depressions which I see afflicting many an author who waits for a mood instead of summoning it”. 

Doris Lessing wrote about the creative process : “We all of us have limited amounts of energy, and I am sure the people who are successful have learned either by instinct or consciously, to use their energies well instead of spilling them about. (…) Trial and error, and then when you’ve found your needs, what feeds you, what is your instinctive rhythm and routine, then cherish it”. 

Women At Work, Mason Currey, 2019, Picador