Never in a million years did I imagine myself becoming a self-help author. But since my first book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, was published several weeks ago, I've often found it classified in that very category. For a brief period, I was even Amazon's 72nd bestselling self-help author, sandwiched between Carol Kline (Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul) and Jessica Alba.
Not that I mind being a self-helper. While my primary goal with the book was to present entertaining biographical sketches of writers, painters, composers, and other great artists and thinkers — explaining how they made the time each day to do their work, and what rituals helped (or hindered) their creative process — I also hoped that readers would find inspiration for their own creative projects or just for getting more done each day.
But, let's be honest:if you're looking for guidance on how to be a better person, more connected to your family or peers, healthier, or more even-keeled, history's great artists are pretty much the last people you want to emulate. So many of my subjects created amazing, timeless works of art — while, at the same time, abusing their bodies, ignoring their families, squandering their money, and generally living frenzied and exhausting lives.
A few examples out of many: Honoré de Balzac wrote in 15-hour bursts, fueled by as many as 50 cups of strong black coffee; as a result, he suffered from stomach cramps, facial twitches, headaches, and high blood pressure, and died of heart failure at age 51. Karl Marx never held down a regular job, devoting nearly all of his time to the writing of Das Kapital, even as his ceaseless work ruined his health and his lack of income forced his family to live in squalid conditions. Gustav Mahler forbade his young wife from pursuing her composing career because he said there could be only one composer in the family. Picasso barred his longtime girlfriend from entering his studio, and when he emerged for meals was often distracted, moody, and withdrawn. James Joyce once described himself as "a man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism" — and, if you know much about Joyce's life, it's hard to argue with that self-assessment.
I could go on, but you get the idea. And as someone who aspires to be a better writer and also hopes to be a good husband and brother and friend and colleague, I've found myself wondering: Is it possible to be a great artist and also a good person?
The answer is yes, of course it's possible. Not all of history's great artists and thinkers were selfish jerks. But I've come to believe that a certain amount of selfishness is probably necessary for ambitious creative work. Serious writing or painting or composing is not a sociable activity; it requires long stretches of solitude, and it can often mean indulging in a sort of dreaminess and introspection that can all too easily shade into irritability and moodiness.
Of course, there's not necessarily anything wrong with being a moody loner, and plenty of artists have taken this route. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the short stories for his first book during a 12-year period that has since been dubbed "the solitary years." Samuel Beckett had a period of intense creative activity known as "the siege in the room" (because he spent most of that time in his bedroom). The choreographer Twyla Tharp follows a strict daily routine that she has described as "actively anti-social." "On the other hand," Tharp has written, "it is pro-creative."
But not all of us have the temperament for protracted solitude. And things get complicated when you have family commitments or a day job. Fortunately, my book also contains some examples of artists who managed to strike a balance between concentrated creative work and normal everyday life. Jane Austen lived with her mother, a sister, and a close friend, and she would write in the sitting room while her mother and sister sewed quietly nearby. Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after returning home from his job in magazine advertising. The Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz drove his kids (and the neighbor's children) to school every morning, and knocked off work at 4:00 when they came home. Charles Darwin's daily routine revolved around his work, but also around periods of relaxation with his wife, and he was by all accounts a doting father.
Ultimately, it's hard to generalize about the artistic temperament, because there really is no such thing. One thing my book makes abundantly clear is that great artists possess all sorts of personality traits, from blustery egomania to crippling shyness. Some of them are even normal, nice people. So if you're trying to do creative work and struggling with these issues, I say: just do your best and, as much as possible, err on the side of not being a jerk.
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Mason Currey was born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Currey’s writing has appeared in Slate, Metropolis, and Print. He lives in Brooklyn. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is his first book.
Books mentioned in this post
Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work