One of my favorite newsletters is Subtle Maneuvers by Mason Currey, a Los Angeles-based writer who’s made a career out of studying the rituals and routines of famous artists.
(The newsletter’s title is lifted from a letter written in 1912 by Franz Kafka, who said “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”)
Mason has also written two books on the subject, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and Daily Rituals: Women atWork, and they’re great not just because of details about the people profiled (e.g. Zora Neale Houston only wrote in spurts, Dorothy Parker was always late with her copy) but because the profiles are, um, mercifully short. Such a bonus in these attention addled times.
With productivity being the hot topic that it is in 2021, what fascinates me about Mason’s work is that the artists Mason features – some of whom lived hundreds of years ago – have always been obsessed with it.
This jibes well with my theory that the conversation around productivity is really a conversation about mental health. It seems especially relevant for entrepreneurs and people who make creative work for a living because your inventions are so directly tied to your survival, but in this economic climate, isn’t that pretty much the case for everyone? We need our routines because they keep us productive because that keeps us in money/stability/sanity/etc. I’ve struggled with routines my whole life, but when I do manage to stick to one, I feel undeniably better.
I interviewed Mason recently to see what he’s learned about productivity and routines, and how we can create space in our lives for whatever it is we’re here to do.
Below are the highlights from a transcript of our conversation.
On How He Got Started Writing About Artist Rituals
I've wanted to be a writer since college and I've also hit every roadblock you can hit. I've procrastinated. I’ve felt like I had writer's block. I've tried to write fiction and then switched to journalism. And I just wondered, how did people do it?
Like, did they work for two hours a day? Did they work for 10 hours a day? If they had a job, how did they fit it around that? What was the literal daily incremental work? And in one way, it's kind of boring because you know, most people, they get up and they drink some coffee and they get to work.
But in another way, all the little details ended up being a great lens into these people's personalities and temperaments. So it ended up being a flexible vehicle writing these little profiles and a fun challenge to try to paint these portraits and miniatures of an artist's working life or approach to their work.
On Routines and Mental Health
You definitely get a glimpse of how these people were doing from a mental health standpoint. I wasn't really looking for that, but you can tell like, okay, this person was depressed or this person clearly had obsessive compulsive tendencies.
A lot of what I found was that making art or writing is hard. There are all these obstacles internal and external, and you have to figure out some kind of working practice to keep yourself from giving up, to keep yourself on some kind of track. The daily routine is the most basic building block of that. These are the increments of daily work that can get you towards something bigger and more ambitious.
On Productivity and Self-Worth
I have sort of a fraught relationship with productivity too, because I also feel good when I'm productive and bad when I'm not productive. Part of what draws me to this material is that I feel so good when I read that some famous, brilliant person I admire got stuck or had writer's block.
Like when you find a sentence that's the exact same thing that you’ve thought, you're like, okay, good. I'm not alone in this and this person got through it. Commiseration over failures of productivity or creative blocks is almost more interesting to me than how to be more productive.
I like your idea that productivity is really all about mental health. Because that seems very true to me. The other thing that pops into my head is there was this great show at the Hammer Museum a few years ago with Sarah Lucas. She's a British artist and she's famous for this series of self portraits. And there was some wall text where it said that she stumbled on the self portraits totally by accident while she was working on something else. She has this quote that was something like, ‘Actually all my good ideas have happened when I was working on something else really hard. This is the thing I did on a whim.’
Her conclusion was that earnestness and hard work are to be avoided or are something you should be suspicious of. And I thought, man, I wish that was our cultural message instead of ‘hard work is everything.’ Like maybe we should all feel a little more suspicious of productivity.
The Balance of Making Creative Work with Making a Living
My new book project is a history of making art and making a living and how people have walked this impossible line of managing this balancing act from hundreds of years ago up until now.
I want to get all the different individual stories, the entertaining and quirky and crazy schemes and you know, kind of cobbled together strategies for making money. But also to just look at different moments in literary and art history, and ask, why was there money for art then? And why does it feel so fraught right now?
I just feel like every year we produce more BFA and MFA graduates who have great ideas and they go into this economy where there's just no way forward for them. Even when I graduated, it felt like, okay, you can always go into journalism. Like that's maybe not making art, but it was the way to write and have a job. It's only been 15-20 years since then and that avenue is gone.
I feel like we're just at such a moment of upheaval as a society and especially with technology. And I think at some point things are going to have to be realigned somehow. I don't know if it's going to happen in our lifetimes.
On His Own Routines
My one dumb trick that I figured out a long time ago is to get up early in the morning. I have a certain kind of focus and attention then, a concentration power that I don't have later in the day.
I don't feel like talking to people or socializing or being present for anything but whatever it is I need to do. It's just kind of a magical slice of the day for me. If I can just get up and have a cup of coffee and go to what I'm working on, I can really focus on it for that first hour or two in a way that I can't the whole rest of the day. And that's saved me my whole working life.
I wrote the first book while I was working full time and there was just no other way to do it. So I developed this routine of getting up at 5:30 and working for two hours on the book and then going to my day job. And before that I would only get up really early if I had a deadline or I was in a crunch period.
I realized through the book, like, if that really is your magic hour when you have this focus, you should just get up at that time every day, whether you're on a deadline or not, because it's sort of a shame to miss out on that window of opportunity. So that's been my thing ever since becoming a freelancer and making my own schedule.
I almost hesitate to say that because I don't think it's because I'm some paragon of productivity or self-discipline. It's almost like the opposite is true cause like, that's it, man. It's almost because I don't have self-discipline the rest of the day that I need that time.
A Physical Aspect of the Ritual
When I was working on the first book I was in Brooklyn and I lived in this apartment that was poorly insulated, and it was really cold in the winter. And so when I was writing, I would often wear this hooded sweatshirt with the hood up just to stay warm. I got to really like that feeling of almost like wearing blinders. Like I have the laptop and I have the hood and it's just kinda like you and the screen. So ever since then, I still like that feeling. I mean, it's a problem in LA, cause it's not really cold enough, but I like to have a hood up or sometimes a scarf wrapped around my head. It’s stupid, but it helps me feel like I'm just in this work, like I'm just doing this thing now. So that's a little ritual too.
On the Importance of Changing Things Up
A lot of people I've talked to for the books and research would end up developing a different routine or a different process for each project. And that feels true to me. Like each new big project has its own setting and its own tenor and its own process.
My feeling is that a lot of this creative work is very fragile and slippery. You've gotta get in a certain headspace to do some of this work.
It's not like you can just be like paying bills and making phone calls and then just like flip a switch and be writing or making art. Or at least I can't do that. And so I feel like having these rituals is a way of kind of walking yourself into this other state of mind or frame of mind where you can do this work that's demanding in a particular way.
How His Routines Have Changed During the Pandemic
In some ways I have the exact same life as ever. I already worked from home and I'm working on a really long-term reading and writing project. So in a way the pandemic should have been great for me, you know? Cause it's the same thing, but with even fewer distractions. But the other part of this headspace you need to get into is having an uncluttered mind, or at least not too cluttered.
And the pandemic has been so mind cluttering on top of four years of the last president being extremely mind cluttering. So it's one thing to carve out the time and then carve out the time when you have the energy. And then it's another to just sit down and do the work and not have your head spinning through all this stuff.
I found it challenging to keep my focus on this work I'm supposed to be doing. You’re like, okay, it’s time to research the relationship between artists and patrons in 15th century Florence. And meanwhile, do I have to wash my groceries when I bring them inside? Should I be wearing two masks? Is it safe to go into Walgreens, or should I do the drive through? You know what I mean? I found it so mentally cluttering, even though it didn't change my day to day all that much. The other thing is that I really, really rely on the library and having the library closed for a big swath of time really messed me up.
I do mostly work from home and have a pretty similar lifestyle to the pandemic lifestyle. But it turns out that breaks from that, like going to the movies or having people over for dinner or going to a bar or whatever, really go a long way. Even if they’re just 5% of my week, that 5% is really restorative.
On the Importance of Daily Walks
Definitely in the research I've done on historical figures physical activity was a big theme. Especially walking. People often ask me, what's the one habit everyone should adopt? And I usually say, take a walk every day. Take an hour or two hour long walk, if you can, by yourself, with a notepad or with your phone to record ideas.
Cause that seems to be like the one habit that all of these geniuses had. So many people talk about how it's when you step away from the work – something about the flow of walking sets your mind wandering and you can really solve creative problems or have ideas pop into your head.
Using Mind Games to Get Work Done
One person I got to interview for one of the books was Miranda July, the filmmaker and writer who is here in LA. I really liked how she said she always takes a walk every day and she tries to apply just the right amount of mental pressure to herself on these walks.
Like she'll say to herself, okay, you're just taking a walk, you're not thinking about your projects. But you'll also try to plant the seed of like, what would this character do next?
I like how so much of creative work is layers of self-deception and tricks. Like you're saying ‘I'm just taking a walk’ and you're also saying ‘we both know that you're trying to solve this problem,’ but then you're also saying, ‘But don't think about it. Just think about whatever pops in your head.’ And I just love those kinds of mind games. I think we're all juggling that.
There's something about the divided brain, how we're all having these running arguments or conversations with ourselves. I feel like creative activity in particular is just wallowing in that.
On Getting Through Tough Times
It's just so comforting when you hear someone else admit that they're procrastinating or they have something they can't do. That's why I like these stories. It's like, ‘Oh my God, this famous person was blocked or procrastinated.’ There's probably an endless appetite for failure stories from legends. Or like all the varieties of creative suffering that people have experienced and yet come through. It's comforting. And yet, they still moved on to the next thing.
In your current reality everything feels so immediate, but if you can try and keep yourself in that grand spectrum of time, it's much easier. If somebody said to you, ‘Hey, you're going to be blocked this whole year, but after that, you're going to have this great burst of ideas when you're going to get something really good done,’ it'd be like, okay, great. That's fine and I can just relax. But you feel like you might be blocked forever. Like ‘this might be it for me and I might need to find a whole new line of work.’ And I don't think that fear is actually that unrealistic. There is always the risk that you just can't find that groove again. So that's what's so hard. Humans are not wired for a lot of uncertainty and yet doing creative stuff is just like bathing in it all day long. Day after day, because you don't know if it's good or not.
If you’d like to read more from Mason, check out his books! And here are some of my favorite issues of Subtle Maneuvers:
“If you have a mindful, balanced approach to the way you live your life, you will also, as a consequence, end up doing your best work.”
“Some minds just aren’t made for routines; that’s why I’ve had to work extra hard and discipline myself to live and work a certain way.”
A relatable personal essay by Jason Diamond about wrestling with keeping a schedule after being laid off during the pandemic.
“What can you stop doing to make more time for yourself, make more time for joy, and use your time more meaningfully?”
All this talk of routines makes me think of the writer Kate Northrup, whose book “Do Less” made an impact on me. Here’s an exercise she developed that is meant to help you figure out what to cut out of your life.
And a couple of other things I found worth sharing this week, like this important Twitter thread:
Didn’t know the Japanese were doing this, but very into it.
Speaking of getting creative work done, who wants to do a Zoom work session? This Tuesday night at 7:00 pm, the room is open. Join me and get something you’ve been putting off done! RSVP here.
You made it to the end! Thanks for reading. Have a great week.
p.s. Should I do more interviews?
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