Grant Muller

Book Review: Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals is a superficial book, a collection of “facts” with little analysis or synergy of its constituent parts. Mason Currey says so right in the introduction, so we know the author’s intent right away.

There is no illusion that what Currey is about to present is somehow a compilation of how to’s and instructions for creating. But, regardless of the author’s goals, to walk away from Daily Rituals without at least a few themes is impossible. Here are some.

Art and routine go hand in hand. Even avoiding routine is in some way its own routine. Have you ever tried not doing the same thing two days in a row? Each day? It’s difficult, perhaps harder even then simply settling into a comfortable cadence. The instability of non-routine produces its own set results. Finding a routine quickly becomes its own strange ritual and as Nicholson Baker put it:

…the most useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary… there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.

At its core, art is craft. Steven Pressfield says the same in The War of Art and Stephen King agrees in On Writing. Daily Rituals overflows with tales of creatives who get up and get to work using the tools they have to do what they know. Good or bad they do the work. Currey’s collection goes a long way in dispelling the myth and mysticism of creation. Artists are working stiffs like the rest of us. They clock in and they clock out. When the mist evaporates, whats left is you, your circumstances and what you make of them. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Stephen King wrote most of his first novels in a laundry room. What are you doing with your time and circumstance?

Your ritual is itself a creation. The individual routines of Currey’s subjects range from the mundane (Hemingway) to the eccentric (David Lynch and Andy Warhol). Thinking about how you work best is work. The process of creation is a creation, some kind of feedback loop that you experiment with, exploit or erase and start over. Different routines beget different results. Like creative constraints, your routine sets boundaries. You create your unique time and your unique environment; your results will be similarly unique.

So, as a collection of mundane facts about creatives and their daily work, Currey’s work is a success. Its not a rulebook, and its only inspirational if you let it free you to create your own routine (or non-routine). Currey strategically ends Daily Rituals with a quote from Bernand Malamud:

There’s no one way…You are who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time of place…How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help… Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.

Keep Your Eyes on Your Keyboard

I recently read Accidental Genius by Mark Levy. I did so begrudgingly; I usually don’t go for books that promise to unlock the power of my mind through special techniques. I’m glad that I could put aside my stubbornness because the book contained a wealth of advice on tapping into ideas that you may not even be aware you had.

Accidental Genius advocates a practice called freewriting. Freewriting is just timed bouts of word excess. Sit down with pen and paper, or your favorite full screen editor, and go to town. Don’t think, write. This seems counter-intuitive until you understand that writing is thinking. By turning your hands into your own personal dictation device you engage that part of the brain the controls motor neurons freeing your mind to wander into deeper recesses.

I’ve been doing this to some extent intuitively for years. I first started “journaling” a few years back based on the 750 words meme that rolled over the internet. It advocated writing 750 words a day. Didn’t matter what they were, observations, stories, thoughts, feelings, etc. Just get it all out on paper. I figured if it works for Hemingway it will work for me. Every night for months on end I did this as a means of “brain-dumping”; just get it all out on paper. You can come back later and edit it into something worthwhile if you want…or don’t.

Think of it as making bread. You knead your brain with these 750 words or freewriting sessions, forming new connections between synapses you didn’t even know were there. After you knead and rest your dough (mind) for a while, you can come back and form your thoughts into rolls suitable for baking and serving.

One tip of my own to add:

Keep your eyes on your keyboard

Mavis Beacon will of course disagree, but I’m not trying to teach you QWERTY typing. The act of writing is different than the act of editing. When you write do it with reckless abandon. Ignore punctuation, spelling and typing mistakes. When you look at your screen your internal editor is watching what you put on the page, backspacing, deleting, correcting and moving forward. Backtracking into an idea to correct something as minuscule as a dropped comma forces your brain into the parallel tasks of writing and editing at the same time.

Try This:

Write stream-of-conscious for 5 minutes while looking at your screen. Do what you normally would, correct your errors and keep going.

Then Try this:

Write for 5 minutes looking at your keyboard. You may have made a typo back there or forgotten to type a comma but who the hell cares, your typing at the speed of your brain and not your stupid fingers. Just write, you can come back and clean it up later.

Now Compare

Did you write more in the latter 5 minutes than the former? I always do and I always end up with more usable material than when I edit as I go. Separating the acts of writing and editing is the most important lesson I learned from Accidental Genius.

In the past six months I’ve spent less time dumping my brain on the page, but with the kick start from Accidental Genius I think I’ll start the practice up again with more regularity and include some of the tips and prompts from the book.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1: From Tome to Train Wreck

19thomas-600Ever try to read the Lord of The Rings Trilogy out loud? If you have, you probably noticed that you sound like a big damn dork. When Ian McKellan renders a line like “A wizard arrives precisely when he means to”, you believe he’s a wizard; you on the other hand sound like thirteen year old at a wicked awesome D&D game. Imagine filming, editing, and adding special effects to your wimpy voice and turning it into box office magic. Sound daunting? For you perhaps, but sometimes the planets of talent, technical virtuosity and, ahem, money align and an epic book survives the translation from tome to theater.

It is unfortunate that these conditions were not present on the set of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.

The film makes the mistake of flashing a calendar day across the screen in its opening moments, instantly voiding any sense of the timelessness Rand’s novel suggests and giving the viewer an excuse to discard the film as soured milk in a scant 5 years. What follows is a montage as trite as tearing off calendar sheets to show the passage of time. Fake newsreel, snapshots of headlines, talking heads and political commentators create the atmosphere of a failing nation. Despite the overused mechanism to convey the exposition, one does get a sense that this is happening now. This is at least as Rand had intended, but the use of a fixed date and the “modernization” of the story is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the work as a piece of political-philosophical symbolism.

The rest of the film reads like a 12-part made for TV mini-series squeezed in a vice to fit the film format without any of the polish necessary to justify the $11 dollar ticket expense. Hints of amateurism, like the black-and-white “missing” freeze frames, would be easier to stomach if they were sandwiched between commercial breaks. When more than a ten spot is on the line I expect better than the stiff delivery of even the most throwaway lines, and I certainly expect to experience the message of the original work without the heavy-handed exposition getting in the way.

Ok I’ll be fair, even the book is heavy-handed. A book can get away with a lot more than a film, but if the producers were trying to avoid the beat-you-over-the-head-with-it approach entirely why rely on the least important pieces of dialogue, adding over the top verbal exposition when Rand supplied the hammer right in the book? Missing are monologues like the “Money Speech” that D’Anconia delivers at Reardon’s anniversary, perhaps one of the most important in the  book. The characters in the book are archetypes; strip away their names and you’re still left with symbols, different aspects of political and economic philosophy embodied in a voice. The various monologues can read like essays at times, but their absence makes the actors in the film feel less like archetypes and more like shallow characters. These monologues carry the message of the novel in a unique way, and even though the actors selected to play the parts may lack the talent to give them real weight it’s unfair to the original work to leave them out entirely.

There were a few redeeming characters. Patrick Fischler’s portrayal of snake-in-the-grass Paul Larkin is believable, and Ellis Wyatt played by Graham Beckel was a likeable by-his-bootstraps CEO. It is unfortunate however that the leads couldn’t make up the same ground with their characterizations. Reardon feels weak. James Taggart feels less like the big fake softy he is in the book and more like a a child with a toy. D’Anconia has yet to blossom into the character he is supposed to be, but even his false act as a playboy reads like Benicio Del Toro on a bender with Johnny Depp. Even in playboy mode D’Anconia still had class in the novel; that dapper demeanor is gone in the film.

All in all I’m left severely disappointed with the film rendition of Atlas Shrugged, even if there are still two parts left. Paul Johansson might have been able to make this work as a mini-series, and indeed the budget may have leant itself better to that medium. As a film it feels rushed. The attempt to use stiff exposition in place of the essay-like monologues feels limp. The cinematography is unmemorable save for the various poor decisions made by the men behind the camera (like the “micro-zoom” moment at Reardon’s Anniversary party). There are casting errors; I hear that Charlize Theron or Angelina Jolie were considered for the roles of Dagny Taggart. Brad Pitt could easily have swaggered his way into the character of Reardon had the budget allowed for it.

But the budget didn’t allow for it.

In the face of low funding my suggestion to Johansson would have been to cut his losses and give a TV audience a well-paced rendition of Rand’s treatise, rather than make a film that does neither book nor audience justice.

Article first published as Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 – From Tome to Train Wreck on Blogcritics.