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.

The RPM Challenge and The Power of Constrained Creativity

rpm_11_tshirt_webIt seems like there is a time-boxed challenge for everything out there on the internet. For writers there is NaNoWriMo, for moustache growers there is Movember. Game programmers have Dream.Build.Play. If you do it, there is a challenge for it, and if there isn’t, you can create one. I’ve always wanted to get involved with one of these little challenges, but find myself unwilling (or unable) to commit the time. It’s either work, running, or remodeling a kitchen that gets in the way. When Tim Alexander asked me to play drums for a few tracks on the RPM Challenge this February, I jumped at the chance.

After that I asked him what the RPM challenge was, and what kind of music he was writing.

The RPM Challenge

The RPM Challenge gives the recording artist a month (in this case the shortest month) to record an entire album start to finish. 10 Songs or 30 minutes. Go. No recording before February 1, recordings must be submitted February 28. Or 29 in a leap year I guess.

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Tim described his music to me as “Big, dumb pop songs”, but that doesn’t really do them justice. Sure, they’re pop, but in the hilarious way that They Might Be Giants are considered pop. The songs are catchy and original, and the subject matter is usually off the wall. This is Tim’s second year with the RPM Challenge, he successfully recorded Backstage Stories in 2010.

The music sounded like a lot of fun, but I had a secret motive for wanting to get involved. Besides the desire to get into one of these creative challenges for the first time, I hadn’t played my drums in damn near a year. I had let my brand new Peavey Radial Pro 1000’s languish due to life’s little setbacks for months. This was the motivation I needed to get my new kit record-ready and my butt back behind the set. I slapped some new heads on the kit, rearranged things a bit, and by the end of January I was miced up and ready to go.

The challenge was a breeze, but of course, I was only committed to playing a few songs. Tim would put the files I needed in a shared Dropbox folder, I would load them up in my DAW of choice, bang out a couple of takes, then send the wavs back to Tim for inclusion in his mixes. Toward the end we had worked out a system that involved me providing a stereo reference mix plus all the unmixed tracks that Tim could use to really dial in the sound he was looking for. It went great, and I got the chance to live a creative challenge vicariously through Tim. Not to mention play my new drums. You can hear the results on the Letter Seventeen Bandcamp site.

Embrace Creative Constraints

I see a lot of potential in these time-boxed challenges. First, they absolutely require focus. I know in my daily routine I bounce back and forth between working, coding, writing, training, reading, and in general not focusing on any one thing day in and day out. For people like me, these challenges are the creative constraint we need to force us to focus on one thing for a short period of time, whether it be a day, a week or a month, and let the other stuff wait for a while. This allows the unfocused among us to continue “unfocusing” most of the time, then really apply our energies at intervals in a concentrated effort to finish just one thing. To borrow an analogy, “Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale”. The same can be said of listening and writing music. If I consider all of my unfocused time as inhaling, gathering information, listening and really forming ideas, I can focus all the data I’ve gathered into one concentrated exhale. Then maybe breathe normally for a while. It’s a bit like Agile software development, you set yourself up to sprint for a very short period of time, concentrate on that and that alone, and come out the other end with something complete.

These challenges also force you to organize your brainstorms into something finished. Sure, with some of the challenges like NaNoWriMo there is a premium on getting as many words on the page as possible, but at the end of the day those words have to mean something for them to be worthwhile to you. You could go all month, typing a dictionary into your word processor, or stringing together 500 disparate riffs into 10 songs and calling it a finished piece, but you wouldn’t really be doing yourself justice. The point is to have a finished work that you can show off at the end. You’ll be proud for having finished, but you’ll be prouder for having finished something worthwhile.

Lastly, there is an emphasis on “shipping” with these challenges. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Steve Job’s, “Real artists ship”, and these challenges have a built-in way of separating the “real artists” from the twiddlers: a deadline. Much has been said about artificial deadlines, but the presence of a community around you, working toward the same goal, in many ways competing with one another to be “real artists” creates some kind of unique motivational magic. From Tim’s RPM page:

2578047960-1I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

Powerful stuff.

You can check out the fruits of Tim’s labors, Snowbound, at the Letter Seventeen Bancamp site.