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.

First test of the Firepod (FP10)

I guess I should start calling it the FP10, since technically its been renamed/rebranded. Firepod just sounds so cool.

Band practice Saturday consisted of cutting a drum track for an ongoing demo that we’re working on (I’ll post a copy when Bill finishes the mixing). I didn’t feel at all prepared for it, but that’s beside the point, and it actually went really well.

The setup consisted of exactly 3 mics. That’s it. A single overhead condenser, and a dynamic on the kick and snare. We ran those into the FP10 along with a mix of Bill’s “wall-of-keyboards”, and cut the 11 or so minute track in about an hour using Garageband on Bill’s Mac.

It sounded fantastic.

Listening back through a pair of home audio speakers later to the unmixed, uneq’d tracks we all nodded in approval at the quality of the recording. I can’t tell you if it was the preamps, Bill’s skills at mic placement, or the mics, but I can tell you that my drumming had very little to do with it. It was the best drum sound I’ve heard while trying to record outside of a studio. The kick resonated in your chest, the snare and cymbals were crisp without being irritating, and the toms pounded like a stomping rhino. Very nice.

There is a section of the track where I’ll be playing something like a drum solo, which is a rare treat for me, and in 7/8 time to boot. It won’t sound great on the demo, but I’m looking forward to preparing something for it live and for later recordings.

I’ve also retooled the home studio a bit. Look for pics of it as well as the AM practice space. To listen to the older demo from a few weeks ago of the first movement, go here:

http://www.myspsace.com/ascendedmastersga

American Gods and running with the dead

So I finally got around to reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman this past winter, and as it turned out I couldn’t have picked better circumstances.

Actually I didn’t so much “read” American Gods as I listened to it. As narrated by George Guidall, who I am convinced is the finest narrator of audio books I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to.

It turns out the story takes place largely in winter, and since this book was to be my running companion for much of the season it turned out to be perfect. Most of the time anyway. Gaiman’s descriptions of the sub-artic temperatures in Lakeside made my balmy “barely freezing” weather that much worse.

The story itself wound its way through much of the midwest into the south, just as I was training for my pre-season marathon here in Atlanta, and the journey quality to the tale in particular made the 2 and 3 hour runs memorable, even enjoyable. I really got a kick out of the final scenes, which took place in Rock City. Anyone who’s live south of the Mason-Dixon has seen the “SEE ROCK CITY” Birdhouse and can certainly relate.

Towards the end of the cold season I found myself running through a confederate graveyard just across the street from my home, just as the protagonist of the story is beaing lead through the ceremony of the dead. What timing. It was about here that I realized how old the city I lived in was, and how much history I was passing as I ran through it. Later I would realize how much history my city has managed to collect in such a short time, when I’m reminded that:

“In England 100 miles is a long way, in America 100 years is a long time”.

It was a nice experience, and I hope to be able to match my book selection and season again in the future. Its a sunny spring day as I write this, and already I’ve swapped Tennessee Whiskey for tequila and lemon and Doc Martens for flip-flops.

As a last note I have yet to read a Neil Gaiman story I haven’t liked. The way he weaves primal myths into everything from sci-fi to road stories is entertaining at least, timeless at best. I think I’ve read Sandman three times now. When my only disappointment with a story is that it has ended, then it was a fine story.

Music to code by

Lately I’ve been having to step back in to writing a lot of code. I used to have no trouble at all concentrating on the task at hand, but for some reason focusing these days is tough. Its probably the vast number of distractions from co-workers needing help with this, that, or the other thing. At any rate, slapping on a Tool album or Captain Beefheart or something like that certainly isn’t going to help matters, so I’ve gone back to my music collection to find some tunes that are “barely there”.

Recommendations:

  • Godspeed! You black emperor – Yanqui U.X.O
  • Pole – 1
  • Basic Channel – Basic Channel
  • Monolake – Momentum
  • Brian Eno – Apollo
  • Pan Sonic – Aaltopirii
  • Autechre – Tri Repetae++
  • Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Vol I and II
  • Aerovane – Tides

All of these albums are pretty linear, with very few quick changes in time signature or tempo. They’d probably work well for relaxing after a rough day at the office. I’ll update this list as I find new tunes to code by.