A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
…I had respect, job security, and a title—Associate Professor of English!
I spent my days reading and discussing great literary works like Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, and The Grapes of Wrath.
Then I came to Hollywood.
Respect went out the window.
I was now a reader—a nameless drone in the hive of Universal Studios.
As for job security, that too was gone.
In fact, I spent three months unemployed before the Story Analysts Guild allowed me to accept the job that had inspired me to resign my academic post.
And my title?
Well, let’s just say that “reader” doesn’t inspire the same kind of awe as “ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR.”
Frankly, none of this mattered.
I was inside!
I was where I’d dreamed of being all my life.
In my film fanatic’s mind, I had just entered the Kingdom of Heaven, and I was eager to try my wings.
I must admit, however, that I was somewhat daunted when I received my first assignment—a pile of Judy Blume books topped by Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
It was, of course, a test.
The Story Editor, who had taken a chance hiring me, wanted to start me off with something I couldn’t screw up: the Blume books were born to be “Afterschool Specials” but had no chance whatsoever of making it to the big screen.
I passed the test and worked my way up to more serious projects like The Lords of Discipline and Sophie’s Choice, but I’ve always remembered the humbling experience of my descent from Joseph Conrad to Judy Blume.
So when I came upon Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, I was an instant fan.
Funny as she is, Chelsea is clearly a woman to be taken seriously, and when I later stumbled upon a Handler interview in which she recommended a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, I had to have it.
The book, by Mason Curry, is an account of the working habits of well-known creative talents—writers, artists, composers and the like.
It is filled with fascinating anecdotes.
Thomas Wolfe fondled his “male configurations” to spur creativity. (No surprise to this reader who has always considered Wolfe’s shameless indulgence in the purplest of prose a form of verbal masturbation.)
Proust, who remembered things past while snugly ensconced in his sheets, had many bedfellows—from Edith Stiwell, who was rumored to find inspiration by lying in an open coffin, to Truman Capote, who described himself as a “completely horizontal writer.”
W.H. Auden began his day with Benzadrine and ended it with Seconal. Edward Abbey started with uppers and finished with downers.
Alcohol was, of course, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald and, one suspects, for his rivals Hemingway and Faulkner, though both claimed to write sober and drink only in the interval.
But by far the most popular drug of choice, it seems, is coffee. For Beethoven, it was precisely sixty beans per cup. For Balzac, fifty cups per day. For David Lynch, a mere six or seven…augmented by heaps of sugar and a chocolate shake.
What conclusions can one draw from a reading of Daily Rituals?
First and foremost, creative types are eccentrics.
They swim outside the mainstream. They are not “normal,” and it is, perhaps, their status as outsiders that inspires them to re-examine cherished beliefs, to question the norm, to look at life from unique perspectives.
Second, the vast majority of them adhere to strict routine, to disciplined scheduling of their working lives, and they rely upon some sort of external stimulus to get them through their working day.
The creation of anything—a novel, a play, a sculpture, a dance—is hard, physically as well as mentally demanding. Phillip Roth describes it as “a nightmare.” William Styron, as “hell.”
So it is that writers go to astonishing lengths to find reasons not to write.
The most common solution?
Write every day. Write at the same time every day. Write the same number of words every day. And make sure the coffee pot is always full.
The third and final conclusion to be drawn from Daily Rituals is that most creative types are loners…at least, while they are involved in the impossible task of creation.
They, like Greta Garbo, want to be alone.
They achieve this goal by retreating to a place apart.
For Robinson Jeffers, it was the remote California coast, Tor House and his “tower beyond tragedy.”
For others, it is something as simple as a bedroom, a study, a cabin…with a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign posted outside.
Or a swim in the sea.
Or a walk in an isolated wood.
Writers and other artists want to be alone…alone in the world of their creation, alone with the characters and the images they are creating, undisturbed by the noisy world that constantly threatens to intrude and send their castles in the sky crumbling down to earth.
All of these things are, I suspect, true not just of the greats examined in Daily Rituals, but of lesser talents like Judy Blume and Chelsea Handler.
I know they are true of me, and while my achievements as a writer are modest at best, I’m convinced that there may be value in an account of my own daily rituals, which will be the subject of my next diatribe.