Peter McGraw is joined by guest co-host Lily Rains to continue the mini-series on solitude. They talk to Mason Currey, an author of a book that reveals how many great thinkers used their alone time to change the world with their art, music, and ideas.
Listen to Episode #80 here:
Creating In Solitude
In this episode, we continue to explore solitude by speaking to an author of a delightful book about daily rituals. The book reveals how many great thinkers use solitude to change the world with their art, music, and ideas. There are so much good information in here. I don’t want to delay any further besides asking you to review the show if you haven’t already. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Mason Currey. Mason is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles and the author of the Daily Rituals books chronicling the day-to-day work habits of more than 300 great creative minds. Note that I’m not in any of them. His freelance writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. He also writes the Subtle Maneuvers a free weekly newsletter on routines, rituals and wriggling through a creative life. Welcome, Mason.
Thanks for having me.
We are joined by a return guest host, Lily Rains. Lily is a storyteller, arts educator, a crafter of needlework and maker of homemade ice cream. Lily loves to be part of an assembly with a shared goal, be it on a softball field, escape room or getting a play movie or TV show. We are debating this but this is Lily’s fourth appearance on SOLO, maybe technically the fifth because we did a rerun of one of my most popular episodes. Welcome back, Lily.
It’s good to be here.
This episode continues our exploration of solitude. Something relevant to us solos and as part of it, I have been talking to remarkable singles to explore their practices and perspectives about solitude. What we are going to do is look back at some of the world’s greatest thinkers and how they use solitude, perhaps, oftentimes, to make great things. Mason, I’m thrilled to talk to you. I have emailed you. I have read your books. Your book is the second most gifted book that I have ever given and the first is not the Bible.
That’s amazing. Thank you.
Whatever your publisher tells you about the numbers, I am responsible for at least 10%.
I’m in your debt. Thank you.
I forced Lily to read it.
No forcing. As if this couldn’t have happened at a better time. Peter, did you enjoy my message?
Later in the conversation, we are going to dive into some fascinating case studies. I said, “Lily, I want you to prep three,” and she sent me sixteen. She was like, “Which of these do you want me to talk about?” I said, “One was a yes and for the remaining thirteen, you choose.”
It’s a dealer’s choice. This book sank too many fibers of my being. Thank you, Mason.
Thank you. That means a lot. That’s great.
Is this a fair description of your book, Mason? You do short profiles, 800 words or so of the daily rituals of these great thinkers. This is said with love. In many ways, it’s the smartest bathroom book you can ever find.
I will take that as a compliment. I have heard that a lot.
One great thinker per dump is the way I imagine it.
That was going a little too far.
Now we know how regular, Peter is. I don’t know which one equals the other one.
They were shorter. It would be better but they are the perfect length. How did this wonderful book happen? I have this sense that it started, in the business world would call it MVP, a Minimum Viable Product, a blog. Is that true? No pun intended.
It’s a terrible pun. The real beginning was me procrastinating on a writing project. I have wanted to be a writer for a long time and I have always been a procrastinator. At this particular moment, I was working at a magazine in New York and I had an article due the next morning. I went into the office on a Sunday afternoon to knock this thing out. I instead was surfing the internet and slacking off. One of my favorite procrastination techniques is to read about writers’ daily routines and work habits because I feel maybe it will get me in the mood to finally buckle down and get to work.
This particular afternoon, I was reading something and I thought, “Somebody should collect all these little snippets and anecdotes in one place like on a blog.” I did a quick search and there was no blog like that at the time. Instead of writing my article that afternoon, I started this blog as a hobby. For 1.5 years I added things as I ran across them in magazine profiles, obituaries or things I was reading. It had this moment where it got linked to from a bunch of sites and blew up. It got some attention and from that, I was able to turn it into a book deal. I embarked on a much more systematic research process to try to make it book-worthy and not just a printed blog.
Whatever happened with that article? Did you ever get done?
It did it the next morning, early before work, which is how I ended up doing everything. I don’t know why I have to pretend I’m going to get it done the day before. I know that I’m going to do it in the morning in the last-minute panic so that happened.
That aligns with what I was absorbing. As I’m reading it, I felt the spirit behind the actual reporting or retelling, if you will. It makes absolute sense that this was inspired out of a space of wanting to create but not necessarily for the thing that was on deadline because I feel like it’s a companion piece to Pressfield’s The War of Art and it’s the inside job of our own resistance and facing our own resistance, embracing it and naming it. You are giving us outside examples of how other people either faced it, moved through it, ran through the brick wall or let it succumb. They surrendered to it. How cool.
I have always wanted to be a writer always. I have always found it hard. I have always been interested in how people do it even if it wasn’t writing. If being a painter or a composer, how did they do it on a literally day-to-day basis? How much time do they set aside? How did they force themselves to stick with it when they felt stuck and blocked?
How many hours were they on Twitter? There are a lot of questions that we have.
How did you go about researching this? I get the sense reading the book, some of it was diving into biographies. One of the cool things is that you read letters. This is one of the neat things about these great thinkers. They sent letters to the other great thinkers, their friends, family and so on. What was that process like?
As much as possible, I wanted to let people speak for themselves in quotes from letters, diaries, journal entries, interviews because as much as the actual routines were interesting but the way people talked about the routines was often the interesting part. The tone they had, the sense of comic exaggeration, the melodramatic tortured artist vibe or the cheerful, pragmatic, industrious vibe. That stuff gave the book its flavor more than the literal details. I spent a lot of time at the library picking my way through whatever I could find.
At the time, I was living in New York, and I would go to the New York Public Library and work my way through the biography section from A to Z. I would pull things off the shelf and look in the index and look for daily routine, smoking habits, drinking habits, whatever I felt that might give me a little glimmer of insight. A lot of times they didn’t find anything but when I did, I would photocopy it and I amass this trove of interesting and quirky material.
How did you distill or triangulate for truth, a letter of the way that someone wanted to be perceived versus the way they were? It was like the Instagram of yesteryear was the letter. It’s like, “Everything’s great. The mayor had her calf and I wrote my fourth book now,” versus, “Dear Jane, what the fuck? I can’t get this out. I can’t do anything except write letters.”
Is letter writing the procrastination tool of the great thinker?
Maybe. It’s interesting. A lot of writers I feel used letter writing to warm up for the actual writing. They would write some letters and they would get down to work on what the novel or whatever. In terms of taking them at their word, you have to take some of this with a grain of salt. A lot of famous writers and artists or natural mythmakers. They toy with self-glorification or have fun with interviewers and say, “I smoke five packs of cigarettes a day and drink a bottle of gin.” If I could find something that directly contradicted what the person said, I try to include that and say that this doesn’t seem to be true. Sometimes, you have to let them have their say and people can decide for themselves.
Mason, one of the things that I like about the book is you use the word ritual. That’s a special word. It’s a word I have talked about in previous episodes.
Peter loves the word ritual.
I do love that word.
That sounded sardonic or judgy it’s not at all.
Part of the reason I have Lily on here, she makes fun of me sometimes so it’s okay. I like the word ritual because we are talking in many ways about habits and I believe habits are a cheat code to winning in the world. We think about willpower all the time and powering through. Lily was talking about Pressfield’s The War of Art. Pressfield talks about how difficult it is to make things and one of the ways that you can make things is to make the making automatic. In my world of creating more than you consume, this idea of a ritual is great because it is that habit but it feels like a special habit. You don’t talk about rituals, as my workout ritual.
To me, there’s something about this creation process. If you were ever to outlive me, Mason, to look back on great thinkers of the 2020s, you will talk about how Peter would go to a cafe and he had had a cappuccino. That signaled that the workday is starting and there’s something about starting the day with this delicious drink. The reason I started drinking cappuccinos had to do with something similar to your start of this project.
This is a dozen years ago now. I decided if I don’t get my writing together, I am going to lose my job as a professor. I’m not going to get tenure. What I did was I started researching what great writers do. I was reading all the Stephen King books and so forth. I found a blog post that did a survey and you might have written it, who knows? It was about what are the constants across great writers and one of them was they tend to write first thing in the morning and they have a cup of coffee to start the day. I was approaching 40 and didn’t drink coffee. I had caffeine once as a graduate student in five years.
Was that because you were a Mormon?
No. I was good about getting enough sleep. I didn’t like coffee and I didn’t want to drink soda, of course.
What is it with this of course? Who are you? We grew up on the same planet at the same time.
I’m a weirdo in some ways. I know.
Is that connected to why you choose not to drink now?
A little bit.
Mason, we will get back to you.
Have a sip of coffee, Mason. Lily and I will have a side conversation.
We are going to have to work this out.
I was like, “If I want to be a great writer, let me behave like great writers.” I didn’t want a cup of coffee, so I would have a little espresso. That would be my thing. As with many things, wine, whiskey and other types of consumables, I started to like it. I now drink the cappuccino. It’s less for the caffeine and more for the ritual even still. I’m curious for both of you, your word ritual was chosen carefully, I assume. Lily, do you have rituals related to your creative work? That’s a two-part question. One of you can go first. Not at the same time.
I will tell you a secret to start on. The working title for the book was always Daily Routines and when I was compiling it, I was thinking about people’s routines, the structure they gave their day. If you look at someone’s routine, you get a sense of their priorities, what you do every day ends up being what you do with your life. The book was done and when I saw the draft of my publisher’s book catalog, they changed the title to Daily Rituals. My editor was like, “It’s a better title and you are writing about rituals.” I was resistant to it because I felt that rituals have religious context and even magical connotations. It wasn’t what I was thinking about.
Since then, I have come to feel that it was a better title and it is a more interesting framework because you asked about the difference between a ritual and a habit and the thing is a ritual is about transformation. Habit is something you do. You go to the gym, you put it on autopilot, it becomes easier because it’s a habit. I feel like for a ritual you are walking yourself step by step into a particular frame of mind or state of mind. For these artists, you are trying to get into this headspace where you can do this slippery, fragile and demanding work. That’s where people do things like you where you have to have a particular cup of coffee at a particular time in a particular way. You are training yourself to access the state of mind that otherwise can be difficult to get into.
It absolutely dovetails into what I was going to say, which is the difference between habit and ritual is consciousness and how do you engage with purpose in this activity. I have a dear friend who is a ritual witch. She will ritualize anything. She drinks coffee and tea. I’m kidding but she does probably. When she has a teabag, depending on, whether or not she wants to call something in or have something leave her spirit, life, consciousness and she will rotate the tea bag in different directions. That’s someone who makes everything important.
Thank you 2020. It was a few years ago since I arrived in my new state of mind of my actual location. My GPS coordinates completely changed a few years ago. This pandemic hit. I had to stay here and that changed everything about me because I went from being a solo who diversified her joy, all of her jobs, income and everything to all of a sudden being stuck frozen in Minnesota with family and surrounded by so many people.
Being a creative who does a little bit of everything and is inspired by so many different things, forced me to start ritualizing my own consciousness. At some point, it gets dark. It’s sundown at 3:30 or 4:00 here. I’m from Malibu and I was like, “How am I going to survive this?” Something clicked. It’s one thing if I’m going to rehearsal because it’s a 7:00 call, the sun’s gone down. When I was a kid, I played sports in high school and played soccer and the sun went down early but I was still alert and I was still engaged.
I started thinking, “When the sun goes down, what I’m going to do is take a walk around my apartment building and pretend I’m going somewhere to then start the third act of my day.” That completely shifted my mindset. I didn’t need my nap. I didn’t need to go to bed by 6:00. I do feel that a ritual is something that, as a creative and as a human is important to do but then to ritualize your activities absolutely set you up for success.
Do you have a particular tea bag swirling or cappuccinos sipping activity that comes to mind the way that you have cultivated?
I do fatty coffee in the morning and now I have this great vacuum-sealed mug so I put my things in the mug. I walk, don’t take the elevator down from my six-floor apartment down to the free Starbucks machine in our lobby. The path that I take changes almost every day. As I shake my mug full of coffee with all this butter and MCT oil and all that, I’m calling in the things I want. I’m not joking. It was like, “This is what I want for my day.”
I remember once reading about a Turkish novelist named Orhan Pamuk who wrote a novel called Snow that was widely praised years ago. I read an interview with him where he said, he went through a period where he was living with his partner and he had a hard time getting into the headspace to write. Every morning he would get up, get dressed, get his briefcase, go out the front door, walk around the block, and come back in and go straight to his desk and go to work as if he were literally going to his office and entering a different space. You’re in good company with that one.
I made a joke about how I need to light candles, grab my yoga mat, run around my apartment building, run back into my apartment and go, “Sorry.”
That stuff makes a difference, though. That’s the thing that’s so interesting. I don’t know why it works that way but it does seem to be the way our brains work. That’s why it’s so fun to read these stories. For me, doing this research for the book was a joy because I find this material endlessly fascinating. Every time you find somebody‘s little thing you think, “This is good. I can’t wait to get this in here.”
It’s a little gem. The books are filled with those. As a quick aside, Lily’s joke there’s an inside joke for some because if you have never taken a yoga class, what you don’t realize is how stressful it is to get to yoga on time, set up so you can then relax. I found that yoga classes stressed me out for that reason, oftentimes.
The first twenty minutes of you being, “Relax. You are here.” Your reptilian brain is like, “You fucked up.”
They will lock you out if you are late so as not to disturb others. We want to talk about solitude. In your experience base on my reading of the book is many of these people did exactly what we were talking about. Find some peace and quiet, find a separate space and do work in that. Before we get to the benefits of that, the other thing that they did was they would release themselves from that ritual and engage in exercise, social time, partying or something like that. Little was the case that you describe someone who got up at 6:00 in the morning, worked until 10:00 at night and went to bed, rinse and repeat. In my book Shtick to Business, I talked about how they work hard or hardly work. They grind and they release themselves from that grind. Before we get into the depth of the grind, can we talk about that release, that hard–working stage?
That reminds me of a quote about the nineteenth–century French novelist Balzac, who wrote dozens and dozens of novels and his biographer said that he worked in orgies of work, followed by orgies of relaxation and pleasure. When he was working, he was one of these people who worked from 6:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night, slept and started over again. When he wasn’t working, he was completely having a good time. There’s that tension or that balance in a lot of these lives.
You need that solitude to burrow into your work, dig into it, experiment, do trial and error, start over again and let yourself wallow in it. You also need a release from that, you need some experience of the world and other people. We have all had the experience of being too much in our own heads and that can be a problem for any creative activity. You see a lot of people who crave solitude but then at night, they have to get out and go to a restaurant or a bar or have dinner with their friends.
It feels like the natural rhythm of expansion and contraction. You can only absorb so many new things before you have to squeeze that sponge out into your writing. I will say that as I am stepping into my voice as a solo writer because I have been working with other people, it’s amazing how I’m like, “I should have been doing this sooner because I have been hearing everybody.” I’m still corked up a little bit and it’s taking a little bit to punch through to hear what my voice is versus the voices of so many around me.
We now have many more options of stimuli with the story, it’s social media, it’s all the news channels and its people around us if you live in cities, whatnot. It’s so much that you have to commit to your solitude. Even in the artist’s way, Julia Cameron has us going through reading deprivation, which is the best as you showed, Mason. The best way to procrastinate from putting your own voice onto paper is to take another voice.
That’s my career in a nutshell. Finding that balance is tricky and it changes from project to project and from time to time in your life. Some people want to get that balance in a daily way. They want to work a certain amount during the day and they want to socialize a certain amount. Other people do it more in being in the project and being out of the project. You have people who are in project mode and they are obsessed with their project. They want to cancel all their lunches, they don’t want to hang out, they do whatever they can to push away competing obligations. When it’s over, they might not work at all for weeks or months. They barely work. I don’t know if that’s two personality types or changes in different phases of people’s careers.
Lily works in Hollywood, and the Hollywood model is you work for weeks on end, long–ass days and you disappear on vacation and people can’t even get ahold of you for a month. That’s completely different from my world, which is I work almost every single day but I try to find a little bit of joy on that day but it could be on a weekly schedule. The average person whose Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 has their weekends or their Sabbath.
In Schtick to Business, I interview an improviser named Billy Merritt and he talks about how to become a great improviser. He goes through on Monday night, you take your class, on Tuesday night, you drop into an improv jam. On Wednesday night, you go watch improv. On Thursday, you hire an instructor and you work with your team. On Friday, you go see other types of comedy. On the weekend, you go to Europe is what he says.
He doesn’t mean go to Europe for a weekend, he means metaphorically go to Europe, as you do anything but improv and that thing should be going to Europe. It’s going to expose you to new ideas and give you material to improvise or to write and so on. That ends up becoming critical. Let’s talk about this solitude. You mentioned trial and error and the idea of experimentation, can you say more about that? What is it that’s so special about solitude? This is a series on solitude. What’s so special about that time that enhances the creative process?
It lets you go deeper into your own thoughts and also be freer with them. There’s something about being interrupted, taking you out of it, that prevents you from following an idea as far as you could. As a writer, I can write something bad, which is how most things start and nobody has to see it.
It’s the shitty first draft.
I will write, delete or file it away. My books are not about writers, it’s also about painters, choreographers and composers. If you are composing something on the piano, you have to make the notes. If you are working at choreography and thinking about the movements, you have to do that. People need solitude to experiment and not feel watched and judged. Even as a writer, sometimes I feel if someone’s in the same space, you are a little bit on guard, you have a little sense of someone there, a sense of maybe judgment or being watched. It takes a little bit to keep you from going all the way until the work or all the way into an idea.
Even the examples you are giving are still collaborative arts. If I’m writing a piece of music, unless it’s only going to be me and that one instrument, if you are composing for future collaboration with others, we are going to inform you what the actual form is. For dancing, you are the choreographer and the solo dancer. It’s the same thing with writing. You write the first draft, you write the draft, you write whatever you are willing to then give your editor but it ends up being a collaboration, yet it takes the commitment encouraged for solitude for you to get that out so you can start with something. It’s the improv of, get out there, put your body in space, take up space, take a shape and say something and we will build the universe around you.
Even collaborative art practices often begin in solitude. I did some research on choreographers who, of course, work collaboratively. They were literally working with dancers to help dancers find the dance. Many of them talked about how they had to have first, a long stretch of solitude to work out the ideas by themselves locked away. There’s a great story about Martha Graham, one of the great choreographers of all time. She moved to Greenwich Village in the 1920s. It was this hotbed of intellectual artistic activity, everybody was hanging out and her response was, “I stay in my studio. I don’t hang out because if I go hang out, we are going to talk and talking is not doing.” She has this quote, “Talk is a privilege and one must deny oneself that privilege.” She had to be alone.
I’m having that tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. You guys keep going. I will be fine. I can still talk. I don’t need to step in.
There’s another choreographer who’s not as famous named Agnes de Mille. She did Oklahoma. She did this American style of dance. She has an entertaining autobiography and she talks about how she would lock herself in the studio and she couldn’t be observed when she was doing the early stages. When it was time to work with the dancers, she would still station a guard in front of the rehearsal studio because nobody could observe them beyond the absolute, the people that had to be in the room. That’s a common theme. I don’t know why it is but there’s something about you can’t get that full freedom.
I can give you one little tip about this. First of all, I want to say, I want violinists, pianists, electric guitarists to work out new ideas in private. The world doesn’t need to hear the early stuff. There’s fascinating research about the costs and benefits of a crowd. One of the things that’s interesting, when it comes to peak performance, what ends up happening is the novice wilts in front of a crowd and the expert performs better in front of the crowd. It’s clear that others matter, even accepting others.
We know this because we know that brainstorming works best when people brainstorm their ideas alone and hand them in versus when they brainstorm them in front of other people because they will self-censor to not be judged. It’s that idea of the freedom to experiment, to be bad and wrong. What we know about creative processes is that it’s typically not your first idea that’s the best one and that sometimes you happen into good ideas through bad ideas with regard to that.
It’s fun to have you talk about this stuff because people can disinhibit us. It’s already hard enough to make something and know that you are going to, to use Seth Godin term, ship it. You know people are going to dislike it and the more provocative in some ways, the better it is, the more haters. Especially in the arts. One of the fascinating things to do and Mason, feel free to steal this for your next book idea, is a review of reviews of world-changing art.
I love that idea. You get a little bit of that if you read the reviews on Amazon, all those 5 stars or 0-star reviews of your favorite movies or your favorite book. There are some not genius happening there
Reviews of national parks. One of my favorites is one-star reviews of the Grand Canyon. I did see an interview and it was a wonderful fun documentary about electric guitar called It Might Get Loud. Jimmy Page talks about one of their albums that they released. It has hit after hit and they were the short fiery critiques. He said that the critics didn’t get it. We already are battling as creative people that are concerned about how we will be judged in the world. It’s part of the reason I was reluctant to launch this show. It’s even harder as you are making it at the moment worried that someone’s like, “I don’t know, Lily, you are being a little too bold there. Maybe you should tamp it down a tiny bit?”
It is not about who’s your audience and what’s with the privilege of modern-day is that we, our audience, can be global. It’s a blessing and a curse. For many of these people, you are talking about hundreds of years ago and they don’t know who their audience is and some of them didn’t even get an audience until they died so that’s the true test of the artist. Are you willing to take up space and put yourself out in whatever light either sunshine or the century light on a stage and cast whatever fucking shadow you end up casting but not stay in the analysis of shadow and still keep going still try to find the new light cast a new shadow? If you blend in, there’s no shadow.
We had a previous episode where we looked at Nietzsche and his view on friends. Nietzsche is a big deal these days but not when he was publishing books. The blessings of being a great artist are that you may change the world and you may be remembered forever but you may not do it in your lifetime.
Another thing I want to say is a lot of artists are above all else chasing, they are trying to satisfy themselves. They think about their audience but when they are making the work, it’s like there are some ideas or ideal, some effects they are trying to create, that they can’t quite define but it’s they know it when they see it or when they land on it. That also is where you need to be alone with yourself. It takes so little to take you out of that so even if you are not thinking about being judged by the audience or being witnessed by someone in the room.
Having someone in the room keeps you from going that far into your own thing. There’s a quote of this great painter, Agnes Martin, who lived remotely in Mexico to have more solitude for herself and she said something like, “Your mind is not your own when there are other people around.” It’s true. The presence of another person shifts your mind a little bit or keeps your mind from shifting into that other space or at least that’s how I feel.
That is 1,000% why I am not looking for a partner as I’m honing my creative voice.
Fifty percent of American adults who are single are not interested in dating or relationships. You are completely normal in not wanting that at this time and using that time, as I always like to say, to hone. Agnes Martin also wrote, “You must gather together in your studio all of your sensibilities and when they are gathered, you must not be disturbed.” She went to New Mexico to get away from people and she would go into our studio and get away with people.
It’s double solitude. She was ruthless. There’s a great book of her work and it’s her little facsimile of a little handwritten booklet she made. You get to see her handwriting in pencil on this, no paper and the booklet is all about inspiration. She was a big believer in inspiration and in particular, not inspiration was something that hit you out of the blue, it was something you had to cultivate. You had to make the conditions, you had to be there for it every day. Above all, you had to be alone with your thoughts. You had to cultivate solitude. She talked about, “You can’t be an artist in those studios. You have to have a studio and you have to be able to close the door and if someone can come in, it doesn’t count.”
That echoed in Maya Angelou’s needing for her own apartment. Instead of getting an office, she got an apartment.
She said, “I can’t work at home because it throws me.” She said she would like to get a motel or hotel room and the tinier and the meaner, the better. There’s a great quote where she said she would surround herself with a Bible, a deck of cards, a bottle of sherry, and a dictionary. This is the absolute basics and she would go there all day. She would come home and see her husband and have a normal evening but she couldn’t write without that other space to be alone.
Here’s what I want to do because people are sitting here going, “You are finally talking about some of these great thinkers.” Talking about the longest cold open of a show. What I want to do is turn things over to the two of you to let’s talk about some of the notable creative thinkers who use solitude in interesting ways. Let’s highlight some of those who are single. This was during a time where almost everybody got married. My guess is part of the reason they needed the solitude was because there was someone else in their life that they had to get away from. There are some that were solo at the time and I guess that many of them were solo by mentality anyways. They had to get married because that’s what you did. Who wants to start?
Here are two moments in the book. One is about Nathaniel Hawthorne and when he was first starting as a writer after college. He spent twelve years working on his writing. He basically shut himself in his room and he read obsessively, he wrote a bunch and he destroyed most of what he wrote and finally, he came out with his first book of short stories. Critics have called those years, the solitary years. That’s a period of Hawthorne’s career.
Fast forward 100 years and there’s this great also term for Samuel Beckett living in Paris went through a similar phase where he was trying to get his writing to the next level and he stayed alone in this room and read obsessively and wrote a bunch of destroyed most of the buddy wrote. They call that period, the Siege in the Room. I love that the critics have made up these terms for these phases of solitary head down, tortured, super dedicated, solo writing. I always think of the seeds in the room when I’m trying to do something tricky.
It’s like Pressfield’s The War of Art. You are doing battle to create this thing.
On the complete flip, you have Patricia Highsmith, who fed her id like that was her job. He eats all the food that tastes delicious. Bacon fried eggs any time of the day doesn’t matter, her favorite cereal. She has got drinks whenever she wants. She wanted to avoid discipline and was focused on pleasure as a source of her inspiration. Talk about turning your solitude into play and fun.
Also, because she found the writing difficult. It was because she had to comfort herself. She would sit on the bed and she had a doughnut and a cup of coffee. She also had a saucer of sugar to dip the doughnut in.
That’s exactly what you do when your id gets to be in charge.
If I may, there were these two paths to being creative. One of the Samuel Beckett path, which you keep hammering on something over and over again and eventually, something good comes out of it. Tell me again who this was.
Patricia Highsmith would collect snails.
Patricia Highsmith, which is to make good things, you need to feel good. That is a positive emotion that enhances creativity and that’s nice. I have this idea that there’s no one way to do it and yet both of them embrace solitude.
The reality is the only reason why we are even talking about these artists is because of their proof of productivity, what they ended up creating. They landed planes as opposed to all of the ideas that they had in their heads when they passed, we will never know what those ideas were. Everybody created something that was of note. It’s amazing. We get connected to how they’ve got there.
Mason, who else do you have?
I was thinking about Georgia O’Keeffe. She was another one like Agnes Martin, who went to New Mexico to be alone with her work. I have in front of me a little description that she gave an interviewer in the ‘60s about her morning, that captures it nicely. She said, “I like to get up when the dawn comes. The dogs start talking to me. I like to make a fire and maybe some tea and sit in bed and watch the sun come up. The morning is the best time. There are no people around. My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.“ It’s a common refrain. For some of these people, their equilibrium required solitude, their creativity required it but maybe beyond that, it was something they craved at a deeper level. Georgia O’Keeffe is a good example of that.
Are you saying that the person who needs people around is maybe at a disadvantage in some ways?
You have to figure out a working process or practice that suits your temperament. Some people are like Kate Chopin, the author who said she would write with her children “swarming” about her. She didn’t care. She would sit in the living room, write and she would have kids and dogs everywhere. That works for her but other people felt they needed that solitude, so they arranged their lives to have it to make it. It’s about knowing what you need and arranging your life in your day in particular to access that.
The flip is F Scott Fitzgerald, who somehow was able to write while being enlisted in the Army and the second that he was in control of his schedule, he couldn’t get anything done.
That story is heartbreaking. He was so productive and he lost the thread of it. Fitzgerald’s alcoholism is something. This is a short blurb that can’t get into it but that might have been one of the factors. He was swept up in the roaring twenties and there are writers who think hanging out is great and they were a part of such a scene of who wants to, tie yourself to the desk for eight hours a day.
At the time, writers were rock stars. You have to remember that essentially is the case and it’s a lot more fun to talk about writing than it is to write. It’s a lot more fun to talk about writing over beers or cocktails.
Who knows how many attempts at his second book that he was in the middle of but then had that resistance and drank himself to numbness?
I was going to say the other tricky part is but who’s to say the period of not writing wasn’t productive in its own way. Many great books come out of the spell of dissolution, procrastination. You learned something about yourself, maybe you learn about your demons or overcome your demons. Sometimes the writers who crank out a book every year, you maybe wish they would get stuck, get blocked for five years and they would produce their best work.
Do you know the marriage I wondered about? Stephen King’s. Guess who’s not having tons of sex? The guy who was writing six books a year.
He writes 1,000 or 2,000 words every day, including his birthday and Christmas morning.
I’m like, “I don’t want to fuck that guy. He’s so regimented.”
F Scott Fitzgerald catches too much hell. Talk about one of the world’s best one-hit wonders. Let’s be honest, he wrote a near-perfect book.
The Great Gatsby. Although Tender Is the Night is terrific.
It’s two-hit wonders.
Wouldn’t you rather produce Gatsby and nothing else than produce 30 books?
You get judged on your winners ultimately anyways. Either path works. I like to think my best book is ahead of me. I hope it is.
That’s the only way to think about these things. You have to believe that. Otherwise, why stick with it?
You are a little bit more an Ernest Hemingway, Peter. You will show up on the page every day. I loved what he did his practice of finishing when exactly what’s going to happen next and moving away from it so when you sat down the next day, you were full with the idea and that was your initial offering and you added.
Can you say more about Hemingway’s process, Lily? I want to highlight this, Hemingway showed up in one of our previous episodes with Mary Dahm in which we look at people who should never have married. Hemingway married many times and what we decided was maybe he should have stuck with his first wife if I remember correctly. What was his process like? It’s impressive. Talk about someone who would grind and release. When that guy was released, he released. He will also get up and work every day.
I will say that maybe not for the proper process, not the direct answer to your question about the process but I love the quote of him writing the letters of a welcome break from the awful responsibility of writing or then sometimes called the responsibility of awful writing. It’s like working out. You know that if I don’t go now, then my legs will be sore. I won’t be able to recover and I’m not going to show up for myself in three days, so I have to do it.
Mason, how would you describe Hemingway’s process? Was there something special about it beyond that?
He does something that a lot of writers and artists do which is to plant the seed and let it percolate. The thing that Lily mentioned about like he would stop when he knew it was next. The next morning when he went to the page, he knew exactly where he was going to pick up. The real magic of that was like that whole 24 hours is the thing he left in the back of his mind. Your brain kind of gnaws away at it and expands on it. By the time he got back to the page, he had not only known the next sentence but all this 24 hours’ worth of thought and rumination and percolation to kind of put into it.
Personal question, Mason, because that’s a little bit like Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m wondering where you, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ernest Hemingway. There’s a trifecta. Ernest Hemingway shows up every day and clearly doesn’t have a procrastination challenge. The Frank Lloyd Wright of it is you’re percolating on something so that when you do sit down and the pressure of an appointment is there of a deadline is when all of it comes out. Are you percolating?
I don’t remember the Frank Lloyd Wright one, and people haven’t read the book yet. Sorry to be the cool kid at the party like, “Who just name-dropped Frank Lloyd Wright?” “This bitch over here by the champagne flute.”
Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect. He had an office of architects that worked for him and he would drive them nuts because he wouldn’t do the drawings for projects.
He wouldn’t work in front of them.
He would do it in his head but then he would wait until the meeting was an hour away and then he would knock out the drawing to show the client. Fallingwater is the most famous residence of the twentieth century. Everyone makes a pilgrimage to Fallingwater but he didn’t start the drawings for that until the client called him and said, “I’m getting in the car and I’m going to be there in two hours.” I’m glad you asked that because I think so many good creative products are the result of exactly that dynamic. It’s the percolation, the letting something be in the back of your mind, letting your mind gnaw away at it and then the super-focused burst of work. It’s the rumination and then the deadline pressure of making it into something. That’s the ideal in a lot of ways.
This triangle, because I want this to be crystal clear to people. Who are the three sides of this triangle or the three corners?
Mason began our story talking about how this book came out of needing a deadline and really budding up against it and how Mason has this recurring experience of what some might call procrastination. Frank Lloyd Wright was looked at as someone who procrastinated when he might not have been in action in his development of an idea but was internally working on it. It same as what Mason’s probably doing so that when he did sit down, he could write it out. You’ve got Ernest Hemingway who does show up to the page every day. However, he consciously deprived himself of work so that he can percolate. He values the percolation time.
That’s wonderfully said, it reminds me of a story of a guy I met on Twitter. He’s a designer and has a famous talk called, Fuck You, Pay Me. It’s a manifesto for designers to get paid what they deserve to be paid. He talks about how a client says, “It only took you an hour to do that. Why are you charging me for 23 hours of work?” He said, “That’s because I needed the 22 hours to get to that hour of work.” I think that’s a nice example for Frank Lloyd Wright. He may work an hour but he needed those other 22–plus hours.
Let’s also be mindful of the fact that, down to the studio musician who gets hired to be in the room while some amazing artist comes through and is working for hours on their vocals and the studio musician just keeps doing their thing and they have a base rate of payment. Yet everyone’s touting whoever it is that’s the lead singer but that person put in so many hours to get to the point where they could be consistent and good. While you are only paying technically for the time that you are in the studio, you need to value the person for the journey that got them here, in my opinion. Me showing up and being able to like bust out a script even though you gave six hours of studio time but I did it in an hour is because I’m good at what I do. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t get paid for the bigger picture. Can we go back to talking about some of these amazing artists who were single and solo?
One who jumps out to me is the writer Franz Kafka, who is one of my favorite writers and in particular, one of my favorites to read about the creative process. His diaries are full and rich in the ups and downs and particularly the downs of trying to make it as a writer. There’s a section in there where he lists the pros and cons of marriage because he’s considering marrying his fiancée and they ended up breaking it off.
You feel so sorry for him and his fiancée if you read the whole saga. Item number three on the summary of all the arguments for and against my marriage is, “I must be alone a great deal. What I accomplished was only the result of being alone.” He said elsewhere that a writer can never be alone enough. He even had a fantasy of the ideal setup for a writer to have a room in some basement of a building and have somebody leave a meal outside your door twice a day.
How long were they dating? Who’s this woman and what did she end up doing?
It’s such a sad tale.
Have you read Kafka’s stories?
No, why would I read Kafka? It’s me.
This is not the happy-go-lucky guy who creates a joyous family.
Was his fiancée the Wednesday Adams of their time? Do we know her name?
It’s Felice Bauer.
This is a nice contrast or at least a good segue into the last couple of things I want to talk about. One of the things that you have done and you have a delightful New Yorker article about artists who are in a relationship and the tensions that create in terms of making their art. This seems especially the case for people who live in small apartments. Am I remembering this correctly?
Yeah. When the pandemic started and people were being forced to shelter at home, my wife and I were going through this, we were both in our one-bedroom apartment and working from home. I started thinking about all the artists and writers who have been in that situation and how they tried to create some separation to do their work. There’s a great quote by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning who said, “An artist must I fancy either find or make a solitude to work in if it’s going to be good work at all.” The idea with this article was how did people “make a solitude” when they didn’t have the luxury of solitude? It ranges from the most rudimentary tactics to the most elaborate ones.
The most rudimentary are like the painters Willem de Kooning and Elaine de Kooning who were married and had this tiny studio in New York. There wasn’t even a wall separating their painting spaces. They had a rule that they would at least be in opposite corners and face away from each other. That’s the best they could do. Willem de Kooning turns out, was a great whistler. He loved to whistle while he works so this drove Elaine absolutely mad. He ended up having to get a separate studio because it didn’t work even though they couldn’t afford it.
On the more elaborate side, there are a couple of artists Romaine Brooks who was a painter and Natalie Barney, who was a writer and a socialite in Paris in the ‘20s. They both crave solitude but they were in love. They were partners for 50 years and they tried at a certain point to build one residence where they would have separate bedrooms, separate entrances and separate living rooms. They would have their own servants. They were trying to create solitude and togetherness. It didn’t work. The painter needed more solitude and the writer needed more visitors and it didn’t work out.
You guys are bringing up a lot. When I was reading this, by the way, I do make the joke about how prolific would all of these creators be in the modern era of social media. The gasket of creativity gets released a little too often if you are on Twitter, your one-liners go out on Twitter but that could have been a phenomenal chapter in a book you will never write. At the same time, I think like, “I wish there was another Bill & Ted’s 4 where we bring some of these people who are having mood disorders or addiction issues or I can’t do anything because my husband whistles,” and bring them to modern–day and be like, “I’m going to create a vacuum and here are the noise-canceling headphones.”
We are going to cure your gout.
Yes. “You have at least one more novel in you. Get through diabetes.”
There’s a WeWork membership and noise–canceling headphones.
F Scott FitzGerald is over at the coffee machine the whole time, “Did you try these Doritos? Cool Ranch, can you believe it?”
The last thing I want to talk about and bring this spectacular conversation to a close and I’m doing this purely for selfish reasons. I live alone. There’s no one I need to crowd out and no one’s crowding me out. I think about Jane Austen, because she was a woman and never had an opportunity to be solo. She had to operate within this family system and so much that she used to hide her work when a visitor came. It wasn’t obvious that she was a writer at this time. It was her sisters and mother who ran interference, took up the slack because they recognized her genius. Is that a fair thing to say?
That’s a good summary. The great detail is that they would be sitting around in a room together sewing and Jane Austen would be writing. This is an era when visitors showed up unannounced, she would tuck the writing away underneath the sewing materials. The great detail is that there was a squeaky hinge on the door that led to the sewing room. She refused to let anyone fix the squeaky hinge because it was the hinge was the signal that someone was coming so she could tuck her writing away. Sometimes I think we all need that squeaky hinge. It’s the warning sign.
As a quick aside, it’s those details that make your books wonderful, Mason. I remember reading a book about writing and the writer talked about finding out the dog’s name. You don’t refer to the dog, you refer to the dog because as Mr. Snugglesworth or whatever the dog’s name is and your books are filled with lots of Mr. Snugglesworth types of details. Nice memorable things and things that make it super real.
I have to say the Jane Austen chapter got me in a way that I didn’t expect because I’m going to admit something. I have never read Jane Austen and I have female parts. What was so beautiful and absolutely speaks to what Peter is saying, your tone in each chapter felt like it grabbed the essence, energy, unspoken and intangible of each one of these creators’ lives and era. “No joke, Jane Austen?” I was like, “This is all fluff.” Now I’m like, “She had wing women.” She was in a family unit with the coolest women who were like, “No one needs to find this out. She’s amazing. We have no idea where this is going to go but let’s protect it. Let’s all create a web of lies so that she can be her best self.” It’s just love, it’s a privilege. It’s a lot of things that the little I know from the movie posters that’s what she has been writing about. It’s interesting to have someone who’s reflecting on her time in like the time of Lena Dunham.
I have to point out this one thing. Jane Austen has written wonderful books. She, in some ways, has set back solo living tremendously as a result of those. There’s a great irony in this and that she wrote stories about people coupling up and following romantic love and what it was, was familial love that allowed her to write these books. There’s a delicious irony in all of this and that if Jane Austen had actually done what happens in her books, she would not be able to write those books because Mr. Darcy would not let her do it. They were still in a stage where you still owned your wife.
Did she pass as a solo? Did she ever couple up?
No, she never married.
Everything is a wish, a dream and a fantasy.
Are we glad she didn’t do it?
Yes. I now have a new totem that I need to bring into my life. It’s a bust of Jane Austen.
The last thing that I will say about your book, Mason, I know you are blushing right now is, ignore the one-star reviews because those people don’t know what they were talking about.
If you want a comedic reading of all of your one-star reviews, I will be happy to.
The last thing is, I like to go to a cafe and have my ritual. If we could bring this back around, I would like to have my cappuccino made by someone else, sometimes a hateful hipster but usually I prefer a nice, lovely, friendly barista. I like to do this in public but I have my noise-canceling earphones and so on. This idea of solitude within a crowd is something that I like. I like the energy. I’m curious, what great thinker am I like? Is there one? Am I at a disadvantage? Am I purposely putting myself at a disadvantage because of the delightfulness of European cafes?
I think you are in good company. I’m just struggling to think of the great genius example. It’s a thing that a lot of writers need to get out of the house and be in a crowded space. As you say, it’s a different kind of energy you can draw on.
I want to say that to me it’s part of being in that other space. The Howard Schultz of Starbucks identified it as a third space. I don’t want it to be too crowded. This pandemic 25% occupancy thing, I could get behind that forever.
If your coffee now was $10, they could pull that off.
I might be willing to pay.
It was still cheaper than a WeWork membership.
It depends on how many I have.
Which makes me think and now I am going to drop his name. I’m a Carl Jung because I do talk to my pots and pans. I talk to the things in my house. I say thank you to my things. When I get rid of my things I say, “Thank you for your service.” I donate them. I am a little bit of Patricia Highsmith. Let’s be honest, like, “Wackadoo, what?” I don’t go to parties with snails in my purse. That’s weird. In the idea that like the solitude and the joy that you find in creating the work that you are doing but your work is based on interaction with other human beings, which is all of Carl Jung.
Mason, when you were researching this book of the New York Public Library, that’s a public space. Did that enhance or hurt your process?
I think a little bit of both. There is a certain way in which if you are at the library, you have to read. I was doing this when the iPhone was first coming out, this is pre-Instagram and stuff. If you spend 2, 3 hours at the library, that feels like a long time. If you spend that time reading and researching. I do miss, not being out at the libraries these days, not being out in public, I miss that space you get into when it’s just you and a ton of books and nothing else to do. It’s so rare that you find yourself with one thing in front of you and nothing else competing for your attention. Overall, it was good.
I want to thank Lily because I gave her homework and I am a tough grader. I’m really proud of you. You brought it this episode. The reason we were able to bring it was because you took some time in solitude to digest this work and you are in your normal sense of overachieving. I want to say thank you on behalf of the readers. If you are a reader and you didn’t like this, I think you should find a different podcast because it doesn’t get much better than this. Mason, I appreciate you. I appreciate the books that you have written. They have helped me in my own personal life. They have helped countless of my friends and colleagues to who I have given them. If I may, is there something that you are working on now that you can tell us about?
I’m starting a new book project and it’s going to be a history of making art and making a living. Day jobs, patrons, get rich quick schemes, strategic marriages, petty theft, whatever it took, from the renaissance to the present day. I’m about to officially announce it. This might be the first time that I have mentioned it publicly.
Do you have a working title?
My working title comes from Moby Dick, of course. There’s a line where the narrator says, “Oh, time strength, cash, patience.” He’s wishing for the time, the strength and the cash to write his tale properly. I thought, “What a great title for a book about trying to have the resources to do your work. Time, Strength, Cash, Patience.”
Thank you. Both of you. This was wonderful.
Thank you so much, Peter and thank you, Mason. It was a pleasure to do this homework.
Thank you, guys. It was fun. I appreciate it.
- The Daily Rituals
- Subtle Maneuvers
- Lily Rains
- The War of Art
- Shtick to Business
- Mary Dahm – Past Episode
- Nietzsche – Past Episode
- The Great Gatsby
- Tender is the Night
- Fuck You, Pay Me – Mike Monteiro Talk
- Moby Dick
- Billy Merritt - Past episode
- New Yorker article
- Mason Currey
About Mason Currey
Mason Currey is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles and the author of the Daily Rituals books, chronicling the day-to-day work habits of more than 300 great creative minds. His freelance writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Slate, and he also writes Subtle Maneuvers, a free weekly newsletter on routines, rituals, and wriggling through a creative life.
About Lily Rains
Lily Rains is a storyteller, arts educator, crafter of needlework, and maker of homemade ice cream. Though solo, Lily loves to be part of an ensemble with a shared goal: be it on a softball field, in an escape room, or getting a play, movie, or tv show made. This is Lily’s fourth appearance on Solo.
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