In Daily Rituals: Women at Work (Knopf, March 2019), Mason Currey's sequel to Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, the author reveals the critical ways in which women artists persevere to create art despite societal constrictions and personal adversity. After compiling the work schedules of 161 artists (only 27 of whom were women) in his first book on the subject, Currey uses his sequel as a corrective that focuses solely on the lives of women artists. PW spoke with Currey about editorial decisions, the lure of rituals, the “deadly determination” to pursue craft, and more.
Why was it important to you to use your sequel to Daily Rituals as a “corrective” to the original volume?
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of realizing the huge, crippling flaw in a project just at the moment when you can no longer do anything to fix it, but that was sort of my experience here. The ratio of men to women in the first Daily Rituals was way out of whack, but somehow I didn’t see this until the book was done and out in the world. For a while, I just felt bad about it. Then I thought about doing a revised or expanded edition to remedy the imbalance—but ultimately there was so much rich and fascinating material that it really demanded its own separate volume.
In your introduction, you mention how many of the women included in the sequel were up against constant hurdles including unsupportive spouses, domestic demands, and sexism. What are some of the factors that enabled the artists included in Women at Work to succeed in pursuing their craft in ways that many of their contemporaries were unable to?
I think the single biggest factor is what Harriet Beecher Stowe called “deadly determination.” The women who kept pursuing their craft just refused to not do so; they carved out the time whenever they could, and they stuck with it in the face of all kinds of interference and obstruction. And when they got derailed, they came back to it when they were able to; they didn’t give up. But saying what enabled them to “succeed” is tricky because many of these women were barely recognized in their lifetimes, or only recognized after decades of work; those who enjoyed traditional professional success often benefited from some additional factor, like inherited wealth, good connections, or just plain luck.
What are some of the other unique ways women insured space for creation?
Those who could afford it paid for help with childcare and housework—for women with children, that was probably the biggest factor in securing space for their creative work. On the more anecdotal side, there is Louisa May Alcott’s “mood pillow.” Alcott lived with her parents for most of her adult life, and while writing she would sometimes wander around the house thinking about her story; if she settled on the sofa, her family would often be tempted to interrupt her, which could draw the author’s extreme consternation. So Alcott used a bolster pillow to signal when she was available for interruption—if the pillow stood on its end, it was fine for her family to talk to her, but if the pillow was on its side they were under strict instructions to leave her undisturbed.
One of the major differences between the first book and this one is that not all the women you included had a set schedule. Did you have any trouble discovering information about the women you included?
With the first Daily Rituals, my criteria for inclusion was that I had to be able to provide a reasonably complete summary of a figure’s typical workday, and the more detail the better. Switching the focus to women, I quickly realized that I would have to be a bit more lenient in this regard. The fact is that an unvarying daily routine is a real privilege; behind the scenes, there is almost always significant money and/or domestic help enabling the “genius” to follow his or her perfect schedule. Some of the women in the new book came from privileged backgrounds, but a lot didn’t, and so I allowed myself to include figures who didn’t necessarily follow a strict routine. My rule was that I still had to be able to say something interesting about how they got their work done on a daily basis.
Were there any women you would have included but were not able to for lack of information or other reasons?
There were many women I would have liked to include but for whom I just couldn’t find enough information for a profile of this sort. For example, I would have loved to include the great Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, but I wasn’t able to find out much about her daily work life. Ditto the American painter Florine Stettheimer—she was a fascinating character, but the biographical details I found didn’t quite add up to a profile of her working day.
Were you surprised by any of your research? Can you speak about some of the details that intrigued you?
For most of these profiles, I consulted as much quality biographical material as I could get my hands on—so I looked at biographies, collections of letters, published diaries, interviews, and so on. And then I tried to distill what I found down to a readable little mini-biography of the person’s day, often something that was just a few paragraphs long. So I was always leaving things out. Usually I would start by putting everything that seemed interesting and potentially relevant into a Word doc, and then I would just slowly chip away at it. Along the way, I had to cut so many wonderful details and anecdotes that didn’t quite work. Some of my favorites were stories about Emily Dickinson’s talent for seclusion—how, if someone unfamiliar came to her house, she would disappear as if into thin air. Once, when Dickinson was in the pantry, she said, “If the butcher boy should come now, I would jump into the flour barrel.” I didn’t include that, but now I wish I had.
Prior to the publication of the first Daily Rituals, you had a blog focusing on the daily habits of artists. What drew you to researching daily habits to begin with?
Procrastination. I started the blog while avoiding writing an article for my job at the time. I’ve always found writing quite difficult, whether it was journalism work for my several years as a magazine editor or personal stuff I tried to do in my own time. And I think when you’re flailing about with something, it’s natural to wonder how the hell anyone else pulled it off. In addition, I’m just a routine-oriented person—I find it stressful if I have to sit down and decide what I’m going to do each day, and putting some part of my day-to-day life on autopilot is a great anxiety-reducer for me. So I think that’s where the focus on dailiness came from.
Many of the women you include in Women at Work faced unfair treatment in their industries because of their gender. PW’s Publishing Industry Survey of 2018 exhibits some of the inequalities in the publishing industry regarding race, gender, and salaries. How do you think industries can be more inclusive of women, minorities, and non-binary creators?
This is obviously a huge issue and something that’s going to require real thought and energy at every level. One concrete thing that I think publishing and other creative industries could do—and it’s something many others have suggested—is to eliminate unpaid internships, which are only feasible for people from privileged backgrounds. Doing so could open up those industries to a more diverse group of young workers. And on an individual level, I think we all need to do what we can to be good allies and amplify the voices of people who have historically been marginalized and ignored.