You Better Work

Daily Rituals: Women at Work Mason Currey. Knopf. Hardcover, 416 pages. $24
Women at Work, Volume II: Interviews from the Paris Review edited by Emily Nemens. Paris Review Editions.

If I see Joan Didion’s packing list on Instagram one more time, I’m going to scream. And then I am absolutely going to click. We all have our baggage, we just want to know how to organize it. What if a streamlined suitcase is the missing link, the unheralded key to writing sentences like skate blades? Best to memorize the method, just in case. And so Didion’s scribbled checklist lives inside my head: two skirts, two jerseys, cigarettes, bourbon, Basis soap, Tampax, mohair throw, baby oil, aspirin, etc. I’ve seen this list most often on social-media feeds, but it also pops up in publications from time to time: Vogue, or Into the Gloss, or Racked, or Elle, or Smithsonian magazine, or the blog for the Ace Hotel. It usually comes with a self-help-ish headline. “You Too Can Pack Like Joan!” And no matter what, I stop to gaze. Maybe this time, I’ll learn.

I really want to know how everyone else does everything. It helps if the person is accomplished in some tangible way, but, really, you do not have to be a paragon of crisp anxiety standing next to a Stingray for me to care about your quotidian rituals. I once spent an entire afternoon of my one wild and precious life reading a Twitter thread about strangers’ skincare regimens. I live for those “here’s my process” threads on social media where someone lobs an open-ended question into the void like a jump ball and everyone pounces: How do you find time to read? What’s your go-to healthy lunch to make while working from home? What film scores are best to listen to while writing? What YouTube clips do you watch at two in the morning? How many towels do you own? No one answer to these queries is ever earth-shattering; it’s the quantity of replies that I find comforting. I like being reminded that there are so many ways to live, stuck as I am in my own body, my own tightly coiled routine.

Marisa Takal, Open Processing IV: What Are You Going to Do? (detail), 2018, oil on canvas, 36 × 52".

The impulse to dive into other lives in order to find attractive templates is not new; I mean, one could argue (as I’m sure many hip youth pastors have tried to) that Jesus was the original lifestyle blogger. The internet, however, does exacerbate and capitalize on this voyeuristic desire. Nearly every site has a jeweled showcase for the day-to-day habits of other people: money diaries, food diaries, sex diaries, bathroom “shelfies,” Sunday routines, “By the Book” interviews about authors’ nightstands, Q&As with high-powered women about “how they get it done.” And this is just what’s mediated for the official record by publications. Flick on Instagram Stories, and you can sit for hours traipsing through the bedrooms and kitchens of celebrities you will never know, or visually babysitting the children of distant acquaintances whose names you forget when you run into them at a party. Proust spent a decade going to parties so that he could linger in his bed and write about them while lying down; nowadays he would never have to assume a vertical position again.

When Mason Currey, a writer in Los Angeles, published Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, in 2013, it felt destined to be popular. Perfectly giftable and suited for the nightstand or the back of the toilet, the squat, chunky volume contained brief meditations on the ways 161 artists got through the day. Currey did archival research to gather his facts, but, much like his blog, Daily Routines, the book is a pleasure for its breadth more than its depth: seeing all of these artists’ lives jammed together into the same slipstream, the same desire to transcend the doldrums of everyday existence and leave something, anything, behind. Currey’s entries often read like a whimsical Wikipedia in which he seizes on idiosyncratic details from each writer/painter/performer’s life (Balzac’s obscene coffee addiction, Nikola Tesla’s Waldorf Astoria dinners, James Joyce’s tendency to sleep in). Each entry is a portrait in miniature—a person’s work process as synecdoche for the work itself. The book became a cult hit, especially among writers, who are always looking to avoid deadlines by reading about how someone else met them.

Entertaining as the book was, it also had some serious blind spots—namely, that of the 161 figures featured, only 27 were women. (As Currey himself calculated, the book was exactly 17 percent women.) Currey regrets this disparity, or at least understands that people were angry at him about it, and he comes to the introduction of his new sequel, Daily Rituals: Women at Work (Knopf, $25), with his hat in his hands: “How could I have let the book go to press with such a glaring gender imbalance? I don’t have a great answer,” he writes. He continues:

My idea for the book had been to profile the “great minds” of Western culture from the last few hundred years, and I thought that its success depended on the high-low juxtaposition of famous names and their mundane daily habits. Unfortunately, the side effect of focusing on the most well-known figures in Western literature, painting, and classical music is that they are overwhelmingly men.

Currey’s bias toward Western culture aside, it is more than a bit disappointing to find him explaining away his erasure of women artists with the broad term “great minds.” And yet here he is, offering up a mea culpa in the form of a new volume, with 143 lives and routines and not a man in sight. If you think it’s odd to separate women into their own volume, as if there is one book about the real artists over there, and then this addendum if you care to venture into the B sides, Currey writes that he thought the very same thing. “Of course, I’m aware of the danger of separating ‘women artists’ from just artists (and in a book by a man, no less!).” But he didn’t think this was enough of a reason not to sally forth on the project; nor did he feel the need to bring on a woman collaborator.

Currey’s method, pulling out quirky threads from the broader fabric of a life, is still irresistible; flipping through this book is as soothing as clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia at three in the morning until you are lulled to sleep with minutiae about the Battle of Thermopylae. And yet many of the entries seem to lack a center. Currey nods dutifully to the commitments, blockades, and extracurricular demands that hamper many creative women’s lives: childcare, relationship maintenance, housework, overt and covert sexism, creepy men, controlling men, men who are the gatekeepers, men who are professionally jealous, systemic barriers. But he never wants to lean into them, lest he be accused of stripping women of their creative musculature. So, of the writer and activist Grace Paley, he repeats her flippant comment about being both an artist and a mother (Paley famously said her secret was “pure neglect”) without investigating the confounding pressures that might have led her to make an offhand joke about bad parenting. He writes about Octavia Butler’s series of “horrible little jobs” as a “dishwasher, a telemarketer, a warehouse worker, and a potatochip inspector” but does not mention her race, nor the struggles she overcame to find acceptance in the science fiction community as a black woman inventing fantastical worlds.

Here, the cracks in Currey’s formula begin to show: The entries are too mediated, too curated, too burnished. He manages the trick of squeezing 143 women into a tight and portable carrying case, and even works in some original interviews, but it feels strange to abridge these lives when so many of the women were not given latitude to roam through history as it happened. I found myself wanting so much more information about each woman, and her very particular challenges, and how those challenges intersected with those of the women on adjoining pages, than Currey could ever pipe between the covers of an illustrated giftbook. Of course, Currey is simply following the current publishing formula for recovering women’s history: Treat them like novelty items, like something shiny you might pick up at the register along with a scented candle and gum.

I far preferred reading another new compendium about women’s creative labor, Women at Work, Volume II: Interviews from the Paris Review (Paris Review Editions, $20). Emily Nemens, the editor of the Paris Review (the magazine has only had women editors for two of its sixty-five years), writes in her introduction that expanding the “Women at Work” series was one of her first tasks after taking over the magazine in the summer of 2018. Choosing twelve interviews to reprint for the new edition, she says, “made room for discovery, for surprises, and for a bit of strangeness.” She notes that the first volume, published in 2017, included heavy hitters from the archives (Elizabeth Bishop, Toni Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir, Dorothy Parker, Didion) but was centered on the Western canon. Volume II expands the scope somewhat to include Latin American and American Indian perspectives (Luisa Valenzuela and Louise Erdrich), plus several interviews with writers who are not American (Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Jeanette Winterson). Expanding the range of literary genres was also a goal: Here you find poets (Maya Angelou, May Sarton) and playwrights (Wendy Wasserstein) among the novelists and essayists. But mainly the “Women at Work” series offers a chance to hear women define ambition in their own words. As Nemens notes, all Paris Review interviews are collaborations between the questioner and the author; there’s a chemical reaction that takes place within the Q&A format that changes what tumbles out. The interviews are also long—luxuriantly so—and the women taking part are invited to wander. No woman is ever reduced to a sound bite, or to what sort of breakfast foods she likes.

Perhaps this is why I keep clicking on that Didion list—it offers a glimpse of how someone lives, unmediated by judgments or summaries. Didion made it in her own hand, and it reminds me of all the times I have scrawled a list on the back of a deli receipt the night before a reporting trip, anxious not to forget anything, bursting with the opportunity, worried I’m going to mess it all up. I can relate to that immediacy, as I relate to Didion’s comment, revealed in her own Paris Review grilling, that the most important writing ritual she observes is “an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day.” For his entry on Didion, Currey mostly quotes from her Paris Review interview. Perhaps he realizes that unfiltered words are the most potent, the best chance to commune with another person and hope that their experience can bleed into our own.


Rachel Syme lives in New York City. She currently writes the “On and Off the Avenue” fashion column for the New Yorker.