Establishing Writing Rituals
Young writers often hear that they need to focus on the who, what, when, where, and why of a story. But one of my favorite memories from last fall’s @NanoWrimo was when other local writers shared those types of details for what helped create the mood to write in the first place. For some, it was a corner café or a favorite coffee brand they drank, while one showed off his writing “cape.”
Many writers find it helpful to establish habits that put them in the flow when they put fingertips to the keyboard or thoughts on paper. The author of two novels so far that have garnered awards and other attention, @John_Pipkin, who directs Rice University's undergrad Creative Writing Program, noted at a summer 2020 Writers League of Texas conference that using the right mechanical pen and a specific type of notebook sped up his writing process for an up-and-coming novel.
Such an old school approach likely sounded inefficient before reading that. But if a habit works for a writer, then it works. Keeping that in mind, here are six things to consider in developing special rituals to bring out your best work:
In an interview a few years back, Isabelle Allende noted that she always starts a new book on the same day every January. For me, the season isn’t the prompt to get into the writing mindset. It's the time of day: my best writing time comes at the crack of dawn, as I’m able to more easily go deep and connect with my more emotional, wise self then. For someone else, the hours after dinner might be best, or snippets of time while they’re waiting in the car during kids’ activities (an example from my previous post about finding writing time).
The Special Space
You might be someone who prefers total silence while working in a study or other setting. That underlies the chosen setting of Joan Didion, who wrote about working on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at a university library for its barrenness. Ignore the “cone of silence” approach though if it suits you better to have something like the white-noise distraction of a local coffee shop. For other writers, unusual locales fit the bill that can seem odd at first.
@DianeZinna, a creative writing instructor and author of a traditionally published novel, noted in a January course about the publishing journey that she deals with her angst about being a parent by being close enough to be reached by her husband if something comes up. That is, for the past eight years, the Florida-based author of The All-Night Sun has written in her car while sitting in a parking spot at a shopping center a half mile from her house. Zinna said, “It always seems like the words would come whenever I pulled into that spot.” Car writing has become such a habit for her that she’ll even get into her vehicle in her driveway to write a long letter that requires extra thought.
If that sounds inconvenient, her chosen writing space has the advantage of a built-in stereo system if she needs a break; or she noted going for a drive when she hit a writers block. Sneaking an earful of a bagel shop conversation going on near your table can serve the same purpose, or browsing the "staff favorites" shelf at your local bookstore.
That is, it's key to allow yourself writing breaks. For those working from home, that could involve a mid-session walk, a check-in call with a friend, or sketching something out in your backyard. Equally important is to consider longer breaks of a few weeks or more at times to recharge from a big writing project. Yep, the “write every day” adage doesn’t work for everyone either. Your writing space will lose its special sauce if you begin to regularly force yourself to put nose to grindstone too often when your heart isn’t in it. I’ve definitely taken chunks of time off while working on chapters in my book proposal. Invariably when I return, I look at the material with fresh eyes and regain internal steam for the project that makes up for the "lost" time.
While Pipkin prefers a specific type of pen and notebook, for me, a cheap Bic or other pen is fine as long as it’s a fine point (I suspect from decades of needing to write quickly while interviewing people). I’ve heard of a writer who puts her feet in a container full of sand underneath a desk while writing to ground herself. Other writers may dress up in traditional work clothes, even while working from home, to get their professional mind in gear. Meanwhile, you might prefer a hot cup of chamomile tea and the fuzzy slipper route to help set aside daily monkey mind thoughts and relax into the writing process (which writing prompts can also help with).
Solo Journey or Writing Buddies
The who part of writing may seem obvious. But while many of us are perfectly happy to tap away with just a fur buddy for interruptions, other writers would go berserk with that approach. Even in these times of social distancing, there are lots of ways to find writing partners to talk about craft, nudge you to meet your writing goals, and/or give feedback on your work. Notice that I didn’t say critique, because you have to be cautious in finding someone who gets the emotional challenges of the writing process enough to be sensitive to that, while providing some good (and likely, some not so helpful) feedback on your work. I highly recommend the writing feedback approach mentioned in the book for guidance on that.
It’s also easy to find online writing groups to track down a buddy. Examples include: the Writing Buddies group on Goodreads, Absolute Write Water Cooler, and–if you prefer to focus on a genre—options such as the writing feedback subgroups on Chronicles, a sci fi and fantasy focused writers’ community.
Ultimately, what matters of course is getting your butt in the chair or on that park bench, or your feet in front of that standing desk. So, a cornerstone of your self-support habits can be revisiting a reminder, such as an inspirational poem or prominently displayed sticky note, about why you want to reach the audience the content is intended for, and what you will get personally out of publishing the work.
Touching base regularly with your why helps because nothing can take away from the fact that writing well takes a lot of effort. In the Allende interview mentioned earlier, she noted that the worst day of her year was the one right before the January date that she starts writing the next book. “Starting a book is like falling in love,” she told the interviewer at Omega, an educational non-profit. “It’s a total commitment. It may work and it may not.”
So, it came as no surprise to me that, when asked to discuss her writing habits in a creative non-fiction primer, Joan Didion simply covered the challenge of realizing it was the Fourth of July while working on Tinker Creek after she heard fireworks and glimpsed them through the window of her library “sanctuary.” No ritual can make up for the time it takes to turn rough drafts, through multiple revisions, into something you’re ready to have beta tested by those you trust, or to send to an editor or an agent.
However, choosing writing rituals that speak to you adds a layer of importance, of sacredness if you will, to the writing process. To make something sacred, Anne Lamott notes in Small Victories: Improbable Moments of Grace, you just focus attention on it while approaching the process with love. Given the time it takes to work on substantive writing projects, why not throw some rituals into the mix that honor the process of writing—and honor you.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez