Today’s post is written by regular contributor Debra Eve.
Literature abounds with the quirky things writers do to entice the muse.
Victor Hugo wrote in the nude so he wouldn’t leave the house.
Philip Pullman writes only in ballpoint pen on lined A4 paper with two holes in it.
Maya Angelou checks into a hotel with a legal pad, a Bible, playing cards, Roget’s Thesaurus, and a bottle of sherry. After she drafts 12 pages longhand, she checks out.
Steven Pressfield recites the Invocation to the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey and writes on his computer until he starts making too many typos. Then copies his work to disk and stores it in his truck in case the house catches fire.
Victor Hugo and Philip Pullman have writing habits, but Maya Angelou and Steven Pressfield engage in writing rituals. The difference is immense.
If you’re having trouble putting the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair, a writing ritual might hold the answer.
What is Ritual?
At its simplest, ritual is set of actions designed to focus attention and heighten an experience. Anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner observed that ritual has three phases:
- Separation from everyday activities.
- Transition to an unstructured or “liminal” reality, where the participant becomes a walker between the worlds, a traveler at the threshold. (The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold.”) Writing is the ultimate liminal reality.
- Reassimilation into normal life, but more deeply than before.
So a complete writing ritual aptly includes bookends—a distinct separation from the mundane and a deeper return to it.
How to Create a Writing Ritual
1. Separate from the Mundane. Recently, I polled a group of writers about their rituals. Most intuitively realized the need to separate writing time from everyday tasks.
Jessica Morrell makes a cup of tea and records her dreams. After, she invokes the muse through reading or writing poetry. “By then,” she says, “I feel as if I’ve dipped into a river of words and metaphor where I remain all morning.”
Erika Liodice takes “inspiration field trips” and writes in a new place each day: the book store, the coffee shop, at a picnic table by the river. She says, “Changing up my surroundings has played such a big role in idea development that I might never return to my desk.”
Tina Williams lights a special candle in a “very fancy candle holder.” She found it in a dusty corner of an old junk shop. “I just knew the two of us would be close friends,” she says. “We have agreed that when lit, he opens the portals between worlds and allow my daydreams to come through. What he does after I’m done is none of my business.”
Other ways to separate from the mundane include meditating, saying a prayer, playing evocative music, or setting an intention for the time.
2. Enter Liminal Reality. Remove all distractions and write. Social media does not belong in ritual space!
Jo Eberhardt also recommends keeping a log to focus this stage. “Track word count, or pages written, or whatever progress you’ve made on your creative project. Being able to look back at a diary and see written proof of your success is an amazing motivator.”
3. Reembrace Your Life. Deliberately close your writing time. Steven Pressfield backs up his work and puts it in his truck. Maya Angelou checks out of her hotel. J.D. Moyer jots down ideas for the next day’s session and says a prayer of thanks (even though he’s an atheist).
This three-phase structure explains why writing in cafes works so well. We automatically bracket our writing time by entering and exiting the space.
With repetition, our brains will create new connections in response to this ritual structure. How much repetition? It varies by individual. But once the links form, you’ll become immersed in your writing much more quickly.
One Writer’s Experience
Jo Eberhardt discovered this method recently. She starts her nightly writing ritual by reading her son a bedtime story and tucking him in. At 7:30 pm, she joins her husband in their office, where she writes while he draws.
Exactly one hour later, she finishes the word she’s typing (not the sentence or the paragraph) and saves her work. Then she and her husband discuss how the creative time went for them. “For one hour,” she says, “we are artists first.”
After, they look in on the children and go about the evening’s tasks, like checking Facebook or washing the dishes. “But the world looks different; brighter. Our conversation is more lively. We smile more readily.”
Jo concludes, “It took about a week to train my subconscious into being ready to go on cue, but now (10 months later) it just happens.” She averages 900 words a night.
Obviously, anthropologists and brain scientists don’t have the final say on what works for individual writers. They don’t even know why we love the “rule of three” you’ve studied in a dozen writing books.
But you might find, like Jo, that approaching your writing time as a three-phase ritual will create a more focused, productive experience.
Do you have a writing ritual?
Join the discussion
John James says
I’m a morning writer, so after I eat breakfast I do the following:
– I’ll work through my social media and catchup on my friends
– I’ll check in with my favourite blogs, make some comments (my first writing for the day)
– I’ll then read a chapter of whatever book I’m reading to get me head into an imaginative head-space
– I’ll then read the last page I wrote
– Finally I’ll write as much as I can up until 11am, when I’ll have a break – go out for a walk to my local cafe and have a hot chocolate
– If I feel like I still have some words left when I come back, I’ll write some more in the afternoon, but if not I’ll get on with other stuff…
That’s what works for me 🙂
Debra Eve says
Sounds like you’ve got it nailed, John. I like that sequence — book you’re reading, then your own book. I’m getting some great ideas from everyone else! Thanks for stopping by.
yehudit r says
I try to write first thing, or almost first thing in the morning. If I wake up before 7, I make a cup of tea, turn on the computer (it’s not a morning person, so while it boots up, I wash my face & straighten up the kitchen for 5 minutes), and sit down and write until my husband’s alarm goes off at 7:45.
I also write immediately after breakfast on days that I don’t have to be out the door early. While water for the second cup of tea is heating, I clean up the breakfast dishes, and when the water is hot, I put in the tea bag and go to the computer, whether I have finished the dishes or not. This session is at least 15 minutes, sometimes as long as two hours. Note: I do not turn on my internet router until I have finished my writing session, unless I am editing and need to check a fact.
Exit portion of ritual: save what I have written to both my computer and my Dropbox.
Debra Eve says
I like that, “When the water is hot…” What a great metaphor! I’ll have to try it. I’m also big on tea as a ritual, Yehudit. The internet router routine is inspired too. Thanks for some great ideas!
khaula mazhar says
I need a writing ritual! These days I end up doing everything but write. I have to go back to my drop everything and write routine. My writing got done and so did everything else.
khaula mazhar says
“Drop everything and write” is what works best for me, I get the writing done and then everything else. But haven’t been able to get that started again since the summer vacation. Debra please give me a big push!
Debra Eve says
Khaula, my life has been like yours recently! I’ve found (as I mentioned to Chung) that consciously clearing the space to write for just 15 minutes a day makes all the difference. Try it!
I always find it hard to get into a routine and get going when it comes to writing but this post was really helpful. I really need a writing ritual!
Debra Eve says
Thank you, Chung. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or time consuming — fifteen minutes of writing with a conscious opening and closing action will do!
Karen McFarland says
Love this post Debra! And I really love Jo’s ritual, or habit that she shares with her hubby. That is so cool. The spend the time together creating separate art. What a great way to mingle and support one another’s craft. And they stay productive in something that they both love. See, this is why I love your posts Debra. Moi, I tend to be more productive in the evenings. It doesn’t help my sleeping habits, but I need to get the day’s clutter out of the way first. Perhaps it is my subconscious that will not allow me to write until my chores are done. What can I say. Old habits die hard. At least I am productive. How is your writing going? 🙂
Debra Eve says
I’m with you, Karen. I’m a night person by nature. My brain doesn’t kick in until about 4 pm, so I can only do brainless stuff before :). Glad to hear it keeps you productive. As far as writing, I need to take my own advice and structure my time better!
Michael O'Connor says
I greatly enjoyed this! I just re-emerged from a creative lull (see my latest Twilight Blue blog post) and find the aspect of a ritual intriguing. I have some habits but I think I’ll explore expanding upon them. I look forward to reading more of your advice!
Debra Eve says
Thanks, Michael. I studied anthropology at university, and truly believe that we create meaning through story and ritual. So I’m always looking for ways to bring both into my life.
Marcia Richards says
Loving these rituals, Debra. I do breakfast and chores in the morning. By noon, I’m in my recliner with my laptop and timer. I write as much as possible (no editing) for 25 minutes. I take a five minute break to do something unrelated to writing. then set the timer for another 25 minutes. I continue in this manner for 4 – 25 minute sessions then I take a 20 minute break to get on the treadmill. I’m back at it for another 4 sessions….my exit is knowing it’s time to make dinner and spend the evening with hubs satisfied I had a productive day. I accomplish so much more than i ever did before.
Debra Eve says
Wow, that’s impressive, Marcia! I think that’s akin to the Pomodoro Method? I’ve heard of it, but not tried it yet. Sounds like a great way to be productive.
I shut myself in my writing space with my iPod and a Bose system. As long as the music keeps playing I can write all day and night. No TV and the cell phone and iPad go on silent. The only person allowed to speak in my writing room is me or my Congo African Grey parrot. Sometimes I forget to eat.
I write on a MacBook Air or Pro depending on my mood.
Visit my Deadly Magic teaser page and comment on my blog for a chance to win a Kindle Fire.
Debra Eve says
Great way to write, Mande’. Love that you’re either talking to yourself or to your parrot. Animals can be great inspirators!
Lee J Tyler says
As always, Debra, you bring fascinating people and information together for us! I love Jo Eberhart & her husband’s ritual. And 900 words in 50 minutes!
This follows the research by Pavlov that you touched on. I need to develop a ritual!
The luminal zone is a magical place.
Thank you for this. It will aid on the writing intensive I am currently wrapped in.
Ashling McEvaddy says
It’s really interesting to see the diversity in writing rituals.
It takes me a while to wake up in the morning so I usually don’t start until about 11:30. Before that though, I tend to look up ideas or word definitions that I might have come across in my reading the night before (When reading, I like to keep a notepad and pen beside me in case I come across interesting words or notice any techniques or structural methods that I want to experiment with)
When I start, I work for about 40 minutes, then I take a quick break for a cigarette and a cup of tea, then I go back for another 45 minutes. At 1, I take a nice long break for lunch, checking emails, etc. At 2, I start back for another hour and a half session, broken up by a five minute break for tea. Then I do some yoga and have a small snack and a cuppa.
I used to be very good and go back then for another hour, but I have to confess that I have, unfortunately, gotten out of that habit, but am trying to reintegrate it once more! I need complete silence when I’m writing as I’m very easily distracted, so I turn off any music, put my phone on silent and I always work at home.