Kill Your Rituals, Not Your Darlings
In a bit, I’m going to tell you a story about a newborn baby, a two bedroom apartment, and the nine people who stayed there during the Christmas holidays.
All my in-laws.
But first, a note about being a writer. Like many of my kind, I used to have a whole bunch of little rituals when I wrote. I had to be seated at a certain place at my desk, with coffee on the left side of my Brother WP75 (shut up I’m old) and a notepad on the right. Beside the notepad was a Bic medium point with blue ink and a grippy rubber section near the tip. (I used to believe that, by using cheap disposable pens instead of fancy ones, I was valuing the process inside my head over the tools I bought).
To fight distractions, I played music without lyrics, or music with lyrics in languages I couldn’t understand. That way I didn’t have to hear the pop songs my roommates were playing (lyrics were incredibly distracting) or sounds from outside like traffic or shouting kids.
I had to pull the curtains closed, and wait until after a certain time of day, and sit in a weird old chair designed for invalids (seriously).
Other writers do this, too. They need a yellow legal pad and a pen with brown ink. They need to be in their office with the floor vacuumed and the dishes clean. They need to swim for an hour first, then lift, then yoga, then sauna. Maybe they have a special mug, or something, anything that brings ritual and routine into the act of creation.
Like them, I told myself I needed to optimize my surroundings so I could be as productive and creative as possible. In fact, I created those rituals because I’d read somewhere that they made the work easier. That was the advice I was getting, anyway. You can see more on the importance of ritual to creativity here, although the article makes it clear that the ritual is actually doing the work, not fussing with our environment. Rituals! I made them.
And then life conspired to take it all away.
That Christmas in 2001 was just the end cap on a long process that started with music. The non-English lyrics began, slowly, to sound more and more like English words. I knew Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan wasn’t really singing “John Barleycorn” in his Qawwali devotional music, but that’s what it sounded like, and it disrupted my train of thought every time it came on. Out of the rotation it went, along with the rest of his stuff.
Then I switched jobs and lost my afternoon writing time. Then I moved in with my girlfriend and lost a private bedroom to write in. Things kept changing, and all the little rituals I thought I needed kept being taken from me.
Then came that Christmas.
I moved from Philly to Seattle in 1989. Total number of times I’ve gone back to visit my family since my mother died? One. Total number of times they’ve come out west to visit me ever? Zero.
It’s different for my wife. Her family is very close, and for years she flew back (or more rarely they flew out) twice a year. Later it was one visit a year, always at Christmastime. When the baby’s due date was established for the holiday season, my in-laws decided that everyone would celebrate in Seattle. In our apartment.
So we had my wife and me, plus my one-day-old son, plus my wife’s sister and brother, their spouses, and my wife’s parents. Also, our clutter and decorations. And about ten years worth of my wife’s canvases. Let’s just say things weren’t spacious before our guests arrived.
Anyway, I was used to waking early and working in the morning quiet, but that was impossible. There was no place to go that didn’t have people in it, and I wasn’t ready to give up my writing, even if I’d trimmed back my work time for the new baby. So I had to do the one thing I thought I’d never do. I went to Starbucks.
In a Starbucks, I had no control over anything: what seating was available, what music was playing, who was nearby—in fact, the location closest to home was known for troubled homeless people who sat for hours to get out of the cold and the rain, and they could be disruptive.
I mean, sure, I was glad to be out of that crowded apartment, and my in-laws were always happy to see less of me, but I was not at all sure I could work in that environment.
It was then that I understood that my rituals were hurting me.
I was treating my ability to work—what a less self-conscious writer might call a “muse”— as a hothouse flower. I was pretending that it was so delicate that it needed a special kind of pen, and a special kind of music, and a special chair/desk combination, when all it really needed was me and my willingness to focus and write. While that’s not exactly avoiding work, it is making each writing session into an ordeal that had to be arranged. Basically, I was working against myself.
Once I decided to do without, it was like having a weight lifted off of me. I was taking control of my own creative process rather than outsource that control to talismans around me.
And I’m luckier than some, because I never tied my vices to my writing. I’ve heard of authors who quit smoking or drinking and suddenly found themselves unable to put words on a page. One activity was so tied to the other that they had become inseparable. Not a good place to be in.
That’s why I recommend that writers kill their rituals. That doesn’t mean to never do the same thing twice, or to give up a workout routine, or even to abandon a system that works (I have a system).
It does mean that we need to be adaptable. Don’t fetishize your tools. Don’t blow off a day because you aren’t in your special writing place. Don’t even tell yourself that the day’s word count will be more difficult than usual. The only thing we really need is what’s inside our heads. Grippy pens are optional.
BIO: Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; currently, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released today. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.