A bookcase in the library

Writers’ Rituals and Why They Work

We writers are a weird bunch

For a start, anyone who spends a lot of their time hanging out with imaginary people has to be just a wee bit crazy. And never more so than when it comes to writing rituals.

Now you’d  think that sitting down to write would be easy. Just plonk your butt in the chair, fire up your computer and start. Nothing to it. But no. Like a dog that has to circle exactly 6 and a half times before it can lie down for a nap, we have our little rituals, without which our creative engines refuse to spark.

Famous writing rituals

Crime writer Michael Connelly has to work in a sealed room with blackout blinds (there’s someone who must be easily distracted) while drinking iced tea.  Ernest Hemingway was way ahead of his time – the trend now is standing desks, but back in the 1950s,  he got up at dawn, stood at his typewriter and slogged away until noon. It was the only time of day he was capable of standing, as he spent the rest of the day at the pub. Victor Hugo wrote in the nude, ensuring he couldn’t leave the house and even instructed his valet to hide his clothes.

The Greek statesman Demosthenes employed a similar principle, shaving one side of his head to ensure he would stay at home writing until the hair grew back. Did he never think of wearing a beanie?  Truman Capote, calling himself a horizontal author, could not write unless he was lying down (needless to say, he wrote longhand), always with coffee and cigarettes, to be replaced by martinis as the day wore on.

Poet Frederick  Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer because he couldn’t write without their smell, which he claimed kept his imagination alert. Charles Dickens had to arrange the ornaments on his desk in a certain way before writing and French author Colette picked the fleas off one of her 12 cats – whether they each got a turn or whether it was the same excessively flea-ridden cat, it’s not clear.

My writing ritual

In comparison my writing ritual seems very bland, revolving mainly around  where I write.  I have always found it easier  to write away from home – not only because there are fewer distractions, but also because the change in environment seems to spark my motivation and my creative energy.  And even though I’m in my own little world when I’m writing I like to write in public spaces; I feel connected, yet separate. My local public library fits the bill perfectly and if I can find a seat near a window, I’m ecstatic.  I’m sure that being surrounded by books acts as a subconscious motivator, with the hope that the sum total of the wisdom, creativity and literary skill in all those books will somehow, by a process of osmosis, find its way into my brain.

How do writing rituals work?

In a post called Why Weird Writing Rituals Work on the  Women On Writing blog, Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer’s Block – Using Brain Science to Solve Writers’ Resistance, talks about the psychology of writers’ rituals, which make perfect neurological sense. When a group of neurons that process a certain behaviour are frequently activated at the same time as the neurons for another behaviour, those two groups of neurons will begin to act together simultaneously.

In other words, you’re training your brain and repetition is the key – if you run around the room squawking like a chicken before you start your writing and do it often enough, eventually your neurons will make the connection and your creativity will instantly fire up the minute you start squawking.

However, you need more than repetition to create a strong writing ritual. It’s not just an intellectual experience – you have to feel it as well (okay, forget the squawking chicken), and the more senses you employ the more effective it is. Bane describes how you can design your own writing ritual and suggests involving several sensory cues – for  example, author Isabel Allende lights candles, surrounds herself with fresh flowers and incense and meditates as part of her daily ritual. Bane suggests making sure your cues are exclusive to your writing and not things that you do throughout the day, making it easier for your brain to make the connection between the ritual and writing.

What are the benefits of rituals?

Rituals help ease anxiety, something all writers experience in varying degrees, by soothing and calming the brain. When you’re not in the mood to write or feeling blocked, the writing ritual gives you a starting point, a way of easing into it and giving you the desire and confidence to keep going.

Bane says that when it comes to writing rituals, weird works. As Mark Twain said, ‘If you’d feel a little embarrassed doing your ritual in the presence of another person, you’re on the right track.’

Guess I’ll have to redesign my writing ritual – my present one is decidedly lacking in sensory cues and weirdness.  I can see myself lounging at my desk in my comfy old velvet dressing gown embroidered with coffee stains,  a packet of two-day-old prawn heads beside me (so much for your rotten apples, Schiller!) listening to a soundtrack of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and sipping a banana and beetroot smoothie.

And being thrown out of the library.

Do you have any writing rituals that you rely on to get you in the mood?  Or if you’re not a writer, do you have another sort of ritual you’d like to share? Tell all in the comments below.

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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5 comments
Of Writing Rituals and Freelance Writers says July 29, 2015

[…] Storey in Writers’ Rituals and Why They Work says this about why such rituals, strange and mundane, […]

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C.N says January 18, 2016

I must be listening to music and sitting on a bed cross legged with the door shut. I do best in the middle of the night when the only light in the room is from my computer screen. Then my mind w be distracted by anything else. I can hear nothing other then my music and see nothing but my story. Not weird but it works. 🙂

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    Robin Storey says January 19, 2016

    Whatever works for you is fine – your ritual certainly lends itself to full-on concentration (as long as you can catch up on your lost sleep!)

    Reply
Joy Fetters says December 27, 2016

For me, I have to be reclining on the couch, with a blanket (or my new Snuggie), a cup of Vanilla Chai or Peppermint tea (or coffee, or sometimes both), and listening to either Pandora, my NANOWRIMO playlist, or random YouTube videos. Then, I proceed to write as much as I can without stopping, until I am forced to go pee or eat food.

Reply
    Robin Storey says December 28, 2016

    That sounds like a very cosy way to write – I’d be scared of falling asleep!

    Reply
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