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Considering the often weird and wacky rituals of writers
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture. This is a bonus fortnightly post dropped every other Tuesday - thank you for being here!
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own writing practice this summer. I find the summer often works a lot like the December holidays for me: a re-set or re-calibration of sorts. I think it harks back to the long summer holidays of youth, and although those years are very far (too far to admit) behind me now, being a mother of two children provided this same continuity for a long time.
Now my youngest child is waiting for exam results and my husband is a primary school teacher, and so there is still an element of that summer holiday feel, even though I don’t take the whole summer off.
As a part of this consideration on my writing practice, a recurring theme keeps popping up around me all around writing rituals - the importance of these as well as the attractive spaces in which writers work.
Charlene Storey of Haver and Sparrow spoke about both introducing writing rituals and creating a writing desk recently, and it was mentioned again in a summer writing class I attended last week. Some of the suggested rituals for getting the words flowing were things like lighting a candle, reading a poem, and carving out a beautiful writing space.
As often happens with these inspirational ideas though, I end up worrying that I am not writing ‘properly’, because I don’t have a ‘proper writing ritual’, or a room of one’s own.
I decided to do a deep dive into some of the rituals adopted by successful writers, in an effort to learn more about what might work (or not) for me. What do, or did, they consider to be the most efficient rituals to practise before beginning their writing work?
Someone whose non-fiction writing and ideas on deep focus I admire is Professor Cal Newport. Newport has run a popular blog for over a decade and hosts a great podcast Deep Questions as well as writing several books on ideas around minimising technology and the practice of deep work.
Cal Newport might not seem like the sort of writer I mention in these pages (most noticeably because he isn’t a 20th century female writer!) However, I wanted to mention him because I find his writing rituals interesting.
As he works as a Professor in his day job, Newport likes to have a separate ritual for working on his weekly newsletter. A father of young children, he works on this after his sons are in bed, sitting in a specific armchair, a vinyl record on his record player, and pouring himself a drink. He has admitted to the buzz he gets from the old-fashioned ritual, which likely mirrors some of the writers and thinkers he admires.
Taking Newport’s ideas on board, although I don’t have a specific armchair or record player, I do find that classical music in the background helps me to focus and I enjoy sipping a drink (although mine is generally coffee or peppermint tea, rather than anything stronger!)
Writer, artist, and creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg mentions writing rituals as a way to get in the writing zone in her seminal books on the craft Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, such as taking a walk around your neighbourhood and arranging to meet for a writing session with a writing buddy. I know this second idea is something that a lot of creatives are offering here on Substack and other platforms as a way to motivate (albeit virtually) whilst you write. I know it is a practise that has flourished as more people have begun to work from home in recent years, and my freelancer daughter utilises such groups as a way to connect and work productively with virtual ‘work colleagues’.
Although I haven’t ventured down this route as yet, I have found that even just having a regular chat or catch-up with another creative can help to reinvigorate my writing, allowing for inspiration and new ways of thinking around a writing problem.
One of the more bizarre stories I found, however, was about the early 20th century French writer and actress Colette, who liked to begin her writing by methodically picking fleas from her pet bulldog's back! I guess she must have found this practice mindful…This did make me think however that if you are a writing animal lover, either taking a walk with your dog, or stroking a furry pet, might do the trick.
Author Dan Brown claims that when he is penning his bestselling novels, he likes to hang from an exercise frame to think out his plot lines. Whilst this feels somewhat extreme to me, I must admit that practising yoga has a calming and creative effect on me, and as this does (sometimes) include some turning ‘upside down’ on occasions, this could fall within the same mindful practise. I also recently discovered some short, five minute meditations for writers on Spotify, which could further help to access a more mindful state to begin writing. (Also, for more advice around writing and yoga, check out Dr Kathleen Waller’s newsletter, Yoga Culture).
Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou had possibly one of my favourite routines, though. She saw the benefit, for her, in rarely writing from home. Instead, she took a hotel room nearby where she would spend the morning writing. As an additional step, and in order to reduce any sort of distraction, she would ask staff to take down any pictures from the walls. She claimed that she continued this ritual in any town she lived in, having a regular hotel room she could return to.
Although I have never run to the luxury of renting a hotel room for myself, I do feel Angelou’s need to leave home and enter a different space. Unlike her though, I prefer to have some distraction in the way of other people and life around me, rather than silence. I can imagine Angelou’s way of working was similar to the reasons many writers enjoy going on writing retreats.
The late author of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel used to claim she wrote every morning as soon as she woke up, allowing for her dream state to kick in. This is similar to the importance of ‘Morning Pages’ suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artists’ Way. Mantel however even took this one step further by waking in the middle of the night to write for several hours before returning to sleep.
Mantel stated that she tended to allow her writing days to fall into two categories: days she referred to as “easy flow,” in which she might generate a large amount of words across many projects, and less productive days in which she would agonise over the work, which she later would reflect on as being productive in their own way.
She also advocated getting away from the page, stating that she liked to spend a long time thinking over her ideas before sitting at the keyboard to write. Amusingly, she claimed to be ‘the cleanest person I know’, as one of her techniques was to go and have a hot shower whenever she got stuck on a writing problem. Her advice was essentially to do something else, whether that be taking a bath, meditating, taking a walk. Her thinking here being that sitting and worrying about writing is not the way to be creative.
Initially, when I began researching other author’s writing rituals - and by extension, spaces in which to write - I didn’t think I really had any kind of special ritual before beginning to write. As I thought about it further however, I realised that there are some things I like to do before I write, I just hadn’t thought of them in the context of rituals before.
I prefer to write in a specific coffee shop, at the heart of the student campus of the local red brick university close to where I live. Part of this ritual is that it takes me around 15-20 minutes to walk to the coffee shop, through streets and shortcuts which contain buildings of vastly different architecture from both the Victorian and Georgian era, as well as more modern University buildings. I pass a park with a pretty bandstand, and two busy hospitals. There are also plenty of trees and urban nature around the area.
When I arrive at the coffee shop, I like to ‘warm up’ with my laptop, which basically means reflecting on the idea I’m working on and checking off any small admin tasks such as responding to emails and such. I then order a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and begin work.
The ambience of the place is of utmost importance to me: I like that there are people of all ages coming and going, chatter is going on around me, and there is a constant musical soundtrack in the background. The coffee also has to be good 🙂
When I return home is when I begin work on the created drafts, but it is rare that the actual piece of writing will have been generated at home. Leaving my environment, the exercise, the ambience of my surroundings, and the coffee all contribute to the ritual.
When I want to work on more creative writing, or just feel like journaling or jotting down ideas, I still prefer the ritual of walking first, but although I sometimes walk to a local cafe, I mostly do this from home, either sitting at my kitchen table or sitting on my bed in the early morning. Both my kitchen and bedroom benefit from a lot of windows and so receive the best of the sunlight at different times of the day. When it is darker outside in winter, we also have cosy lamps to enhance the space.
Having this summer purchased a new work bench and more ergonomic chair, (though still placed in our sunny kitchen), I am excited to start working there when the space becomes quieter in September.
But I know from experience that my ‘rituals’ (that I never realised were actual rituals) will still be of the utmost importance - and that the first drafts will likely always be written in my favourite coffee shop.
This was a second, bimonthly post based on a series around writers and the writing craft. If you enjoy literary biographies and discussions on books, writers, and contemporary culture, please consider a free or paid subscription to A Narrative of their Own.