Years ago I heard a fellow writer describe how certain things needed to be in place before he actually sat down to the business of creating. I mentally chuckled at the time because it sounded familiar. I have my own “rituals”: checking email and Facebook; raising the window if the weather permits (and sometimes even if it doesn’t; as my mother once remarked to a friend, I have a fresh air fetish); getting a cup of hot tea; on occasion, putting on a certain song. Last November, while pounding out a minimum of 1,667 words per day for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I simply could not work without my NaNoWriMo mug beside me – as if it was a good luck charm. In some weird way, I think I felt it was.
I can’t tell that I wrote any better due to the presence of that mug, but recently I got to wondering if other writers of my acquaintance had their own rituals, whether procrastinatory (guilty!) or otherwise. Before I asked them, I took a quick look at what some of the masters believed necessary to the creative process – and it was, as I expected, both interesting and amusing…
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Describing himself as a “horizontal author,” Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) told the Paris Review that he couldn’t think “unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch,” with a cigarette and coffee at hand. Coffee also fueled Honore de Balzac, who imbibed vast quantities of caffeine to power him through writing marathons – one of which lasted 48 straight hours.
That’s a lotta java.
Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) prefers to do her writing in a hotel, with all stimuli removed from the walls. She has, however, been known to provide her own stimuli, in the form of a Bible, a thesaurus, a pack of playing cards and bottle of sherry, along with some legal pads. Ernest Hemingway’s MO was “done by noon, drunk by three.” Papa wrote standing up – while he still could.
Then there are those for whom a change in appearance was necessary to keep their noses to the grindstone, or the paper. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the nude…because that meant he couldn’t leave his house. As an additional precaution, he made sure to have his valet hide his clothes. And Greek statesman Demosthenes is said to have shaved half his head as an incentive to remain indoors and working.
But the funniest story I’ve come across so far belongs to Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing” TV series, who likes to act out dialogue while gazing in the mirror. On one occasion he worked himself up to such a pitch that he head-butted his own reflection – and broke his nose!
Closer to home, I recently took an informal poll of writers I know or whose work I admire, to see what they had to say on the subject. Fortunately none of them admitted to breaking a body part, but several had something to share.
From über hiker and freelance writer Sandra Friend: “Nothing is necessary but something to write on, be it a notebook or a keyboard! I do, however, prefer the blinds pulled back in my home office to be able to glance out at the trees, the pond, the birds, and the weather.”
(I don’t know that I’d get as much writing done with a view like that, Sandra. Perhaps fortunately, my desk overlooks nothing more interesting than the side of my neighbor’s house.)
ReMIND magazine editor and writer/poet David Cohea finds inspiration in the hours before sunrise: “I’m up real early – around 3:30 a.m. – so I go outside first to feed our two strays and sit there listening to the night a while. That attunement for some reason creates a wonderful stillness in which to begin writing.”
(I like to listen to the night, too, David, but I’m more likely to go to bed at 3:30 than to get up at that hour…at least when I don’t have to work the next day.)
Brandon Jones, novelist and erstwhile roommate of my brother Bill, says: “I keep a notepad by the bedside…it never fails, if I get in a rut at the computer, I’ll go downstairs and sit in the bed and something will come to me an hour or two later. Oddly enough, I find sitting in a hot bath a good way to mull over an idea on ‘where to go next’…”
(As I’ve noted many times, Brandon, water seems to be a common factor in literary inspiration. My best short story began in the bathtub and I’ve received ideas for everything from poems to blog posts in the shower.)
For my old school chum Laura Morgan Winfree, the outdoors frequently does the trick: “I just watch Nature mostly for inspiration, and love it when all my writer friends tell stuff they’ve done or seen, or heard, and so on. Every so often, a weird word or a cool phrase comes to me out of seemingly nowhere, and I am grateful. Mostly, lately, looking at things with my boys, and through their eyes, has given me poems and promises of stories and songs.”
Author/blogger Matt Appling notes that he doesn’t have “a lot of time or space” for ritual, but “Sometimes, I’ll get a lightning bolt and quickly write down an idea, and then write the whole post at home. I have a ton of unused ideas in notebooks or Post-its on my phone. Some of them look like a dream journal and I can’t tell later what on earth I was thinking. I do my best writing in the morning at the kitchen table. I don’t put music on because the noise distracts me.”
(No music for me either, Matt, for the same reason! At least, most of the time.)
The most intriguing response came from a fellow alumnus of my old writer’s group, poet Debra Wilk: “I do best ALONE, silence. I do not do well in classroom or group writeathons. I am an energy sponge that picks up every distraction. I get ideas working in the yard listening to music. I often run in to jot down lines. Cleaning house ALONE as well gets my poetic thoughts going. I have no writing rituals but prefer my own room, own desk–door locked. My room is not generic but surrounds me with special things—I only keep happy things that are meaningful. I do have nighttime rituals. I love floating in my colorful doughnut in my redneck pool under the stars. I call it my poetry prize pool I bought with prize money. I get a lot of ideas gazing at the moon – the pool pump propelling me in circles reminds me of childhood happy days letting the river take you away – sometimes I like listening to the night or my headphones on loud pumping rock ‘n’ roll. My other ritual, I sit out front long after midnight in my cedar swing to drink in the peace. Frogs sing, bats fly by – a lot of surprises. Last week in the pool under the THUNDER moon a big dragonfly landed on my head. Scared the crap out of me! In a nutshell, my creative juices amp best under the influence of music, nature and mindless body movement. I also get very creative when deeply pissed off.”
(Water, again. Sounds of the night, again. But getting creative when deeply pissed off? That was a new one.)
Stephen King has famously said that a key component to his success is “butt glue,” and I’m sure all the writers I’ve mentioned above would agree. But I’ll hang on to my NaNoWriMo mug, and continue to open my mind in the shower, and crack my bedroom window in all weathers to let a whisper of inspiration arrive on the breeze…
Because sometimes it takes a little something extra…a little more than just butt glue.
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How about you? If you’re a writer, what kinds of “rituals” or objects (or locations) do you need to have in place when it’s time to create? I’d love to hear about them.
Next week I’ll be launching a new series of monthly book reviews – and I’m delighted to begin with Allison Vesterfelt’s just-published Packing Light. Several years back Ally and her musician friend Sharaya Mikhael set off on a six-month, 50-state road trip…learning a lot about faith, character, needs, and, yes, packing light…in more ways than what will fit in the back of a Subaru. I hope you’ll join me!