Writers' Rituals

Like athletes who wear the same lucky underwear for every game or refuse to shave their beards during playoff season, writers tend to be lovers of ritual. Many authors believe firmly in following certain routines to put themselves in the right headspace to write.

Charles Dickens was among those ritual-following authors, according to Shortlist:

“First, he needed absolute quiet; at one of his houses, an extra door had to be installed to his study to block out noise.

“And his study had to be precisely arranged, with his writing desk placed in front of a window and, on the desk itself, his writing materials—goose-quill pens and blue ink—laid out alongside several ornaments: a small vase of fresh flowers, a large paper knife, a gilt leaf with a rabbit perched upon it, and two bronze statuettes (one depicting a pair of fat toads duelling, the other a gentleman swarmed with puppies).”

And so is Haruki Murakami:

“When he is writing a novel, Murakami wakes at 4:00 A.M. and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9:00. ‘I keep to this routine every day without variation,’ he told The Paris Review in 2004. ‘The repetition itself becomes the most important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’”

There’s certainly something to be said for these rituals and dedicated writing spaces. They help many of us clear our minds of whatever else is going on in our lives and gear up for the task at hand.

But can they backfire, too? At a recent Writer’s League of Texas panel, author Doug Dorst cautioned that there’s a fine line between ritual that helps us out and ritual upon which we become dependent. “And that’s when it gets toxic,” he said.

Tony Romano, author of Where My Body Ends and the World Begins, also warns against becoming too fixated on routine:

“Routines sustain writers. But I'm a staunch believer in not allowing the routine to rule you. I've written with a purple pen at Panera Bakery. I've gone back home and written without music. In other words, I find a routine and stick to that, usually for months, until I need a new one. No particular pen or setting is going to dictate whether I write. The routine doesn't define the writer. The routine simply allows the writing to happen.”

When authors get fussy about getting ready to write or being in exactly the right place with exactly the right kind of coffee, they start to miss out on opportunities to make progress. If you’ve got forty-five minutes to write between dropping the kids off at school and heading to the office, but it takes you thirty to get through your prewriting routine—or if you find yourself with spare time on the road, but you can’t bear to put pen to paper away from your desk—you’re missing out.

Of course, E.B. White puts it most directly: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

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What about you? What routines help get you in the right frame of mind to write? And how do you balance the security of routine with the flexibility that helps you stay productive under any circumstances? I'd love to hear your thoughts!