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Eating an Elephant

If you want to eat an elephant, you'd better know more than one way to cook it.

by
Sarah Hoyt and Charlie Martin

Bio

September 3, 2013 - 4:30 pm
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eating-an-elephant

Sarah and I agreed to write two sides of the question of writing rituals, me taking the anti-ritual side. So now, I’m home from the day job, dressed in my comfy pants, in my writing corner where my computer faces a window and my cats have convenient places to sit and watch. I get the editor open (my new love in software, Ulysses III, which I’m going to review next week), arrange the windows the way I like, get a bottle of water next to me, and, as my last step, I wind my tomato timer and start it ticking at my left elbow.

I’m now prepared to write about why I think writing rituals can be harmful.

The fact is that I think every writer has rituals, and they’re not all harmful. Writing is a funny process — you sit in a room looking at an empty screen, and push words out. As I said a few days ago, for me this empty screen used to be the step at which I’d start to sweat blood. I’d write a few words or a paragraph, or even some pages, and not like them, and start over — something made easier by a computer although without the satisfying feeling of crumpling the paper into a ball and throwing it away. Eventually something would click and I’d get moving, and eventually find something I liked.

Oddly, I could write at length, with some fluency, and with some verve when I was writing something like a USENET comment, or later writing blog comments and emails. It was just when I had to sit down and write something real that I had troubles.

Steven Pressfield calls this Resistance, and identifies it as a powerful force. In his book The War of Art he sees Resistance as a shadowy force that interferes any time you try to do something challenging, whether it’s writing a book or following a diet or saving a marriage. For me, most often it’s the Critic’s Voice, a part of me that looks over my shoulder, reads what I’ve written, and sniffs “Meh.”

When Resistance is thwarted, you get into a different state, a state of flow — the words are coming and you know what you’re actually doing — sometimes you look at what you’re writing and say “Whoa, where’d that come from?”

It’s a mental state that I suspect is very much like hypnosis, a trance state. Certainly it has many of the characteristics of trance, with time compression and single-minded focus. What our rituals do for us is prepare us to enter that trance. With my Pomodoro timers — and before that, when I started drafts with a fountain pen and paper even though I would be typing later — part of the ritual for me is to tell the Critic’s Voice to sod off, because I’m just writing something quickly, it’s only a few minutes and it doesn’t have to be good anyway — in 25 minutes I’ll stop and then you can say “meh”. So I start typing, the Voice lets up, and I write.

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All Comments   (5)
All Comments   (5)
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I love it that your whole first paragraph is a description of an elaborate ritual, followed by "I’m now prepared to write about why I think writing rituals can be harmful." Points for cheerful irony!
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a doctor and an aspiring writer, this works well for me:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYqnoULgD30
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hey, it worked so well for Hemingway and Faulkner ....
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I would love to be able to convince myself that I could write something that others (even cats) would be interested in spending a small part of a finite life to read it. Alas, it is not to be.

On the other hand! I am very good at reading and remembering and can and have spent many, many hours and days of my life doing just those things. So, it all works out in the end for me.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Didn't you just write a comment?
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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