First you get used to eating a pebble a day.
What I mean by this is that in writing, and in a lot of other things, ritual is important – ritual and routine and establishing an habit of doing something.
Charlie and I [This is Sarah!] were talking about this in the opposite and upside down of this – how and when do you break ritual and does breaking ritual liberate creative fire, or not?
I will leave that part of the argument to my partner in crime [Waves at Charlie] but for now, I’ll discuss the uses and importance of ritual.
There is a – perhaps apocryphal — story that goes around the science fiction community. It is attached to one particular author and it is used to explain a prolonged dry spell of his. I’m not going to use his name because I heard this story second, third and sixteenth hand (at least) but never close enough to be sure.
However the story keeps getting told, because all of us, professional writers, identify with it and can understand it.
It is said that a young and hopeful writer turned on his lamp by the desk before he started to write. Maybe he started out because his desk was in a dark corner, or he wrote only at night. As he started selling, he noticed that stories he wrote while the lamp was on sold, while stories he wrote while the lamp was off didn’t. Then he realized this light bulb never seemed to burn out. Year after year he turned on the lamp and the magic light bulb cast its light on his work as he rose up the ranks to bestseller.
Which is when he got divorced. And his wife told him that for years she’s been replacing the light bulb every week, to make sure it was always fresh and wouldn’t burn out.
And he didn’t write for years.
This story illustrates both ritual and superstition – and their dangers.
That they are dangerous goes without saying, and I’ll let Charlie explain why. But they are useful, too, because they are what humans use to tame the unknown, and to try to reliably harness forces they can’t quite understand.
The gods of the market, in the days of yore when you relied on publishers to enable you to reach the public, were such unreliable forces. You could get a pretty good idea of what they liked, but some luck was still involved. I know for a fact I lost a sale because the publisher bought a similar novel a week before. (I sold the novel to another publisher two years later, and the two are often compared.) If mine had been the first submission, the other writer might have been the one refused. It was something neither of us could control.
Beyond that there were editors who died, magazines which folded, and print runs which were confiscated (in Australia) on the way to my stories actually getting to the public. I also could control none of these.
For what you can’t control you develop ritual, because otherwise the uncertainty dominates and stops your thoughts and – certainly – your actions.
Which is how we used to get to writing superstitions. If you tell yourself “When I sit down and do this, then I’ll sell the story” it stops your anxiety and makes the result more likely.
Writers rituals’ tame a less obviously unreliable force.
Most people who think of writing think of it as “you sit down and you do it” like you’d sit down and build a widget, embroider a table cloth or (stand up) and do the dishes. It’s your job and you do it.
Of course there’s an element of that. If you wonder why writers are crazy, it’s because we must, at the same time, hold in our heads the contradictory notions that we are perfectly normal people who do perfectly normal things and that we tap into something deeper and mystical, a power or a vision not given normal people.
Because, much as we hate to admit that, we do feel like we do tap into something “other” beyond the normal vision of men. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know a single professional writer who doesn’t admit that at some time or other the writing escapes his control and that it is usually when it becomes very, very good. This is the reason for books like The Writer’s Journey, itself inspired by The Hero’s Journey. We try not to talk about it in public (yes, they’re going to take my writing card away) but in private we often discuss it with each other.
This thing, this other source we sometimes tap has been called muse or even dictation from the gods. Story tellers and those who worked with words were often called bards and that implied a connection with something supernatural and uncontrollable.
In fact, no matter how down to earth we are or try to be in our normal everyday life, we are creatures who live both in the real world and in the dangerous and shadowy realm of the imagination. Like some of the mythological figures, we move between the realms and act as go-betweens.
This is a dangerous job, particularly for our sanity. Witness my babbling on like a fool about different realms and ancient gods!
Sometimes we sit down and the writing flows of its own accord. And sometimes it doesn’t flow at all.
This is where ritual comes in. Every writer learns early on that if you get yourself used to a certain place, a certain precursory action, a certain way of writing, the words will flow.
For the longest time, I refused to upgrade my word processor (being older than dirt, my second novel was written on an Atari, using WordStar. The first was written on a portable typewriter with a broken ribbon rewind.) because while the spell checker was loading I had time to go to the kitchen and get a cup of coffee, which was a necessary ritual in order to move my head from the writing space to the “evaluate the spelling” state.
In the same way, these days, I wake up before the rest of the family, go downstairs in the silent dark, make tea, have a yogurt, then come upstairs and write my daily blog post. Then I look at Instapundit to make sure no one blew up the world while I was asleep. And then I start my writing day.
Put me somewhere where I can’t check Instapundit and I can’t concentrate to write. (Possibly because I suspect you’re trying to hide from me that you blew up the world!)
More importantly, I can be seriously discomfited if I find we’re out of tea or that my writing computer won’t turn on and I have to do my writing in the publishing computer.
In the same way, in the middle of the afternoon, I take a walk with my older son. This allows me to clear my head and often to talk over writing problems (Robert is also a published writer.)
If Robert is absent or busy and can’t walk with me, it seems like I can’t concentrate the rest of the afternoon.
So – these rituals can hinder the writing when they’re broken. Do they help?
Of course they do. When I come upstairs and write my blog, I’m ready for the muse to arrive. I did this before, and the muse came.
If you want to take the mundane explanation, doing these helps the mind relax enough to allow the semi-mysterious processes of writing to begin.
If you want the other explanation I have a muse that is called by the ritual sacrifice of Earl Grey and plain yogurt.
However, it is done it works, at least most the time. It allows my mind to slip in the shadowy realm in which writing happens.
And to come back – hopefully – in triumph.
Ritual, in fact, allows you to conquer the mountain of fear and uncertainty by eating a little pebble every day.