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.


Which is all well and good. But Resistance is smart, just as smart as you are, and it’s perfectly happy to use your ritual as a weapon against you. Someone stops making your favorite pen. Or you can’t find narrow-lined paper. Or you’re out of coffee. Or, worst of all, you hit a bad patch in the writing, when you don’t know what you’re trying to say and the words come in painful brick-like turds that splash and beg you to flush them away.

That’s when Resistance sees its chance to use your ritual against you. You start to dread sitting down with your cup of coffee and your timer, or your quill pen and violet ink, or whatever the little talismans of your ritual are. They become symbols of the inner struggle, and as you perform the ritual without success, they become symbols not of the pleasant cretive trance, but of a sort of dark anti-trance in which you can’t even write a good check on the first draft.

The answer is to have a ritual, but be able to give it up. Make a change every so often. Don’t write on the keyboard, write longhand. Use a different room. Write in your underwear — or write fully dressed if you’re used to writing in your underwear. Make your rituals serve you, don’t serve your rituals.