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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.