Writer Rituals

What, exactly, are writer rituals, and what is their purpose?

First I’ll tackle the rituals. I know writers have rituals because I’ve read about them. Someone asks the above question, and the writers, being agreeable or drunk, answer. Mr./Ms./Mrs. Writer, do you have any rituals before, during, or after you write, and if so, what are they? an intern or person who’s not getting paid may ask. And writers, who may or may not be getting paid, respond.

I invested a good half hour on the internet to check out writers’ responses. Of course now, these nuggets are free. In my day, knowledgeable students saved their parents’ money and risked pilfering copies of The Paris Review from the college library to learn such secrets. From several sites, here are rituals of familiar writers. I don’t know if they’re true.

Henry James, Virginia Woolf, A. E. Housman, and Wallace Stevens liked to walk before writing. James Joyce used crayons since he was blind as a bat, sat down, and wore a white coat. Ernest Hemingway stood up. Joan Didion slept in the same room beside a nearly finished manuscript. “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it,” she said in a 1968 interview with, you guessed it, The Paris Review.

I found this statement: “rituals are familiar, automatic, and often productive of a hypnogogic—that is, a dreamlike—state.” If this is a definition, it doesn’t tell me much. For one thing, I don’t like the words familiar and automatic. They’re too close to the word routine. Brushing my teeth is part of my morning routine. A priest celebrating communion is part of a ritual. Either can be important or useless depending upon one’s oral health or piety. I’m unfamiliar with the word hypnogogic, but I get the part about a dreamlike state. If I’m having a good day, hours may pass between the time I sit down to write and when I finish. Other days not so much. I take breaks. I may drink a glass of water, troll some reactionary’s Facebook page, or watch sports video highlights. In any case I get bored quickly and quit for the day.

There seems to be agreement most rituals fall into one of three areas: time, environment, and behavior. I understand time. Write at the same time every day. I try to. Sometimes things come up, though. Time also implies production, better known as word count. I have never nor do I expect to ever ask another writer, “How many words did you write today?” (Please excuse the numbers not being written out. I like to keep my word count down.) Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 3,000 words a day. Hemingway wrote 500. That’s closer to my average. Michael Crichton had the number 10,000 after his name. Given 25 words per bottle of beer in “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” to reach 10,000 words one would need to type all the way from 100 to zero bottles of beer 4 times, singing being optional.

I write at my safe spot, so my environment’s cool. Yet I’ve seen writers at bookcons writing under their 10′ X 10′ instant canopy, typing away as drunks yell from a beer garden and street vendors hawk their wares.

As for behavior I found this tidbit: Consider sixteen-year-old Andrea, who says, “I have to be sitting to write. My brain works harder I think. I have to be drinking a tall glass of Coke with about eight cubes of ice. When I write and stop, I’ll grab my glass and take a drink. Let myself do something else. Think for a moment. Take a drink. Boom—idea.” The Boom–idea part interests me. If it works, I’ll be selling my Pepsi stock and buying Coca-Cola. As for being sixteen, I don’t remember much other than dealing with pimples and unwanted erections when summoned to the blackboard in math class.

Considering the rituals’ purpose, an article summarized thus: writers…touch on the importance of ritual in reducing anxiety, increasing fluency, and increasing power and control. That sounds similar to the reasons I rarely worked busy shifts as a bartender stone cold sober. A nip now and then kept my salesmanship, smile, and testosterone going on Friday and Saturday nights.

I suppose we writers do anything we can to help ourselves. Rituals are part of that. How big a part I’m not sure. Right now I have to empty and wipe my ashtray. I can’t tolerate more than one cigar butt in my 1964 World’s Fair ashtray. And I need to run a few errands. My last 75 watt bulb just blew. I have some 100’s, but they’re too damn bright. Driving on my way uptown, I’ll pass the dog next door. The son of a bitch barks at leaves dropping off trees. I can hear him plain as day in my safe spot. It’s almost the first day of fall, and I may have to relocate.

An Act of Discovery

Years ago I read an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “Writing Short Stories.” She talked about writing as an act of discovery. When I read the essay, I felt tremendous relief. I’d thought I was writing short stories all wrong. I’d never know where mine were headed. Eventually, I wanted to write novels. How the hell was that going to happen?

Some time after reading O’Connor’s essay, I wrote a story that eventually made it into Beloit Fiction Journal. The story concerned a father and son. The son, twenty, planned to marry. The father, Carl, had serious reservations. The night before the wedding, Carl lost his cool and caused a scene. He followed that up next morning by storming out of the house. He was out on his own, and I didn’t have any idea what to do with him. Something had to happen.

I had a twelve year old kid on his bicycle run Carl over. The kid rode on the sidewalk and clipped Carl’s leg hard enough to put him down. All of a sudden Carl had a direction to go. He was going to catch that little bastard and teach him a lesson.

Of course I realized Carl was really chasing his son. The boy on the bike was merely a substitute. An accident of circumstance had taken the place of Carl’s conflict at home. He saw a resolution, and he was going to pursue it. When Carl came upon the boy and a group of his friends, he verbally reprimand the kid. But the kid’s buddies circled Carl, threw sand at him, and mocked him. He took it. He realized his anger had pushed him in the wrong direction. Home he went to reconcile the day.

Looking back, there would not have been a story without that kid and his bike. Carl may have wandered for eternity and taken my story with him. Where did the kid on the bike come from? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But I do know what Flannery O’Connor meant. In order to discover, you have to put words down.

As for novels, I sat down a year or so ago to work on my latest attempt. Thirty thousand words in, I was stuck. I’d written ten pages the previous month and two sentences in three days. To take heart, I should have remembered the kid on the bike. In the novel out of nowhere, a dog showed up. It ran crazy down a street. Things happened one after another. The novel, Beat the Blues, is due out in April, 2018 from Unsolicited Press.

E. L. Doctorow put it this way: Writing a novel, he said, is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Imitation in Writing

A long time ago–1981 to be exact–I discovered the writing of Raymond Carver. I was in a creative writing class at Shippensburg University. The professor encouraged us to find a writer we wanted to imitate. I’ll speak about imitation later in the blog. For now let’s stay with Carver.

I got myself a copy of his collection of short stories titled Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? I found many of the stories enjoyable. But some of them absolutely delighted me. I found myself startled by Carver’s precision at moments in these stories. Moments which I read aloud to others as proudly as if I had written the words myself. I had a bond with Carver’s stuff I hadn’t had with most other writers. You’ve found your guy, my prof told me.

The twenty page introduction of my master’s thesis detailed Carver’s influence on my own short stories which followed (don’t worry, I’m not going to throw out quotes from something I wrote thirty-five years ago). However, I will mention one of the footnotes I used. It came from Carver’s essay “On Writing.” He wrote, “The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvelous world according to John Irving.” After mentioning several other writers who created their own worlds, Carver stated, “Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.”

That made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now. To paraphrase Carver, if a writer can find a way of looking at things and can give artistic expression to it, he might be around for a time.

Which brings me to imitation. If a writer needs to find his own world, how is imitation going to come into play? In 1981 I hadn’t read T.S. Eliot’s quote about imitation: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Or George Bernard Shaw: “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery–it’s the sincerest form of learning.” Of course my professor knew that imitation doesn’t consist only of what most people think of as copying or mimicking. It also consists of learning.

So I’ll repeat my professor’s advice: beginning writers should find themselves a writer they wish to imitate. It comes down to reading. Sorry, but that’s the consensus. Read others, and you’ll find yourself. If a writer can focus on objects or moments so clarity, accuracy, and of course truth follow, that’s a positive outcome. If a writer sees clearly how another writer achieves those things, that’s a positive outcome.

The pathway will not be new. Countless others have walked it before. The trick is to find precision in your own steps.

Welcome to My Blog

Greetings again!

Let’s start with a quote I use to introduce Book II in my forthcoming novel Beat the Blues. It’s due out in April of 2018. (Don’t worry–there won’t be too many commercials for it.)

Here’s the quote. It’s from Willa Cather’s My Antonia. “In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”

In Cather’s novel the male narrator reunites with a woman he greatly admired in his younger days. Perhaps he loved her. She’s changed now–lost some teeth, married, and given birth to double digit children. What else was there to do for recreation in Nebraska at the turn of the 19th century, right? But there’s something more in this quote. The phrase, Some memories are realities interests me.

I’d like to be able to look back at my own life and figure out when exactly that process began. When did memory become reality? I’m 64–not too old, but far from young. I can’t put a finger on a year. It’s tough to even pick a decade. But I know it happened to me, and I suspect it happens with many people.

Then there’s the next part of the sentence. The memories are better than anything that can ever happen to one again. That’s a cheery thought. Might as well grab a bottle and sit yourself down. Don’t bother with the new movie. It won’t touch the first Star Wars.

Is that what Cather means? I don’t think so. I think she’s focusing on the narrator’s unending affection for Antonia. I think she’s getting down to the brass tacks of what makes a relationship special. Years pass, yes. But it’s how we recall them that counts, how we keep memories tucked away and pull them out as needed, aces from our sleeve.

It doesn’t matter if someone sees you cheating. They’ve done it too. They’ll let you slide.