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.