The Importance of Rituals (and When to Ditch Them)

Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end anything on a Friday. Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotting apples, their decaying odor urged him to write. Jonathan Franzen would seal himself up in a dark room, wearing earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold (he would type by feel).

Many writers have well-worn rituals designed to spur the muse into action. Why do creative types develop these arcane routines?

These rituals, that many people cling to, help reduce anxiety, promote a sense of control and enhance the fluidity of creation. A study performed by colleagues at National Writing Project of Acadiana (Louisiana) investigated how these rituals developed and more importantly, how they fostered creativity.

Writers often create rituals around environment, time, and behavior. Some writers need tidy and organized spaces, while others thrive in clutter. The amount of sound also varies. Many prefer a quiet space with no distractions, however others find loud music conducive to bringing forth the muse. In all cases, writers feel the need to “nest” and shape their environment.

An open-ended time frame can be intimidating, often leading to writer’s block. Many writers schedule a consistent time each day to cement the time as part of their daily life. It needn’t be a two to three hour block. One young writer in the investigation, Roxanne, wrote for fifteen minutes riding the bus. 

Ritualized behavior often involves mundane actions, such as sharpening pencils, vacuuming the carpet or making coffee. The fictional writer Thad Beumount would only use Black Beauty pencils to write in Stephen King’s The Dark Half.

Benefits of Rituals

Sitting down to create a story from scratch can generate some powerful anxiety. Writers handle this stress with rituals to promote self-confidence. According to the National Writing Project, this process helps calm the mind for three reasons: “Rituals are familiar, automatic, and often productive of a hypnogogic—that is, a dreamlike—state.” One method to develop this hypnagogic state is to stare off into space and daydream. 

Rituals often fetishize objects, instilling them with magical powers — certain types of pens or pencils, specific papers or a lucky sweater. Although this may reek of superstition, these charms give their users a sense of control over the creative process. So they may seem silly, these magical objects can become legitimate aids to the creation process. 

The following list contains some common ritualized actions:

  • Repetition: Working at the same time and place will normalize your writing. This will make it less threatening.
  • Limited Time: Having a set end time can make your writing task less intimidating. You can choose to finish after twenty or thirty minutes or even a certain number of pages.
  • Physical Activity: Sitting still for hours can increase your frustration. Taking short breaks or even exercising can stimulate your mental activity.
  • Soundscape: Repetitious sounds can improve concentration. Soothing music or ambient sounds might help more than silence.
  • Ingrained Habits: When something works once, you often repeat it again. This will build confidence.
  • Daydream: A state of drowsiness (hypnagogic state) can enhance your creativity. The fully awake mind is not the most creative one.
  • Non-Verbal Drafting: Allowing yourself to doodle or sketch is a good way to get creative juices flowing. Charles Schulz would doodle and let his mind wander until a good idea appeared.

Drawbacks of Rituals

The problem with rituals is that they can take over your life. Very soon, you’ll find yourself like Bruno (from Encanto) tapping on the walls and tossing salt and sugar over your shoulder.

In the article, The Case Against Writing Rituals, Stephen Graham Jones states:

“If you wait until you’re good enough to try this novel, to submit to this market, to query this agent, then you’ll never write that novel. You’ll never submit to that market. You’ll never talk to that agent.”

Yet rituals sneak up on us. We say to ourselves that we’ll dive straight into the writing. But there are those emails to attend to. Or we need to close out tabs on our computer. That nagging desire to “clear the plate” is a never ending trap. The more you try to set aside the trivial errands of the day, the more they float to the surface.

Instead, you may need to ignore and neglect certain aspects of your life. Some of those emails might only get a skim. Your browser, or desk, might need to stay cluttered. You simply need to push everything else aside and get started.

A perfect example comes from Twyla Tharp in her book, The Creative Habit. As a dancer, we expect that her habits involved stretching and weight training. But her true ritual was getting into the cab each morning to take her to the gym.

“It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.”

The most important rituals you have are those that make sure you start writing. Anything else is clutter that will get in the way. 

Tim Kane

One thought on “The Importance of Rituals (and When to Ditch Them)

  1. Rituals and habits are hardwired into human brains. Part of survival behavior. Good practices yield good results.

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