Greasing The Gears: Writing Rituals To Get You Started

Almost all prolific writers I’ve known have rituals they go through when they first sit down to write. By ritual, we don’t mean sacrificing chickens or holding an hour-long prayer in the midst of incense smoke, though we’ll perfectly understand if that’s what you’re into. Instead, the rituals are usually a lot less elaborate — just a few things they regularly do to get them properly warmed up to do the work.

Stephen King, for instance, said his ritual consisted of sitting down to write between 8 and 8:30. Always within that 30-minute period. Within that same period, he also has either a glass of water or a cup of tea, which he takes along with a vitamin pill. He sits in the same chair with his materials all set up in the same arrangement with his favorite music playing (he didn’t mention what in particular, though).

That’s his ritual. If he does that, it takes him to that mindspace where he’s ready to write. How do you know? Because that’s what he’s always done to get his writing gears going.

I know at least a couple of people who have a similar ritual to Stephen King. In fact, we joke about it as the “same place, same time” syndrome. If they’re in this specific place at the specific time, then they can write like an angel was whispering in their ear — possessed to a point. Put them in a different environment, though, and they struggle mightily.

Poet Joaquin Miller had one of the coolest rituals I’ve heard about: he installed garden sprinklers above his home and turned them on when he wanted to write. Why? Because he always wrote his best stuff when could hear the sound of rain on the roof.

Henrik Ibsen once mentioned how he hung a framed picture of his mortal enemy, August Strindberg, over his desk. All he had to do was look at it and his writing flames were stoked.

I know a lot of people who make a point of writing at least two pages as soon as they wake up. No coffee, no breakfast and no messing with anything else — except maybe a trip to the bathroom (it’s a human need, so don’t skip that). Lots of people I know swear by this — attributing their success to the freshness of the mind during mornings while it is still unburdened by the troubles of the world.

The write Natalie Goldberg uses a cigarette as her ritual. While she isn’t a regular smoker, she lights one up before writing and lets it hang by her mouth. If she’s in a café where smoking isn’t allowed, she just puts an unlit cigarette and it works just as well. According to her, the cigarette has evolved into her prop — since she doesn’t ordinarily smoke, it makes her feel different, allowing her to dream into another world.

Some rituals are harmless. Some, in fact, may even be productive, like one my old bosses who finished her first book while attending to her garden (she wrote outside with her plants). Some, though, can be truly harmful. You’ve, no doubt, heard of writers who couldn’t work without alcohol, drugs or some other type of stimulation. We encourage you to not even try those for experiment — they could very well just lead you down to an extremely unsavory path.

Do You Need A Ritual?

Do you have your own rituals that you do to seize the writing muse? Or do you just sit and hope that the writing bug strikes?

If you’re one of the former, then congratulations. Having a ritual gives you a path to get to the proper writing mindset every single time you need to write. And that’s a big thing in your favor, saving you from having to wait for inspiration to begin writing or spending an entire hour staring at a blank screen while your brain stays stuck.

A ritual need not be something quirky. For many people who write in an office setting, for instance, the daily routines of office life is usually enough to serve as the ritual that directs your mind to the job at hand. The first cup of coffee from the pantry, the morning meeting with your supervisor or the dozens of emails you answer as soon as you turn on your computer could be just the things that help you get in that right frame of mind.

If you don’t have a ritual, then you likely aren’t able to write with much regularity. Want to change that? Develop one that works for you. That way, you have a default set of actions you can do every time you feel that “writer’s block” entrenching itself into your mind.

Developing A Ritual

Of course, developing a ritual that works isn’t something you can just do on a whim. You can’t exactly tell yourself that after you drink a can of Four Loko, eat a footlong and sing along to Gucci Gucci on Youtube, you’ll be ready to forge ten rich pages of material. Life would be good if things worked that way, but it just doesn’t.

Your best bet at finding a working ritual is to keep a journal of the things you do when preparing for work. Just go about your day like normal — cook, clean, leave the house, hang with friends or whatever else you do on a regular day. Often, rituals evolve out of things that inspire you (a song, a picture, a person), so pay particular attention to those and record how they affect you.

If you diligently record your activities for a month or so, you’ll eventually find patterns that work. Maybe you find that you get in a proper writing mood after listening to your favorite dubstep mix or that your writing seems much livelier when you have lunch with your wife before sitting down to compose anything. Once you find those things that work, repeat them and see if the same results ensue. If they do, then you’ve found a ritual you can embrace.