Writing Rituals

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott again. Her book, Bird by Bird, is my favorite writing book of all time. If you haven’t read it, go to your local library and check it out today.

But right now, I’m reading Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair. In it, Ms. Lamott talks a lot about rituals and routines:

“Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.”

When I think of difficult times, such as after the loss of a loved one, I agree that daily rituals have been “knots” that have allowed me to hang on. I think of doing the work of caring for my son after the death of my beloved uncle. The daily rituals with my son—morning, noon, and night–helped me pull myself through those first days without my uncle.

And what about my writing life? I don’t have that many rituals around my writing. I’m an opportunistic writer at the moment—if I find myself with a few spare minutes, I whip out my computer, my iPad, or I grab a receipt and write on the back of it. While I believe this method has many advantages, I can see that a little ritual might be a good thing.

I looked up writing rituals online and read about Ernest Hemingway and his habit of writing at dawn, while standing at a typewriter. I read about Maya Angelou’s habit of checking into a hotel for the day to write, then going home in the evening. While these writers’ habits were familiar to me, I had never before read that Demosthenes routinely shaved half his head so he couldn’t go out in public. He’d stay home and write until his hair grew back. That seems a little drastic (plus I’d still have to go do the grocery shopping!)

I polled my fellow writers here at Live to Write-Write to Live about their writing rituals:

  • Wendy, like me, tends to write when she can, doesn’t currently have a lot of writing rituals (but she looks forward to the day when her ritual is heading out to her tiny writer’s cabin with her faithful dog, Pippin.)
  • Lee, too, isn’t much for writing rituals.
  • Deborah has written about her writing rituals before for this blog (click here to read.) Her ritual starts with NAMS, which I think I might try after reading her piece on it.

For me, right now, just showing up is enough of a ritual. Opening my computer , creating a new, blank document, and writing Sh***y First Draft across the top is enough. Opening my iPad and going back to a blog post idea I jotted down the week before while sitting in a waiting room is enough. Grabbing a notebook by my bed and writing down a story idea in the middle of the night is enough.

One of these days, I’ll have a more robust writing ritual and I’ll be a better writer for it. In the meantime, I’ll keep checking out other writers’ rituals and see what might work for me when the time is right.

What is your writing ritual these days?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, family physician, mother, stepmother, and (brand-new) grandmother. I’m enjoying the moments when I write and I look forward to having a little more time for writing in the fall when my son starts school. Then I might need a ritual to get me keep my butt in the chair!


22 thoughts on “Writing Rituals

  1. Ha! I love Demosthenes head shaving ritual – priceless 🙂 I also love Bird by Bird, and have Stitches on my to read list. I’m a dawn writer like Hemingway, although I sit down in front of my computer. Ideally I like to loosen up with dome journalling or meditation before I write.

  2. Boy, can I relate to this post. I too am an opportunistic writer, but crave a schedule or set ritual. No matter how many times I plan my week in advance, life tends to get in the way. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have also read Bird by Bird but this is a timely reminder that I would like to read it again. As for rituals. I find if I can get all my chores and other pieces of work out of the way in the morning, then at about 3.30 pm I feel my creativity kicking in and I usually sit down and write for a few hours, but it doesn’t always work. I think freeing your mind somehow is the key, or the holy grail! Thanks for the interesting post.

  4. I use to be an opportunistic writer. Sadly, it would be months or years between ‘opportunities.’ In the last few years, I settled into a rhythm. I’ll do some pre-writing and research on a week night (night varies depending on my schedule) and my main writing starts on Sunday afternoon at tea time and ends when we put the pizza in the oven for our weekly treat dinner (i.e. non-doctor approved indulgence of cheese, fatty meats and too few veggies). Whatever comes out of the keyboard during that time is my weekly blog post.

  5. Creating a ritual during kids summer vacation is hard but I try to write an hour before they are out of their bed. Before I used to wait for inspiration to flow but now I have realized that if you discipline yourself enough to open the computer and sit words do start flowing!

  6. l love Anne LaMotte, she is practically a religion for me! My writing ritual is first thing in the morning. I make a cup of coffee and sit down immediately. I read one page of my devotion, then with my pen and journal, make my to do list. It’s gotta start with the pen for me, and then go from there.

  7. I had to read Bird by Bird for my Intro to Creative Writing class in college. Anne Lamotte is such an interesting person, and such an interesting writer.
    Finding a specific time and place to write has given me a bit of structure to my writing and my day as well, but to each their own. 🙂

  8. For me I’ve learned through my writing process that the more I make myself sit down at the computer the better I am of coming up with ideas and having content to write. My words flow easier and I’m my struggling to get the words out. Now when I miss a day of writing I’m sad and ready to get back at the keyboard again! I think rituals are important, I love my writing rituals, I get up 4 days a week at 4 am and write until my son wakes up, this has made me a better writer and for that I am grateful

  9. I love Anne Lamott but have never read Bird by Bird. It’s been on my list, must get a copy. I don’t have any rituals as a writer and haven’t been writing very much beyond blogging a couple of times a week. When I have a few minutes I’ll jot down random ideas that I hope will turn into a fully thought out story at some point.

  10. I wish I had one! It’s all gone to pot with the Summer hols in Kolkata. A new puppy doesn’t help either, although both provide more than enough inspiration. I think just setting a time first would be good. I used to do that before, when I first started blogging and then I relaxed. Complained about writers’ block and worried about worthlessness. I think I better get back to it again.

  11. I thank you for the beautiful article. I have no ritual. I write when I feel pain. I solve their displeasure immediately. I’m not procrastinating tomorrow. You write when you have a heart full of joy and love. I write when my heart is crying.
    I Love you.
    Beautiful day to you and your family.
    Your Jaroslava Svajcrová

  12. I understand Jaroslava’s comment: I keep journals when I’m miserable and when I’m happy I don’t seem to need one. Right now my writing is revising a book with a friend/colleague as editor and it’s so much fun I can’t believe it. Support from a writing buddy is a great ritual–call it an accountability partner or maybe just a friendly reader. By that I don’t mean someone who tells you want you want to hear–someone who hears you and tells you what you need to hear. Ritual is about empowerment!

  13. I’m reading Bird by Bird right now, too. And I have always been opportunistic as well when it comes to any writing that wasn’t for a client or full time job. I’d write when I felt like it, and when I was in the mood. Now, I’m trying to get into a schedule and routine, with something every day, even if it’s just a journal entry. I’m finding more and more that waiting for that perfect mood or setting to write in wasn’t going to get me anywhere — I need to make it a regular thing if I actually want results.

  14. Hi Diane, I attended several writing workshops when I began writing my breast cancer memoir. Several of them said to treat it like a job. Set aside time every day to write. ALL of the writing workshops recommended reading Anne Lamott’s book: Bird by Bird.

    I write when I give myself a deadline. I don’t do anything without a deadline. Now that the second edition of my book is completed, I no longer follow a ‘writing ritual.’

    I am trying to begin a writing ritual where I write at least one blog post per week instead of one ‘whenever I get a few minutes.’

    I joined Toastmasters last fall. I sign up to give speeches and that gives me a deadline to complete them by. I write my speeches a month before I give them and then practice them to perfection during the new few weeks.

    I think I might have to write another book. Perhaps a compilation of my Toastmasters speeches…..

  15. Reblogged this on Haiku Journey and commented:
    Isn’t it funny, spooky, meaningful, when just after you’ve written, thought, said, something up it pops up. I’d just finished the previous post, Now, turned to the Reader and the third time I came to was Diane’s post on Writing Rituals, one of the ways to do it now. Thanks, Diane.

  16. Finally this am got around to reading re the rituals. It’s certainly a lot easier when the children are grown and its in the winter season of life BUT its the death of friends, family, close ones etc etc which can colour and fashion what you think, feel and write about. My ritual from years ago was to have several small books and put one in every area I would be likely to be in during the day. Ie. car, kitchen, toilet, bedroom, study etc etc. If a thought came (even one negative or otherwise I’d jot it down) I was astonished one night before I went to bed how many different aspects of the day I had simply spot written. Because fiction and truth in my faith are at opposing ends of the spectrum this gave me a syphon to filter what I would actually put on a page when the daily discipline to write – 1000 words a day came.
    Thanks for your info.

  17. I’ve read “Bird By Bird” at least twice, and still revisit certain sections from time. Anne Lamott posts regularly on her FB site, treating it as her blog. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

    My ritual? These days (I try) to be at my writing desk 9am to 1 pm Monday to Fridays. Breakfast at the desk. No newspapers, no emails, no phone calls or text messages, no FB, until the day’s work done, or it’s 1pm, whichever comes first. No writing on weekends, except for jotting down of some thoughts.

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