Over the years I’ve developed writing rituals that help me face the blank page, like getting to my desk early in the morning, before my editor’s awake. It would seem as if my critical editor is a late sleeper, so these early hours find me at my creative best, most willing to take risks, to shine light into the dark and to have the courage to say what I see.
As the sun comes up, my logical mind kicks into gear. This is the part of my brain that sees patterns and helps me arrange characters, scenes and events into a narrative arc. By late morning, my editor gets out of bed, and she sees ways to improve language and syntax; cut repetition and ask the hard questions like, What’s this about? What are you trying to achieve here? How can you rewrite it to emphasize what matters? She’s tough, but she has my best interests at heart.
I’ve fought for my mornings, and now they’re inviolate. I never make appointments before noon so that I can write, undisturbed, anywhere from four to seven hours, depending on when I arrive at my desk.
That desk is in my jewel box of a studio, separate from the house and its chores as well as the drama of family life. For the last five years, the studio has been phone- and internet- free, but when I found myself walking back and forth to the house too often to fact check, I knew it was time to plug in the wires we buried when we built the place. Now, I can get my work done from one desk.
But I’ve also learned there’s a fine line between ritual and rigidity. Some days, I can’t get out to the studio first thing. Just recently, I had to record a commentary in the morning for broadcast later the same day. After recording, I sat down at the public library, writing through the afternoon, right up until six o’clock yoga. Confession: writing outside the comfort of my studio and in the company of strangers was a terrific change of pace.
There was a time when I’d let an interruption of my morning throw me off writing all day. I now have too much work to allow that to happen; I also understand that as important as it is to have routines and rituals, flexibility matters more.
Flexibility matters because life happens, and so do ideas, often at the same time. I’ve learned the hard way that I won’t always remember the brainstorm I have while in the dentist’s chair. I’ve also learned that both long walks and long drives are conducive to sustained narrative thoughts, and the best way to preserve these ideas is to write them down right away.
So if there were only one ritual I could advise, it would be to keep a pen and paper handy at all times, or keep your phone charged and use its voice-memo function to hold on to the idea until you can write it down.
I think we do ourselves a disservice when we talk about writing habits as if ritual is the alchemy that guarantees writing success. It’s not the ritual that matters, but the work of laying down words. If you’re a writer, you’re writing all the time, wherever you are.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story between people in their mid-sixties, set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. She blogs at Living in Place and The Middle Ages.