Writing Rituals

One of my writing rituals is to get to my desk early, before my critical editor's awake.

One of my writing rituals is to get to my desk early, before my critical editor’s awake.

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.

Deborah Lee Luskin writing studio

My desk.

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.

My studio is no longer internet- and telephone- free.

My studio is no longer internet- and telephone- free.

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. (free photo from pixabay)

Flexibility matters.
(free photo from pixabay)

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, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

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.

49 thoughts on “Writing Rituals

    • Thanks for your comment. Now that my kids are grown, I’m amazed at how much I did actually write when they were underfoot. At the time, of course, I berated myself for not doing more. So please be kind to yourself and appreciate the effort and commitment involved and not just the words written or published. All best wishes – and good luck!

    • Quoted as above, I see writing as paving, and a sentence a highway to story. Thanks for echoing them back so I could “hear” them more vividly – and for following the blog. It’s always a pleasure to see the pun embedded in your gravatar. All best.

  1. I write best in the mornings. But when life happens I am learning that I don’t have to let the day go without attempting to write something in the afternoon. Sometimes I surprise myself!
    A notebook goes with me everywhere – you never know when inspiration will come. It is often so fleeting that it can be forgotten in a few moments. Writing it down at least gives a clue to what it was all about.

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    • Thanks for this affirmation. I’m obsessed by place: local foods, local (restorative) justice, and my blog: Living in Place. Not surprisingly, my fiction and essays are also heavily place-based. In the age of cyberspace, this can sometimes feel antediluvian, but I’m a big believer that one needs roots in order to have wings. All best.

  3. I am mainly a morning writer, although when I am engrossed in an idea for a poem or a story, I might have a break and go back to it later. Monday, Tuesday and Friday are the best days for prose writing, as I have no other regular commitments on those days.But I always start with a couple of poems as a warm-up. Your writing space looks wonderful. I am lucky to have a lovely space – a converted conservatory that overlooks the garden. As Mandy said above, a notebook, preferably one with an attractive cover, and a good handwriting pen need to be with me at all times, although I discovered a useful dictation app on my mobile phone if I get caught out without a notebook!

    • Sounds like you’ve developed a great practice that incorporates flexibility when necessary. And I’m intrigued by the notebook with an attractive cover. I take a different approach, using plain, utilitarian notebooks so that I’m not intimidated to scrawl thoughts and ideas that are still really rough. – Thanks for sharing your routines.

    • For years before I had the studio, I had an unheated room in the house. So we all make do with what we have until we can achieve what we dream of. It took me twenty-five years to realize this dream – and I’m loving it! Keep those headphones on – and keep writing! All best.

    • Yes, sometimes writing does seem like a fight against the blank page – so whatever it takes to stop fighting and start writing is good. I’m still learning how to be kind to myself, which seems to help allay fear. Thanks for your comment, and good luck.

  4. Flexibility is key to success. Our lives can be interrupted while we are trying to write down our thoughts. I like what you suggested about keeping pen and paper handy. I’ve learned to keep notebooks everywhere possible. Distractions can throw you off course when you have an interesting idea. I write my thoughts down right away. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Thanks for your comment, and for affirming my belief that flexibility is probably more important than ritual. It sounds like you have a good way of cutting through distraction. All the best.

    • Thanks so much for letting me know you liked it. It’s always gratifying to know I’ve written something that another finds helpful. All best with your writing practice –

  5. Brilliant article. You writing space is beautiful. I can totally relate to this. Its hard getting up early to write but i find that when I do my day runs smoother.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. And yes, I know how hard it can be to get out of bed. I find that it’s easier if I know the night before what I need to work on. Sometimes – when I’m deep in a piece of fiction – this even prompts me to dream about my characters. Othertimes, I dawdle over breakfast with my husband and don’t get to work until 8. All best.

  6. “Flexibility matters because life happens, and so do ideas, often at the same time.” Love that line – it’s so true. Beautiful writing space that appears to sparks creativity. You are wise to keep it free from distractions. Nice post.

    • Thanks for your kind words. Rereading my sentence as quoted back above helps me realize that if life didn’t get in the way of writing, we might not have anything to write about! So it is a delicate balance, and flexibility is key. All best wishes.

  7. The advice to always keep a pen and a paper handy as a writer is time tested and trusted. I like the new spin you put on it though, it’s a technology era so a phone with a good recorder will do the trick too especially if your hands are tied to write. Good one Deborah!

    • Thanks for the affirmation – especially about technology. I’m a digital immigrant, born long before the personal computer (you might enjoy the post on my personal blog this morning, about Typing & Kissing), so I’m particularly gratified when I can share ideas about using technology in the age-old pursuit of telling a story. All best wishes to you.

  8. I am a morning writer too. Great advice on carving out the prime time for writing. I tend to let the everyday errands and tasks enter my mornings and I realize this is the window for increased creativity and productivity. Walking works for me too

    • Yes, it takes a deliberate effort to put your writing front and center, especially if you are a caregiver to others. I’m glad you know you’re a morning writer and a walking writing (me, too). That’s a first step to protecting your time. Maybe you start out with one or two days a week, or maybe just fifteen minutes every day. One thing I learned was that my children learned to respect my time – and as a result, they are better about managing their own time. So there are positive unintended consequences to developing a writing practice – and remaining flexible when necessary. Thanks for your comments.

  9. Love this! It is very important to be flexible! I also believe that it is important to have your own space where you are free to imagine. Having said that I have two boys, and very little space for myself but what I do have I LOVE and that is the most important part. You have to love your space! Great post!

    • I’m sure those two little boys are teaching you all about flexibility! And I’m so glad you’re writing through their early years. It’s important to keep your own flame burning through the mothering years, not just for yourself, but also to show your children that you have a life and that there is a world beyond them. My two cents. Thanks for your comment. Keep writing!

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  12. That is a delightful working space. Thank you for sharing.

    I’ve still got four kids running around so my “office” is in the living room where I can keep an eye on the kids. I’m always writing though, when I’m not spending time with them. I keep several notebooks around the house, one in my jacket, and I’m usually on the computer either reading or writing.

    That flexibility is key to my being able to get any writing done.

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