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The one writing ritual you can’t give up

Most authors have writing rituals, ranging from the pragmatic to the bizarre. Hemingway famously wrote standing up, and Edith Wharton lying in bed. John Cheever wrote in his underwear but Victor Hugo went one step further and wrote nude. Truman Capote avoided Fridays, never beginning or ending a piece of writing on that day. Poet Frederick Schiller couldn’t write without the smell of rotten apples emanating from his desk drawer.

My own writing ritual has been simple: one cup of coffee and I’m away. I’m not alone in this. Apparently Honoré de Balzac would drink up to fifty coffees a day, making my own one or two cups seem positively puritan. He would write day and night, and when the coffee stopped taking effect he would chew on coffee beans.

Unfortunately I don’t have de Balzac’s constitution and my doctor has forced me to abandon caffeine. I must confess, it’s been tough. A coffee always immediately clicked me into gear. It was a signal to myself: time to work. And the caffeine buzz gave me that ability to embrace the empty page with enthusiam, even on days when I felt terribly tired. So I miss it. Desperately.

As I mourn caffeine and attempt to make do with roasted dandelion ‘coffee’ (it’s as bad as it sounds), I thought I’d ask some of my fellow writers about the one writing ritual they couldn’t give up. Here goes…

Kate Mildenhall is a writer and teacher. Her stunning debut novel, Skylarking was longlisted for Debut Fiction in the Indie Book Awards 2017 and the 2017 Voss Literary Award.
In the aftermath of my first novel being published, I found myself perplexed at what I couldn’t remember about the process and sequence of writing it. When did I decide to cut that character? What was I reading when I wrote that scene? Where did I put the link to that article about whale oil? On this, my second time around, I’ve kept a journal of the process. It’s a word doc that I keep open all the time, and I write in it nearly every day I’m working on the manuscript. It’s a catch-all for what I’m reading, to do lists, word counts, questions to myself, random ideas, links to relevant articles, research notes (some written in my cabin on a yacht in the middle of the Banda Sea!) and long rants filled with self-doubt and fear. It’s been incredibly useful to refer back to when I’ve felt lost or unsure, and I’m also looking forward to being able to use it when I’m talking about the book and my process. At some point in the last month the word count on the journal document surpassed the actual manuscript — testament to how addicted I’ve become to this little ritual.

Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel, The Anchoress, was an international bestseller, and her much-anticipated next novel, Book of Colours, is out in April.
My ritual doesn’t make a lot of sense, even to me. It’s a pen and notebook, but not for writing my work-in-progress; I do that on my computer. I’ve always loved the idea of writing my manuscript by hand, page upon page of words in ink. But I’ve discovered that on the computer I feel more freedom to change words, to play, invent, experiment. And yet, I also need the feel of pen on paper, my body engaged in a way it can’t be on the computer. In my notebook I write ideas, plans, questions, doodles. I talk to myself, chew over that crazy idea I had in the night. It’s especially crucial when I’m scared of writing — of the blank page or the stuck place in my story. When I’m too afraid to sit at the computer, I can grab my favourite pen, open my notebook and write to myself. Out it all comes: I have no ideas; I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m lost in my own narrative; I can’t work out the structure; I’m not sure what my character needs to do next. Anything, everything. It’s such a safe, cosy place; pen or pencil on paper feels so accepting. Eventually, an idea, or courage, or just a little bit of freedom, finds me, and I move on to the main work.

Perhaps it’s the difference between my private words on paper, just for me, and the words that I write on computer to go out into the world. I’m not sure, but this ritual works, so I’m keeping it!

Louise Allan’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song*, was released last month and it’s been going gangbusters. She also has an excellent blog for writers and readers.
The one writing ritual I can’t give up is that I must check the news, my emails and my social media before I can set to work.

Pre-internet, first thing each morning I used to read the newspaper from beginning to end, commenting to my husband as I went. I liked starting the day informed about what had been happening in the world.

These days, it’s the internet I check. Every day, the ABC messages me the news headlines, then I check my emails, and finally my social media. I feel like the housekeeping is then done and I can commence my work day. It takes at least an hour, but my head feels clearer afterwards, and I’m able to concentrate on my work. If I set to work beforehand, I feel like it’s still hanging over me.

I once did a six-day writing course and one of the rules was that we had to rise from bed and immediately start writing, taking advantage of our half-awake mental states. It was so good for my writing and I swore I’d maintain it after the course had finished. But, alas, I immediately reverted to my old habits!

Peggy Frew is the author of two brilliant books, House of Sticks and Hope Farm, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.
I have a few writing rituals (and I am very sorry to say, Irma, that sitting down to work with a fresh cup of coffee is one of them) but the only really indispensible one is going offline. When it’s time to work I carry my laptop out into my backyard writing studio, and as soon as I open it I turn the wifi off and shut down my mail so I can’t see that little red circle with the number of unread emails in it. My phone I leave inside the house. Picking up my phone is something I do a lot when I’m having trouble settling in to work, and I’ve found that the only way to avoid it as a distraction is to simply not have it in the same room as me. This ritual — the change of location, the reopening of the laptop sans wifi and mail, and the leaving-behind of the phone — works as a kind of passageway. There is a sense of purpose, of clarity, of entering a different state. Whether or not any good writing happens is actually not relevant, because the ritual is not about good or bad writing, it’s about removing distractions and committing to complete focus on the work. In time (one hopes!) the good writing will come, but one thing is for sure: it won’t come if you don’t clear the decks and sit down to write in the first place.

So there you have it. The perfect writing recipe: coffee, notebook, journal, all the wifi, or no wifi. It just goes to show that every writer needs to discover what works for them and run with it.

* I have one signed copy of Louise Allan’s The Sisters’ Song to give away! Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget. If you’d like to get your hands on it, simply sign up to my newsletter before 7 pm Friday 23 Feb (link to the right). Open to Australian residents only. Winner will be randomly generated. Good luck!

8 thoughts on “The one writing ritual you can’t give up”

  1. I’m another one who has to have a notepad and pen! Like Robyn, I do all my “real” writing on my computer – it would take forever if I tried to write it out longhand. But I’ve discovered only recently that anytime I get stuck or need to brainstorm ideas or even just need to get past a patch of low self-confidence, freehand writing what’s on my mind is an incredible tool for boosting my brain and freeing my words. It’s a mystery, but I love it!

    1. It is interesting, isn’t it? I find that too. Though solutions often come when I’m reading. It’s always totally unrelated to what I’m writing and yet it triggers something. I’ll pull out the notebook and write a paragraph or two, then read a bit more, then write again. Here’s to the good old fashioned pen and paper!

  2. What Angelika said! I feel badly about my morning social media habit, but it really is part of my routine. Since I’ve had zero luck eliminating it completely, I’ve compromised and tried to at least cut back and get to writing quicker. It does have a sort of ‘prime the pump’ feel to it. Over the past year or two I’ve also incorporated a fairly robust bullet journal habit. Initially it was an overgrown analog to-do list. Now it’s full-blown calendar, list, journal, diary, plotting, scheming, dream journal, habit tracker . . . well, you get the gist. I find the act of writing some things by hand very focusing. But I still use Scrivener for the actual project. Irma, sorry to hear about the loss of your coffee. I’m a tea gal, but if I couldn’t have tea every morning, what would be the point of getting out of bed??

    1. Hi Lissa, I thought I’d replied to this but it seems to have vanished into cyberspace! You sound terribly organised. I wish I could be the same. I’m blaming it on the lack of coffee!

  3. In one fell swoop, Louise liberated me from the guilt I feel about my email/social media use first thing in the morning (I mean, if *she* does it, it must be alright!), and Peggy inspired me to try to go without for a bit (after all, if going offline works so well for her…). Love it.

  4. I love this Irma. I can understand them all, but particularly Robyn’s pen and paper. I love my computer and writing letters, blog posts etc is the only way to go I find BUT there are some things that I really just need to jot down first and while I sometimes use notepad on my phone/iPad, mostly I really hanker for the pen and paper because it feels freer. You can write, scribble, draw lines. (I know there are notepad apps for that, but they’re not the same.) Of course I’m not a novelist but just thought I’d share my understanding of Robyn’s habit.

    As a (retired) librarian, I love Kate Mildenhall’s document for documenting her process, ideas etc. I do hope she keeps those, backs them up with her ms and donates them to a library when the time comes to pass on her oeuvre for safe keeping. That sort of support for her ms will be invaluable.

    Finally, just a little commiseration with you and the coffee. I gave up caffeine thirty years ago as part of a process to get my chronic eczema under control and to work out whether anything I was eating/drinking was contributing to it. I got the eczema under control, and kept off a lot of foods for a long time. I was surprised to discover that although I’m not a coffee or tea addict – only drinking a couple a day – I really missed them and started to find all the uncaffeinated and herbal drinks I was trying instead so boring. Eventually I returned to caffeine and while I’ve had flareups over the years since then, caffeine (or the level at which I drink it) doesn’t seem to be a cause. So, so, glad. Red wine, not so lucky. It went for good! I hope you don’t have to give up forever, but if you do, it can be done (I suppose!) x

    1. Lovely to hear about your own process, Sue. There is definitely something about using pen and paper, and the way it slows down the thought process. I write straight onto the computer mostly but I have a million notebooks and always keep one beside my bed. In the evenings I often stop reading to scrawl in one. I find the combination of both works for me anyway.
      I love Kate’s idea about journalling about the process, too. I think I might have to adopt it for my current WIP over which I am often angsting!
      Sadly I had to give up red wine some years ago but I barely miss it. Coffee on the other hand… My doctor says it will be forever but, hey, doctors can be wrong. Here’s hoping!

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