Ritual in Writing

Truman Capote would have a pen in one hand and a glass of Brandy in another. Hemingway would limit himself to 500 words a day, only writing in the morning. Sondheim likes to be lying down on his back so he can easily doze off, and he only uses Blackwing pencils. Writers’ rituals become part of our personalities as artists.

Sondheim writing

Classic Steve.

(“You don’t lie”, says Friedrich von Schiller, burying his nose in a drawer full of rotting apples.)

I’d never been a ritualistic writer myself…

(“Oh, give it time, Sean,” says Tchaikovsky, who seemingly had a lot of it, walking 45 minutes in the morning and upwards of 2 hours in the afternoon on designated writing days.)

…Until I recently found myself buried under a pile of deadlines. In the mad rush to plan my writing schedule around various projects, my day job and getting married, I came to find that I had subconsciously adopted some rituals in how I prefer to – and now require in order to – write.

  • I need to be drinking something. In the morning, it’s coffee or tea. In the afternoon, it’s a glass of whiskey poured over a gorgeous spherical ice cube (thanks, Bloomingdale’s gift card). This gives me a mundane physical activity to perform as I spill my creative juices onto the page.
  • I need to be in my underwear. This sounds strange, but it’s totally legitimate, since it’s important for me to be as comfortable as possible while I’m writing underneath my piano.
  • I must be writing underneath my piano. Yes. Quite. This is something I came about while trying to find a place for my computer (I’m a very technologically reliant composer) on a keyboard that is simply not big enough to accommodate my little MacBook. I finally resolved to nest my little musical self on the floor under the piano.

I literally cannot write effectively from myself unless I am seated under my piano, in my underwear, holding a glass of whisky.

This– is a ritual– that works– for me.

(“Welcome to the club, Sean,” writes Mary Shelley, her pet boa constrictor coiled around her shoulders.)

As crazy and other-worldly as it may seem, I’ve found that just having a ritual at all is enough to get me writing in the first place.

Playwright/book-writer Sybille Pearson (Sally and Marsha, Baby, Giant) tells me she goes swimming every morning and does all of her work in the pool. She says that she deeply believes in the power and importance of ritualistic writing and that she couldn’t do her work without it.

One of the most difficult things for a writer or composer or painter or Dadaist, or whatever your creative persuasion may be, is having to create and simply not having the inspiration, or flow, or juju, or time, or energy, or any number of things that are often missing or out of our own control, in order to do it. What I’ve found is that having a ritual has made it that much easier to slip into the creative mood. It’s a kind of artistic ignition I actually have control over.

Complete control (over time, money, subject, or anything really) is something we artists are rarely awarded, and a crazy ritual all to ourselves allows us to have a very personal connection to what we’re writing, and some sense of control even in the tightest of deadlines.

So if you aren’t a writer, or painter, or composer, or sculptor, or filmmaker with some crazy creative ritual to keep you sane, I would suggest giving it a try. Start something. Create a habit. Look for reasons to write as frequently as possible.

Suzan-Lori Parks writing

Suzan-Lori Parks with typewriter, timer, and mints. You can Watch Her Work at The Public if you’re in NYC.

Check yourself into a hotel room for a day, equipped only with a pen, paper, and a dictionary, just as you might find Maya Angelou on any given writing day.

Or stand in a corner and write only on piles and piles of index cards non-sequentially, like Vladmir Nabokov.

Or work in a bathrobe for 12 hours like George Gershwin.

Or set a timer and eat through a bowl of mints with Suzan-Lori Parks.

Or spend all day hanging with friends, only to disappear mysteriously every few hours to return minutes later having written in a tiny notebook behind a tree somewhere, like Dimitri Shostakovich.

Find something crazy and personal to you to keep yourself writing. Find a way to aid your personal connection with your art. That’s what we all strive for in the first place, isn’t it?

For more information on artists’ crazy rituals, there’s a cool book and blog by Mason Currey called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

You can also find these kinds of things in any artists’ biography or in interviews, or by just asking them. I’m sure any number of people would tell you their creative setup, and just how personal a place they have to get into in order to crank out their next Magnum Opus.

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