Rituals & Gauntlets

This is a good discussion on rituals that help you write, by Stephen Graham Jones. I try to stay away from rituals because they put you in a mindset of needing certain conditions to exist before you can be productive. That doesn’t mean I’m successful in staying away from them, but I do try. And in reading this, I recognize myself in Mr. Jones’s trap of a self-made gauntlet that’s also a ritual, and that really needs to be something more of us are aware of.

I almost fell into it again when I read this article. I subscribe to the Writer’s Digest newsletter, along with others, and when a whole bunch of emails get stacked up, I read through what looks interesting, copy down the URLs for the ones I’d like to discuss in a blog post, and get back to perusing all those other emails I need to look at. Along with Facebook, Instagram, other blogs, fetching the mail, checking the weather report, practicing guitar, and on and on. So I stopped myself and started this blog entry and I’m going to finish it and be proud of myself just a little.

So here’s Stephen Graham Jones. He’s worthy of a listen because he’s successfully written and published and overcome his own non-ritual ritual situation, at least occasionally, and has things to say that show you you’re not alone when you do what you do, and make you think about how to do it all better. So take a look. Couldn’t hurt!

The Case Against Writing Rituals

Many writers have certain requirements in order to get to writing: the right lighting, a particular pen, or a favorite mug. Author Stephen Graham Jones offers a different perspective on ways to get to work without ritual.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Sep 9, 2021

I have two axioms I fall back on for writing. The first is from one of my uncles. We were working on a tractor out in the field one day when he stopped and told me that if I ever waited to have kids until there was enough money for kids, that I’d never have kids.

While pretty suspect advice to give a 16 year old, I’ve always just applied this to writing: If you wait until you’re good enough to try this novel, to submit to this market, to query this agent, then you’ll never write that novel. You’ll never submit to that market. You’ll never talk to that agent.

You can’t wait, you’ve got to just jump. Like Bradbury said, build your wings on the way down.

This has never failed me. I’ve gotten plenty of rejections, I’ve had a novel or two fizzle halfway through. But I’ve gotten a lot of acceptances, too, and finished many more novels than not.

The other axiom is more Dr. Spock—the baby-book one, not the Star Trek one. It’s that old saw about new parents throwing a raucous dinner party in their apartment. Very soon it becomes time to put the baby to bed, so the dinner guests try to hush themselves. But these parents tell them no, no, keep going, be as loud as you can, be louder if you want, please. We want to train this kid to fall asleep no matter the noise. If this kid starts needing special conditions in order to sleep, then all bets are off.

How I’ve applied this to writing is that I shouldn’t need special conditions in order to get some words down on the page. Which is to say, I should be careful of ever ritualizing this thing. It doesn’t need to be a certain time of day, I don’t need to have this or that special mug, the curtains don’t need to be open or shut, the light can be however, and who cares what sounds are leaking in to wherever I am?

This has always worked great for me as well. All I need to get some pages down is a single seat in a bustling airport, or a corner of this hotel lobby, or an overhang mostly out of the rain at this bus stop. The more you can train yourself to write anywhere—everywhere—the more you can get done. While part of thinking like that is not falling into the trap that “writing is special” or “sacred,” the bigger part is just being able to turn the world off, lose yourself in another one.

However, strict as I’ve always tried to be regarding this—no rituals! no rituals!—it’s so easy to slip, isn’t it? I mean, fiction, it basically works by magical thinking, which is a lot like superstition. 

Example: About 15 years ago, I was wearing this one ugly winter hat for a novel I was writing, and that novel worked out. So? I naturally ascribed the magic to that hat, and made it my new writing buddy. Every time I sat down to the keyboard, I’d pull that hat on, get cooking.

All it took to break me of that, though, was accidentally answering the door while wearing that hat the following summer, and seeing in this guest’s hesitant eyes how ridiculous I was being. I threw that hat away fast, kept writing. Problem solved. Easy.

Until it wasn’t.

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