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Photo credit: LIFE Magazine, 1960

* Alexandre Dumas got himself in the mood to write with an early morning stroll through the streets of Paris, munching an apple for breakfast.

* George Sand channeled the energy from her escapades d’ amour directly into her writing.

* Victor Hugo wrote in the buff, instructing his valet to hide his clothes in order that he would be unable  to leave his work.

* C.S. Lewis scheduled every moment of his day down to the hour/minute — even beer breaks — to maximize his writing time.

* Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up for a few hours every morning.

While my own daily ritual is assuredly less colorful than these others, it is no less effective in enabling me to achieve an openness within which to encounter my work.

My Morning Ballet

An obnoxious alarm does a pretty decent job of dragging me out of bed at 5 a.m. on most mornings. After a valiant effort at my morning meditation, its a solitary coffee and breakfast (Must. Have. Coffee.), during which I spend about 30 minutes reading — this interlude is essential to promote blood flow to my still somnambulent brain.  With the house still and silent, caffeinated alertness gradually infuses my being, and at the end of that half hour, I am ready to pay a visit to my novel.

The room where I write is dark. I light a fragrant candle, bless myself, and say a prayer for guidance in my work. The candle and prayer are essential reminders that I am beholden for the gift of my art and that, if what I make is truly art, it will bear light within it.

Then poetry, which at the moment happens to come from The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I read somewhere that a writer should read poem a day to keep one’s use of langauge supple and facile and I think this is wise advice. Prefacing my writing time in the company of a brilliant word-artist is the mental equivalent to stretching before lifting weights. Words used with precision fire strong images and sensations in my mind, speeding access to the as yet undiscovered store of words, ideas, and pictures waiting to be chosen to bring the world I am creating to life.  

Then I simply write as much as I can for 15 or 20 minutes. At the end of my allotted writing time, I save what I’ve written, say a prayer in thanksgiving for the work I’ve been able to do, blow out the candle, and walk back to the world outside my imagination to begin my day as mom-teacher-wife and all that entails.

But Is It Really Necessary?

Far from feeling routine, these simple daily habits leading up to and through my writing time immediately prepare my mind, limber up my imagination, and open me emotionally and spiritually to encounter the strange mystery of the creative process. They enable me to persevere in finding my way through the fictional world and characters I am creating. I imagine many creative people, or others whose vocation demands a great deal of focused concentration, can understand what a ritual accomplishes. I’d suppose as well that there are others who may read what I or other writers do and think we’re a bit off. Understandably so, especially if one is contemplating Hugo writing in the nude……..hmmmmm…….

But is it important for a writer to have some ritual attached to the practice of her craft? Not necessarily. Many writers don’t have any particular routine or ritual attached to their writing time and are very successful. Still, it seems the majority of writers do practice some routine behaviors to get them in the mood to write. The only thing these rituals have in common is that they are unique to each writer and they enable that writer to slip immediately into the right mode in which to work, sort of like putting on formal attire might allow one to slip immediately into well-mannered behaviors and sophisticated conversation.  

In her book Pen On Fire, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett says that “rituals help us to change modes.” She compares a writer’s ritual and what it accomplishes to her actions upon entering a Catholic Church when she immediately dips her finger into the holy water font and blesses herself. This simple act “helps me transition to a more spiritual place,” writes DeMarco-Barrett. “For writers, rituals counteract inertia and trigger the desire to write.”

Rituals Point to what they signify

The word ritual may seem a bit formal, even religious sounding.  Ritual implies the act it signifies as being special and important, worthy of ceremony. We have ritual ceremonies for all of the special and important events in our communal lives as humans: We have rituals surrounding the swearing-in of witnesses, judges, and heads of state; rituals surrounding childbirth and death, commencements and weddings, birthdays and gala benefits. Rituals signify that the event we are participating in is something worthy of notice and that by our participation in the event we are in some sense “becoming” something other than what we are or were before. Rituals signify movement from one state of being to another.

The practice of creating art can and should be elevated to an act worthy of ritual, even if that means the ritual is carried out by the artist alone, unbeknownst to others. The mere fact that an artist has a ritual implies and signifies an awareness of the importance of the creative act and the need to be very clearly present to the mystery inherent in that act, as well as to the mysterious transformation of self within the act.

In her diary, Virginia Woolf touches on this in a subtle, numinous way. She writes: “It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced in the raw. One must get out of life . . . one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain. . . [W]hen I write I’m merely a sensibility.” (Tuesday, August 22nd, 1922) The necessity of the practice of the present moment…rituals can accomplish this: enabling the writer to be focused on the task at hand, with all its attendant requirements, open to the unfolding mystery of creation.

If I believe art is a sacred act, my writing ritual is capable of “transitioning me to [that] more spiritual place” which Ms. DeMarco-Barrett refers to, and in some way opens me to receive inspiration. My writing ritual allows me to escape mental chaos and distraction by placing me in the now, attentive only what flows from some unknown place in my imagination to become the words on the page. It is an experience of seamless, quiet focus. It is the beginning of the practice of the presence of God. My ritual leads me to create from a place of prayer. Writing, and all art, can be a prayer when carried out with an eye towards being in the present moment. Writing rituals and the act of creativity itself are then elevated to something sacred and the ritual signifies the importance of the act.

Certainly, when we examine the rituals of writers and artists on the surface, we may only see idiosyncracies and eccentricities. It may all sound a bit freakish or boring if only taken at face value.  But regardless of the oddity or banality of the ritual, the object — the thing signified — is the same: to open the artist to move out of the self and act as a conduit to the act of creation.  Odd as we artists may be, it’s company I’m honored to keep.

Do you have a ritual surrounding the practice of your art?

* Writer/poet Kathryn Martins has a beautiful take on the meaning of rituals for writers here.

Note: The anecdotes above paraphrasing the rituals of famous writers are easily found in repeated sources all over the web and as such are common knowledge. The subject is well-treated here for readers who would like to explore further.