Do you enjoy edgy mystery and off-beat suspense? Then you’ll love my friend Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s new story “Crazy For You” in USA Noir: Best of the Akashi Noir Series. Congratulations, Barbara!
Any writer serious about her work has undoubtedly heard or read the “written in stone” prescription for success: anywhere from 2 to 6 hours daily must be spent writing or the writer simply isn’t – either a writer or writing. This level of diligence and commitment should be applauded and if a writer has the sort of life, temperament, and/or physical make-up and stamina that allows for that kind of daily time-on-task, even if that means surviving on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night while still accomplishing all of the other myriad tasks of a busy family and work life, then I think that is fantastic. It is a remarkable feat and inspires awe.
But the truth is that not all writers are cut from the same cloth and various factors contribute to one’s ability to commit to so many hours a day, or even every day, to work on a project. And when life starts reeling off major curveballs, such as those I’m experiencing, finding a more REALISTIC, and less stressful, schedule that allows you to keep flexing your writing muscles while still allowing you to attend to the have-to’s can make the difference between moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace) and abandoning the project altogether.
You can see this playing out on the ball field all the time. For example, the Los Angeles Angels star pitcher Jared Weaver was put on the disabled list for an elbow fracture and so was unable to continue his usual (epic) pitching schedule and performance. As of this writing, he still has not been returned to the line-up. Similarly, the Angels new 1st baseman, Albert Pujols, was moved to designated hitter in the lineup when a heel injury prevented him from handling the responsibilities of his field position — not quite the performance the team, the fans or Pujols himself expected from his gazillion dollar contract.
My point here is that things change, often drastically. Ball players know this and need to deal with the curves accordingly. Sometimes they’re benched for an entire season because of the intensity of the curves they’re dealing with. Why can’t we writers cut ourselves some slack and reorient our vision and our schedule in consideration of the way our ability to work has changed?
So ask yourself this question: Before your life took on the velocity and complexity of piloting a Stealth bomber, how often and for how long were you able to write? If your typical 3 hours every evening during the week suddenly proves to be impossible, can you write for 90 minutes two or three times a week instead? Or if you were writing for an hour every morning before you went to work, can you try cutting back to 15 or 30 minutes on several days? Taking some of the pressure off may just make it possible for you to keep writing through whatever difficult situation(s) is demanding the majority of your time, attention and energy.
In my case, before the curves started coming in hard and fast I was writing for 15-20 minutes nearly every morning and often more on some weekends. (Wait! Do I hear snickering and snorting? The prelude to incredulous laughter? Before you start wondering why you are reading this and what kind of writer I could possibly be at that commitment level, do yourself a favor and check out Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s brilliant and wholly unique book Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. The book changed my life: Barbara’s approach is that a book CAN BE written in just 15 minutes a day. I haven’t seen this advice in any other book on writing. And guess what? It works. In a little over a year, I’ve got nearly 300 pages, and I didn’t even write every day. Guys, don’t let the title of Barbara’s book deter you from reading it. It’s hands-down one of the best books on the writing life out there.) Now, as I was saying . . .
. . . when the curves came in hard and fast and made even those precious 15 minutes impossible, the first thing I had to do was to make peace with the fact that THINGS HAD CHANGED. This is essential to letting go of the pressure, both the pressure you place on yourself and the perceived pressure the “industry” places on you. Both Weaver and Pujols had to get their heads around this fact — they’d have been foolish to think they could continue to play the game the same way in light of these new curveballs. As a writer, I needed to do the same.
Then I came up with a plan that could work in light of the new challenges I was presented with – I’d write for several hours a few weekends a month. These days got blocked out on my calendar and I made a promise to myself to set some boundaries around this time so that I actually could continue writing. This meant saying “no” to some – but not all – invitations and events. The important thing to remember is that no one is going to come up to you with a silver tea tray and serve up hours for you to write in. You need to find the time and take it, make it your own. This can be done, provided you make peace with the reality that things have changed. You may not be able to control the curveballs coming your way, but you CAN control yourself and how you approach the challenge they present. Look for niches of time that work best for your process needs. And don’t laugh off something so small as 15 minutes. Even 10 minutes. I’m proof a book can come out of miniscule increments of time.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in negotiating how to let the pressure off is that you also make a promise not to beat yourself up if you CAN’T do it. That means that if you’ve blocked off a certain time to write, but the baby cries and you need to tend her, DO IT. If your nephew’s wedding is on that weekend and attending it means you won’t write until three weeks from now, go to the wedding. If you’re thoroughly wiped out from dealing with the curves and desperately need a nap, take one. Guess what? Your book will survive and will be waiting when you get back. Life happens. The key here is to be realistic and protect the time against less important commitments and distractions.
If your life and your body are in complete turmoil, chances are you have enough pressures and worries weighing on you – don’t let your project be one of them. Keep working, but get pragmatic: let the pressure off, come up with a plan of action for dealing with the curves, and move forward with a changed game.
What are some of the ways you have found to let the pressure off so you could continue working on your creative project even amidst major life changes? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you, and perhaps some one else who is struggling can benefit from your strategy!
This is part one of a six-week series. You can find the series introduction here.
* 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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