May 17, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsShort Takes/Mixed TapeWriting

The Power of Ritual and Routine?

What power does ritual and routine hold in a writer’s life? It obviously depends on the writer. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” wrote W.H. Auden in 1958, further stating that “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do everyday, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” But what’s soothing and/or restorative for one writer can be entirely stifling for another. Set time-tables, stratified composition regiments, hours incrementalized down to the minute or second—the rigidity of such a narrowed writing practice can be prisonish for certain writers. Thus Toni Morrison in 1977: “I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.” Or Umberto Eco in 2008: “There is no rule. For me it would be impossible to have a schedule. It can happen that I start writing at seven o’clock in the morning and I finish at three o’clock at night, stopping only to eat a sandwich. Sometimes I don’t feel the need to write at all.”

Emphasizing the impossibility of a set writing schedule for himself, though, Eco is probably in the minority of serious writers; I’d venture that most do follow some sort of writing routine, one that they’ve either comfortably settled into or has uncomfortably settled into them. In her book of essays, Proofs & Theories, the poet Louise Glück writes that after finishing a collection of poems she normally wouldn’t write anything “for about six months. The natural silence after a book.” This silence, the act of not writing, was Glück’s writing routine after completing a manuscript; restoring, contemplative silence. Having already said, one can only say again so much.

In April 1980, however, Glück’s house was unexpectedly destroyed by a fire. She had just completed a book. She had no desire to write, no immediate plans to get back to work again. But after the fire, its destruction of her home and sense of familial comfort and safety, Glück was suddenly, unexpectedly possessed to write again—a possession she did not at all cotton too. The fire having occurred in April, Gluck—in her essay “The Dreamer and The Watcher”—states:

Toward the end of June, I began to write again, working on a poem called “Mock Orange.” Then that poem was finished; in rapid succession, over a period of about two weeks, I wrote twelve more. Such experiences are, in many lives, a commonplace. But for me this was unprecedented and unexpectedly frightening. I kept feeling the poems weren’t mine but collages of remembered lines. When I thought otherwise, I thought such fluency meant I was going to die, not sometime, but very soon. At such moments, for the first time in my life, I wished not to write; for the first time, I wanted survival above all else. That wish had no influence on behavior.

Although Glück posits that for other writers such rampant inspiration is “commonplace”—routine, in other words— I’d venture to say it is rather rarer than that. “Mock Orange’s” creation is Sylvia Plath writing the astonishing poems that would be collected in her posthumous Ariel; it is Coleridge dreaming “Kubla Khan” and, upon waking, translating the imaginative unconscious into something legible, substantive. Certain poets and writers write all the time and taking six months off after the completion of a manuscript could, to these craftspeople, seem an abhorrent, unacceptable practice. Yet as every writer knows not writing is, in its own way, a form of writing; one needs to experience the world in order to write, and such experience cannot always be actualized in front of a computer or in a Moleskin. Writing is fundamentally a self-absorptive act—and sometimes we need to rid ourselves of our selves.

The (great) novelist (and teacher) Dan DeWeese once offhandedly mentioned in one of the classes I took from him at Portland State University that he thought the mark of a true writer was her ability to change her writing routine and nary miss a proverbial beat. Do you prefer to write in the morning? If so, try writing late at night or deep in the afternoon. Or the opposite, vice-versa, etc. Regardless of your preference, if you can’t successfully make the switch, you’re not a real writer. I jest, but, writing or otherwise, routines are tough things to break. That being said, breaking them offers unique insight into who we are versus who we could be. The severing of such established patterns could in the long run prove beneficial for any writer in terms of new ideas and thought conceptions.

In the short run, though, it might be tough to manage. (Or at least it would be for me.) As Lil Wayne once said, “Repetition is the father of learning,” and every pattern and habit is routed in rote-ness. We do what works—or at least what we think works. So in a certain sense both Auden and Wayne are right—repetition begets disciplined ambition. At the same time, however, in order to write our better selves at some point in time we must write beyond repetition and routine, beyond the snugness of comfort and order. Glück experienced such a sensation after her house burned down—and subsequently wrote some of the poems that, to this day, she is best known for; the same holds true for Plath and, to a lesser degree, Coleridge. Too much fatherly learning can finally wear on a person. The balance is figuring out when repetition errs towards stagnation and that balance, I believe, differs for every writer.

(Postscript: With the exception of Louise Glück and Lil Wayne, all of the above writer-routine anecdotes were taken from Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work. Highly recommended.)