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Finding the Magic Writing Ritual

Writers’ rituals are central to the way they work and are often treated as acts of spirituality or even seance. Haruki Murakami refers to his routine as “a form of mesmerism.” Stephen King believes the exactitude of his morning schedule lets his mind know, in no uncertain terms, that it will be dreaming soon.

Each writer swears by a certain method to do the creative trick. Simone de Beauvoir wrote every day, except for a few months of vacation each year, while Jean Genet wrote all day for six months and then took the next six months off.

Gustave Flaubert stuck to a schedule so firm his biographer, Frederick Brown, described it as “unvaried as the notes of the cuckoo.” It also sounds quite exhausting. After having a light breakfast and applying his anti-balding ointment, Flaubert would work from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Paul Auster hand-writes to feel that the words are a bodily product. Amphetamines helped so many writers, from W.H. Auden to Susan Sontag. Biographer Judith Thurman credits Colette’s robust health and writing life in her late fifties to gymnastic sex and hanging out with younger people.

James Thurber would compose all the time in his head, to the extent that his wife often had to say, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” He did this partly out of passion but partly due to bad eyesight. When he did actually write, he did so with black crayon on yellow paper, but he really got cooking when he could dictate to a secretary.

Anthony Trollope had a no frills approach. He proclaimed that writers work should be “to them as is his common work to the common laborer.” With this in mind, he wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., at a whopping 250 words every fifteen minutes.

Franz Kafka had to fit work in between shifts at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, so he wrote from 11 p.m. to the early morning hours, between 1-3 a.m. and sometimes even 6 a.m. His literary executor Max Brod thought Kafka’s parents should have provided for him financially so he could “create those works that God, using Franz’s brain, wishes the world to have,” but Kafka seemed to do just fine on his own.

With three children, Alice Munro could only write while the kids napped or while something was baking. Also a mother to young children, Toni Morrison started her work before 5 a.m. because that’s when at least one of the kids would call for mama. But her choice of early morning goes deeper. For her, being there to greet the light, cup of coffee in hand, is her way of entering “a space I can only call nonsecular.”

I love this idea of the creative space as a nonsecular one. I also have young kids, but it leads to a total lack of replicable writing ritual. I write on my phone’s notes section on the subway, on napkins, on my kids’ drawing paper, on my computer in all sorts of weird places, and, like Thurber, always in my mind.

But the one piece of Morrison’s routine that really resonates is finding that space that I can only describe as mystical. Because I can never find the same place or time to write, or any reliable peace, I have had to learn to click my mind into that place, even as my children ransack the house.

The only way I can put it is to say that there’s normal brain and then there’s magical, mystical writing brain, and I have to teleport there no matter what’s going on around me. One way that I cheat or augment this teleportation process is by thinking of the writers I worship. I have them up over my writing desk, as my computer screensaver, and always in my mind’s eye. Thinking of them, of the audaciously magical, mystical work they have achieved, helps me teleport to my nonsecular place, even if my unruly progeny are hurling plates of spaghetti at my head as I do so.