Rituals, Habits, and Getting the Words Down

I think we all have them. Even those who don’t think so, I believe all writers have them. I do. I’ve had several over the years that worked well for me and that at the time, I wasn’t aware of their significance. It was only after a certain point that I realized, hey, this is something, this is necessary for my brain to focus. I had trained my brain to recognize certain things and turn on writing mode.

I won’t lie, either. I needed writing rituals. Sure, I could sit down and crank out words, usually with very little prior thought, but there’s something special and zen-like if the ritual is followed, if the ritual is observed.

For me, it was more than one thing…

Coffee. I needed to have a cup of coffee sitting on the table/desk. And no, water in a coffee mug or anything else in a coffee mug, didn’t work. It had to be coffee, and often it had to be hot coffee. Regular, a latte, a macchiato, a cappuccino… Whatever it was, it needed to be coffee of some sort. I mean, why do y’all think I have such a huge mug collection?

Hoodie. I had a Kyle Busch hoodie that I bought one year after the season had ended and I wore that thing All. The. Time. It was comfy, oversized, and I loved it. It currently has rips and threads and holes and a rather interesting smell to it. However, if I were to wash it, it would likely disintegrate. I no longer use it, but for many years, it was a necessary part of my writing life. No matter the season, I wore it if I was writing.

Music. I need music to write with. I need songs that I know by heart, that I can sing along with. You know, the kind like… Well, for me, it’s 80’s music. I can sing along without giving it any thought whatsoever. I hear the music and the words just come out. It’s that type of mindless mindfulness that I need when I write. Writing in silence doesn’t work for me for the most part. In silence, I struggle with my editor brain, my floundering self-esteem and self confidence as a writer, and I second guess every single word, phrase, fragment, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, until I’ve second guessed the whole book and figure it’s the worst thing ever written and I hate it. Music in my ears keeps that shit at bay. Music in my ears calms me and allows me to get down to it. But like I said, it has to be music and songs I know by heart. I have to be able to sing along or tune it out while I’ve tuned it in.

Writing movies. It’s no secret that if you’ve followed me for some time now, that you know I have several go-to movies when I’m in a writing slump. When I need to be reminded that writers of other books, and screenplays, and even songs understand that writing is not a straight line from A to B. It’s not something that goes away. It’s not something that always flows or is the best combination of words ever put down on paper or screen. Writing is HARD. Writing may come easier for some at any given time, but every writer feels and experiences the struggle and sometimes I need to be reminded of this by way of Michael Douglas in his pink bathrobe in Wonder Boys or Emma Thompson standing on top of her desk as she’s trying to figure out how to kill Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction or Diane Keaton trying to write her latest play and struggling with it until she falls in love and gets her heart broken and then the words come pouring out in Something’s Gotta Give. These movies do something for me that help me get through, that help me see how much I love writing…when it’s going well, and how much I love that there are others who know the struggle when it’s not.

Those things were part of what I needed to write all the books I did when I first began writing. After a while, when I began struggling with the words, those rituals… Well, they didn’t help. My issues went far deeper and I’m still trying to claw my way back out of the darkness.

I’ve begun trying to develop better writing habits and honoring writing rituals that help me keep those habits alive and well.

I can now write without coffee on my desk. I prefer to have it rather than not, but a glass of water will often do the trick.

My hoodie has been relegated to the coat rack. I like to be cozy still and sometimes I’ll put on a cardigan or use another hoodie, but mostly I’ll just wear long sleeves and only use something else if I get cold, which is often. But I don’t need anything like it to write anymore. I think I find that rather sad.

Music is still and likely will always be a MUST.

Writing movies… I still love them so much and I always find something new in them. I won’t be giving them up any time soon, either.

I recently read a book called Finish by Jon Acuff. I loved it. And one of the things he talks about is having these little habits or rituals that help trigger the brain, to tell it that it’s time to write and get down to business. I understood this for myself as stated in the previous rituals, but I understand it more now because I struggle more and more with staying focused, and so, I’ve incorporated a few things…

A dedicated workspace. I used to roam the house or wherever to write and no doubt I can still write in coffee shops or in hotels or on the couch or at the kitchen table or even up in the bed… Nope. Scratch that last one. I’m too sleepy all the time to try to write in bed. But I’ve found that having a home office, a desk that I picked out and bought along with a chair, a computer set-up I like and some things on my desk that make me happy or feel productive or just because helps me center and somewhat tap into that focus.

Music. The constant. Always. I have lovely pink over the ear headphones and I have a fantastic JBL speaker. I use them both. Obviously not at the same time. But they pump the music to me and that’s what I need. Also, a subscription to Spotify Premium. I know some think it’s a waste of money, but I have to say, it’s been an amazing tool for me for not only music, but for podcasts, too. And I’ll talk about those another time.

A candle. Jon Acuff says he lights a balsam candle or fir candle and the scent triggers his brain that it’s time to work. I love candles, especially the ones with wood wicks because I love listening to the crackle as they burn. I love a good balsam candle, but a good pumpkin spice one is nice, along with cinnamon. I like strong, warm scented candles that I associate with cozy thoughts and feelings. Seeing that flame flickering helps my brain calm and start to focus, as well.

A timer. One on my phone or on my fitness band or even one I’ve downloaded to the computer. I write best with sprints. I focus better if I do sprints, so I set a timer each time I sit down to write and it helps narrow my focus. I need words during a set amount of time and the shorter the period the better for me. Some do 30min, 60min, even 90min writing sprints. Those are too long for me. I have done as short as 5min and cranked out 200 words. 10min is between 300-400. 20min is between 600-700 (on a good day). But the writing sprints have saved me so many times when it comes to needing words. When I think, ‘ugh, I still need to write’, it’s a feeling that is stressful and daunting. But… when I look at it from the view of 10min. That’s it. I can write for 10min without breaking a sweat and then I don’t think about it. I just write. And before I know it, I’m on my 3rd sprint and nearing 1000-1200 words.

And nature. This is one that is becoming more of a thing for me. I like looking out at the sky, the green of the grass, the magnolia tree, the bushes around the deck. I like looking outside when I write. It’s not necessary for me, but I love it and the more I can do it, the more at peace I feel.

All writers have things that work or don’t work for them. All writers struggle from time to time and the systems that we put in place, either consciously or unconsciously, help us get the words in so that you can have books to read one day. Habits and rituals don’t always remain the same. They shift and change as we shift and change as human beings, as writers. I am constantly learning this.

I’m working to develop writing habits that help me be much more consistent than I’ve been in a number of years and it’s not been as painful as I expected. I’m working with much more love and grace for myself and for whatever process it is that I am working at any given moment. But if I do keep to the things above, I’ve learned that I am more successful in my endeavors than when I try to go off script and free-wheel my way though the fog.

Lissa