Rituals for good writing

A lot of writers talk about their muse.  How they can only write when their muse is with them, providing inspiration and excitement.  The sheer thrill of writing in these moments, and the following exhaustion and baited-breath-waiting for the return of the muse.

I’m not that writer.

I mean, I have plenty of days where I feel excited to write, where the words come freely, and I sit in rapt witness to my characters’ brilliant actions.

But I don’t have a muse.

Instead, I have drive, sheer stubbornness, and ritual, the latter of which I’d like to discuss briefly, because I think it might be helpful to other writers.  Exportable technique, instead of some intangible, magical writing power.

Here’s how my ritual works.

STEP 1: Journal. Ritualize positivity

I’ve been keeping a bullet journal for two and a half years now, and a habit-tracker/couple-of-lines-a-day journal since January.  And when I was flipping back through these journals, I noticed something rather important.

In both journals, my blow-by-blow for the day followed this formula:

X happened today and it sucked, but then Y happened, so I guess that’s good.

I sort of raised an eyebrow at myself, like, huh…that’s kind of a lack-luster way to try and reclaim the positive bits of my day.  I guess this awesome thing happening is ok?  Because it wiped out this shitty thing?  And I obviously thought about the shitty thing first?

Not great.

So, I did an experiment.  I went through two weeks of my habit-tracker journal and rewrote my daily activity log to follow this formula instead:

Y was amazing! It made me feel (positive in some way).  I can make time to catch up on/process/make amends for X soon, which will also be (positive in some way.)

In other words, I went from negative journaling to positive journaling.

Some examples:

Negative:  I didn’t get as much gardening done as I’d like, but I did get through about half the plot.

Positive:  I spent two gorgeous hours in the sun, and I can make time next week for another two.

 

Negative:  I’m on a pasta kick right now.  Probably not good for me, but whatever.

Positive:  I like cooking pasta recently.  I’m looking forward to adding more healthy ingredients from the farmer’s market this summer.

 

Negative:  I didn’t get through my whole run, but at least I tried.

Positive:  Ran 17 minutes of 20! And I listened to a cool podcast.

I’m amazed at how clarifying and helpful this new formula has been.  I end the day on a positive note, which means I sleep better, which means I wake up more rested and full of self-encouragement.  I find myself brushing off daily bullshit more easily, because I know I have the right to focus on the positive instead, and as a result, I have more space in my head for creation and production.  Self-pity and anger take up a lot of room, turns out.

So, yeah, keep a journal, and keep it positive.

STEP 2:  Write when you don’t feel like writing

I swear to god, Sarah Werner of Write Now is a wizard.  Her podcast is helpful, reassuring, accessible, and actionable.  And after listening for a month or so now, I can easily recommend one episode as my favorite:

Episode 08: How to Write When You Don’t Feel like Writing

This episode turned my tendency to stubbornly soldier on through a project into something more useful and reflective.

Basically, Werner’s recommendation is that you sit down at the beginning of your writing time, and if you can’t jump immediately into the work you need to be doing, spend ten or fifteen minutes writing about why you can’t write.

The trick? Writing about why you can’t write is still writing.  It counts.

And often what you produce is very emotionally honest.  Sometimes, it’s borderline scary, seeing what you’re carrying around with you, and what you bring to your writing desk.

But once you see what you’re harboring, you can untie yourself from it and let it go.

I wrote down all sorts of things that were bothering me, and then I closed my journal document, switched to my dissertation, and poured out about two hours worth of prose.  Because, again, I’d made room for productivity.

Granted, this exercise might also dig up something you need to spend time working through.  If that happens to you, as it did to me, that’s fine.  You can take your uncovered kernel of understanding and search out the tools you need to crack it open and either solve your problems, or learn to live with yourself.  Just remember to view this discovery as a positive step, and to set it aside for a time when you can really delve into it.  Don’t let it stop you from writing.

STEP 3:  Smile at your work

This one is corny as hell, but I swear it works.  I mean, if you just google “smiling to feel better” all sorts of articles pop up, from The Atlantic, Psychology Today, Mind Body Green, etc.

Science!

Without getting into the chemistry of it, I can vouch for the fact that smiling at my project makes me like it more.  It makes me feel like we share an inside joke, my dissertation and I.  It makes me feel hopeful.  It makes my work seem more possible, more relevant to my life and well-being.

And, most importantly, it’s making me fall back in love with what I’m doing.  Not the sort of naive, excitable love that I felt at the beginning of my graduate career.  More so the sort of love that occurs when an old friend walks back into your life and together you let go of your baggage.  A deeper, more reasonable, more measured love.

Suits me, considering I’m not one for passionate muses.

Step 4: Write.  Just write.

And now, with your positive outlook, your purged apprehensions, your smile on your face, and your keyboard under your fingers, or your pencil in your hand, you write.

You just write.

And remember, if what comes out is a little weird, or stiff, or off-topic, that’s OK.  Spin it.

I got to know Spencer better today.  He just sort of galloped out of nowhere when I was writing before work, and I jotted down some questions for him.  I answered those with him when I got back home, and, interestingly, now that I’m feeling more clear about what he wants, I feel a bit more clear in my own head-space.  Back to the dissertation in the morning!

Just keep writing, no matter what.

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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