Ritual And Habit

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I think it was Flaubert who kept rotten apples in a desk drawer. He would open the drawer, lean over, and take a deep whiff to evoke autumn.

Everyone’s got their something.

Ritual and habit: the best of slaves, the worst of masters. The habit of sitting down and getting your hands on the keyboard can take you through when your discipline is faltering, but your habit of “needing” to catch a particular television show can interfere with your writing time. The habit of consistently saving and backing up your work can save your cookies, but the habit of surfing the Net during writing time can cut your productivity by an order of magnitude.

To little people, the world is a big and scary place, and rituals are comforting. To bigger people, social rituals–weddings, funerals, what have you–serve as social glue, give a framework for celebration, and provide closure. To practicing witches or occultists, ritual is a way to build a trigger allowing you to step into another psychic “space.” Human beings love rituals. We can’t get enough of them. Left to ourselves, we’ll make a ritual out of anything. Even the abstraction of writing.

There are two varieties of Things You Need To Learn To Have A Shot At Being A Working Writer–two species, if you will. I call them the two currents. One is the method of swimming against, the other is finding the best way to swim with. Ritual and habit help with both.

We’re very fond of swimming against. The idea that all we need is a little willpower and some hard work is a very intoxicating one with a lot of cultural weight behind it. The whole diet and self-help industries, for example, are largely built on the notion that if you just have enough willpower you can “fix” yourself. (That brings up a rant, but that’s–say it with me–another blog post.) The Puritans thought enough hard work and repression could fix just about anything, and we are heirs to that obsession. For some things it works very well, and for some short-term creative endeavours it’s a godsend. Sometimes, the sheer stubbornness of swimming against has taken me through several ticklish situations, especially that one memorable 48-hour revision stint. (I was unwashed and a very cranky cupcake afterward, let me tell you.) I have nothing against the swimming against. It’s just not the only way, and for a lot of things it’s not terribly efficient either.

Swimming with, on the other hand, is the process of taking one’s own laziness and habits and making them work for you. An essential part of a writer’s career is learning to manage one’s laziness in the most efficient way. Human beings like habit because it’s easy. The needle slips into the groove, we slide into the track, and a significant amount of effort vanishes. We can just follow the groove. The initial investment of making a habit is swimming against; the payback is when the habit has become a groove and we’re kept in it without much effort on our part.

This is why every writer needs a working knowledge of how to build a habit, what constitutes a ritual, and the borders of their own laziness. This working knowledge can’t just sit there, it has to work. In other words, the writer needs to do something with it.

Building a habit takes anywhere from four days to a month of doing the same thing, whether it’s smoking a cigarette at 10pm, peeing in the shower, reading for a half-hour before bed, or picking one’s nose. Or carrying a notebook everywhere, jotting down dialogue on your lunch break, eating the same pastrami on rye for twenty years, tapping the dashboard when you go through a yellow light, or knocking on wood. Rest assured, most of your day is made up of habits. Gurdjieff swore people live in a sort of waking sleep, robotic. He’s probably right, only I don’t think you have to work yourself to exhaustion to be granted a taste of consciousness. I think habits are a grand thing–I mean, I like that my heart has the habit of beating–and the gift we have is the ability to choose a few habits all on our own.

A ritual is a set of actions. (The actions may have a religious or social meaning, yes, let’s not get bogged down.) One of my rituals when I finish a very emotionally draining scene is to get up and walk around the room I’m in, clockwise. It leaves the scene in the story where it belongs, instead of it leaking agony inside my head. I often touch the statue of Ganesh on my writing desk when I’m about to start a new story. The plum tree in my back yard gets a cup of milk the first day I notice it’s bloomed. I read an edit letter once, then scream and stamp and throw it across the room; a week later I go back and find out it’s not really that bad. (That’s a ritual of processing, right there.)

To get your habits to work for you, first you have to figure out what habits you have. The easiest way to do this is to try to start a new habit. Do one thing at a specific time for four days in a row, and each time you do it, write it down. If this is hard to do, if you keep forgetting, take a look at what habit you might be inadvertently cutting across. Bingo, you’ve found one. Once you’ve practiced this process a few times, you’ll start spotting habits everywhere. You can’t change what you can’t see–spotting your habits is the first step.

Here’s a secret: it is much easier to replace a habit than it is to lose one. I call this the Addiction Theory of Self-Change, with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheek. I know several people who have substituted playing with a pen or pencil or chopstick or what-have-you at all times for smoking, which seems to work okay until stressors pile up. I myself have substituted working a heavy bag for self-injury for years. Currently I’m trying to substitute deep breathing for my obsessive email-checking. (We’ll see how that one works out.) If you can’t break a habit, work it around by degrees until you’ve replaced it with a better one.

Rituals are a little different. I always end my books with the same finis. I always sit and stare for a few moments after I’ve typed it, while the engine in my brain slips its traces and starts the rebound process. I always do the same things on a release day–no, I will not tell you what they are. When a well-loved book gives up its ghost and its pages, I give it a funeral and a proper burial. I have rituals that hedge in each day’s writing sessions, and each time I perform them I am reinforcing the little click inside my brain, the shift over to another mode of being. The rituals have changed as my writing space has changed–for example, when I was writing in the middle of the night in the bathroom while a boy slept in the bed my ritual was very different than the sitting down ritual I perform nowadays.

There are Speshul Snowflakes who use habit and ritual as excuses not to write. “I can’t write if I don’t have X!” they wail. Bullshit. Your habits and rituals are here to work for you, not the other way around. It’s not “I CAN’T write,” it’s “I WON’T write.” Fine, if you don’t want to, don’t. Be a Beethoven Blonde. It’s your life.

Swimming with is easier in that it takes advantage of one’s natural propensities instead of fighting them. The drawback is that it’s easy to slip under the surface of the habits you’ve created, and not take notice of changing conditions. Keeping the swimming in either direction balanced is a little tricky. You need the swim against to cut across the grain every once in a while and figure out if the current you’re surfing is really taking you where you want to go, or if you need to nudge it by a couple degrees and find a slightly-new groove to slip into.

And now that I’ve beaten that metaphor to death, it’s time for me to engage in the private ritual marking the beginning of yet another revision. (Two points if you guessed it involves a fair amount of swearing.)

Over and out.

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