Have you thought about your writing ritual lately?
Rituals are powerful. We all already know that. If rituals weren’t powerful, we wouldn’t see so many of them in, say, religion and government.
They’re powerful on a personal level too. When we have a writing ritual, we’re in charge of when we’re in the mood to write.
This is crucial, because if we stand around waiting for inspiration to strike we may get to this time next year or the next or the next and your book still won’t be started let alone published or your blog will still be sort of limping along with irregular updates to keep your readers engaged.
The inspiration problem
A lot of our problems around inspiration have a really long history. Our inspiration problems go back at least to the Greek Muses – a capricious lot to say the least.
In addition to the Muses, the Greeks brought us other unhelpful ideas about creation like Athena springing as a fully formed adult from Zeus’s forehead – I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your book’s not going to arrive that way.
Brilliant though your book is, a Greek goddess it’s not.
I could list lots of writers through the ages who have lamented their lack of inspiration or who looked outside of themselves for inspiration: John Milton and William Wordsworth to name only two.
The problem with looking to some uncontrollable and often external source for your ideas is evident. It gets to decide when you write, not you. Milton does this when he appeals to the ‘Heav’nly Muse’ in the opening of Paradise Lost.
If you’re a wealthy gentleman wandering round the Lake District with a notebook waiting to see the perfect cloud formation to inspire a poem (Wordsworth) is fine. If you’re a busy business owner who needs to get her credibility-building book written and into her readers’ hands, it just won’t do!
Writing ritual, not inspiration
What if you don’t happen to have time for a walking holiday or a cooperative muse whispering in your ear?
Take responsibility for your own writing practice by creating a writing ritual. This puts you in charge of it.
Our brains love routine and ritual. That’s why sleep experts advise us to develop bedtime routines. When you do the same things in the same order every time, your brain comes to expect the desired outcome.
So if every night you have a cup of herbal tea in a special mug while you sit and read a chapter of a book before brushing your teeth and getting in bed to go to sleep, your brain is going to learn that when we have tea out of this cup and read a chapter and then brush our teeth that it’s time to go to sleep. If you keep up the routine for several nights, you’ll start feeling yourself get tired faster. It doesn’t take that many nights for your brain to get trained so that you’re nodding off more easily than before.
The same is true of other routines.
Some writing ritual ideas
If you write to music, create a playlist. If you just need music to get in the mood but then need silence while you write, create a short playlist, listen to a song or two, turn it off open the document and start writing.
This doesn’t have to be an elaborate, time consuming ritual, and really it shouldn’t be because the point is for you to be able to write little and often (read about snack writing here). So you just need a quick signal to your brain that it’s time to do this thing and then you do it.
If music isn’t your thing, you could try always writing in one particular spot – obviously this is going to be easier if, say, everybody in your household is over 18 and reasonably self-sufficient. For the parents reading this, I wouldn’t get too tied to one space – you know your kids have a way of taking over everything.
Instead, you could develop another simple habit like one of these:
- putting on a particular sweater,
- lighting a candle,
- making a cup of tea or coffee in a particular mug that you only drink out of when you’re writing,
- putting on a particular scarf, or
- opening a particular notebook.
Whatever you choose, find something that you can tie to your writing that you’re only going to do when you write. Now obviously, you’re probably going to have tea and coffee at other times, but maybe you could have a special brew for your writing or a special mug for your writing.
Just find a way of setting the mood so that you do the thing and then you can write. That way, it won’t take a lot of time to get into your writer’s headspace.
Will my writing ritual always work?
There are going to be times that your brain’s not going to cooperate. If you’ve followed me for any length of time at all, you that once upon a time I used to plan to have writing days. Laughable, I know. As though I could sit down and write for an entire day.
That never happened, but I could make myself sit in front of the computer for an entire day.
If I was at the computer, why didn’t I write? Because planning to write for 6+ hours was just too big an ask. It invariably caused my brain to turn into a toddler at nap time. My brain would do anything else, but it was not going to write for that long just because I asked it to.
If your brain is having one of those days, you need to develop techniques for clearing your head so you can carry on with your work.
What to do when your writing ritual isn’t enough
How you approach clearing your head on the days when your ritual doesn’t work depends on your mood, your personality, and where you are at the time. It also depends on what exactly is distracting you at the moment.
Sometimes you need to give yourself a break
If you’re distracted because your mother is seriously ill, it’s probably not a good day to write. Instead of trying to force the issue, spend 10 minutes writing about how you feel about your mother’s illness and put your writing away. That way, you’ve kept your promise to yourself that you were going to write which will keep guilt from attaching to the act of writing.
It’s important to not connect writing and guilt because that’s a recipe for prolonged writer’s block. We humans quite reasonably avoid doing things that feel bad. Guilt feels bad. If guilt and writing are connected for us, we’ll avoid writing because writing will feel bad.
Sometimes you just need to focus
When your distraction is less serious, like you’d really rather watch another series of whatever you’ve been binge watching on Netflix, then find a ritual that will help you clear your head.
If this distraction hits and you’re in a co-working space or a café (we will eventually return to such spaces), you’ll need to choose something quiet like a deep breathing exercise. That way you can simply close your eyes and breathe in and out slowly until you feel more focused. If sitting in public with your eyes closed freaks you out, then look at a picture of something calming on your computer or your phone screen while you focus on your breath.
Wherever you’re working, you could try putting on headphones and listening to a short, guided meditation or some calming music. You’ll find lots of apps on your phone that can help you do that and there are lots of free videos on YouTube. Of course this option requires that you have access to the internet.
If you’re not in public and you are somewhere that it would be appropriate and you have the space, you could try a short yoga or stretching routine. That will help quiet the mind and can help you focus back in on your writing. For more ideas like this, check out what Sarah Boak says here.
Put your to-do list in its place
Finally, if you’re struggling to focus because you keep worrying about the rest of your to-do list, keep a piece of paper next to you while you write. If something that needs to be done pops into your head, write it down and carry on with your writing. Once you’ve written it down you, don’t have to worry that you’re going to forget it, so it should let you focus on writing while you need to write. Then you can move on to something else, like clearing your to-do list, later.