The room that I am writing in is my kitchen. It is also my bedroom, my living room and my dining room (though fortunately not quite my bathroom). I have recently moved to a new apartment – a sixth floor studio that looks out over the arse-end of Paris. Without the luxury of my own study or office, I have had to select a space within the 250 square feet of my new place in which to write. The corner that I’ve chosen, more by default than by preference, has already been filled with a desk, a comfortable chair, a lamp, a laptop, and all the necessary notepads and pens. Attempts to keep it uncluttered are already failing as books and letters and other apartment detritus creep in. In setting up this space, so conscious of its purpose, I have become fascinated in the spaces of writers and the routines and rituals associated with them.

I am yet to form any real ritual when I write, and learning about those of other writers has left me feeling strangely lacking. It has, however, offered me an insight into their thought process and mind set. Knowing this part of their real world world has given a fresh glimpse into their fictional worlds; to know their creative process is to know another dimension to them and their work, albeit a relatively superficial one. Since moving I have spent a lot of time sifting through hundreds of interviews with writers, both online and within the back issues of The Paris Review. I have also found it unavoidable not to ask every writer that I come across about their approach to the four fundamentals that make up any writer’s process: environment, time, behaviour and tools.

Everyone that I asked had some form of ritual or requirement, even if it was just the need for silence or a certain chair. Most that I asked preferred the early morning as their time to write, often around dawn, before the world wakes up and the noise of the day crowds in. By starting when they’re still not quite free of sleep, they say it allows them to wake up into their writing. The list of famous writers who fit this category is nearly endless, and seems to far outweigh the more leisurely late morning writers or industrious night owls. It includes the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie and W. H. Auden, who himself started each day with Benzedrine washed down with coffee. Although maybe a bit extreme, Auden was by no means alone in using stimulants to kick-start the creative process. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in a three week writing binge fuelled by alcohol and Benzedrine, and Honoré de Balzac allegedly drunk between fifty and three hundred cups of coffee each day (It is worth pointing out that they did also both die at the hands of these substances, Balzac as a result of caffeine related illnesses and Kerouac through alcoholism.)

Indeed, most notable writers that I came across had their own habits and quirks. Gertrude Stein, for example, found inspiration for her poetry whilst sat in her (parked) car, nicknamed ‘Godiva’. Victor Hugo chose to write naked, ordering his servant to hide his clothes in order to stop himself from leaving his house. Vladimir Nabakov, preferred to stand whilst writing, using a lecturn and index cards so that he could easily rearrange the order of scenes in his prose. Philip Roth also prefers to stand while writing, believing like Haruki Murakami, that a healthy body is essential to a healthy mind, and that the physical excursion of standing assists this. In contrast to this, writers like Truman Capote preferred a horizontal stance when writing, lying in bed or sprawled across a chaise longue, while T.S. Eliot found sickness to be a great source of inspiration when creating new ‘gruffer’ voices and harsher scenes. There are of course those that need nothing at all, though they seem few and far between. David Mitchell, for instance, claims, ‘the universe needs to contrive circumstances to stop me writing, rather than contrive ones to allow me to write’.

To learn from the greats, there is worse I feel I could do than to emulate their habits and traits. In trying to form my own ritual as I settle into my new place, I have been experimenting with some of theirs in an attempt to help increase my productivity, maintain flow and stave off writer’s block. Unfortunately, none have proved very successful. Waking up at dawn resulted in mild confusion, loud yawns and a heavy feeling of fatigue that followed me for the rest of the day. Standing up proved impractical due to my lack of a lectern, and lying down I fell asleep. Reasoning that great thinkers were often great drinkers, I turned to booze. By the second drink my words began to muddle and my handwriting grew messy as my hand tried furiously to keep up with my thoughts. The streaming babble flowed from my pen for hours on end, but was deleted in its entirety with the sober glance of the morning.

So it seems that I am back to where I started, which isn’t really anywhere. For me, writing is mainly a process of procrastination, interspersed sporadically with occasional thought and even more occasional moments where my pen makes acquaintance with paper. Although I hate routine, and my day job as a handyman means that I am forced to fit my writing around the irregular hours of that job, I love ritual. I am only just starting to learn that almost anything can be ritualized – from making a cup of tea, to getting ready for bed. To ritualize something is not only to make it become a familiar process that eventually becomes second nature, it is also to make it sacred. With writing, if there is a ritual associated with the way you start, such as organizing your papers in a certain way on your desk, then through conditional learning your brain associates this with the process of writing. A ritual can therefore theoretically get you into the mindset of what you are about to do and thus eliminate the dawdling and procrastination that often comes with starting.

Choose Your Weapon

Despite not having a ritual, there are nevertheless certain things that I require and others that I avoid when writing. For a start, I need solitude. I write at home and I write alone, as whenever I have tried writing in public places, such as a park or café, I become self-conscious and easily distracted. As a result, it is only ever at my desk that I write, often with a cup of tea by my side and a cat at my feet. If I can’t have silence when I write (due to the noise of the cats playing or building work), then I listen to music. It can be anything without lyrics, base, or beat, as otherwise my rhythm adapts to what’s playing and the words of the song drift into my writing. My sitting position is such that I have developed a cyst behind my knee from sitting on it awkwardly, and my posture has already begun to form itself into the shape of an upside down question mark. I write longhand, using a Biro (black Bic) into a bound notebook. The Biro is for its permanency and ability to be virtually smudge proof. The paper is to have something to hold and fold and, if necessary, tear, crumple and throw. For a while I wrote with a smart fountain pen that my parents gave me, but I gave it up when all my words were washed away in a rainstorm.

There is nothing special or peculiar about any of these, though without them I can easily become incapacitated. Even with the tea, the quiet and the solitude, there is no guarantee for me that I’ll get anything done. Without a routine or ritual to get me into the mindset, I am susceptible to distractions. And distractions can come in many guises. Even halfway through that last sentence, there was a ten minute interlude involving a piece of string, a cork, and a cat. It seems anything and everything can work to form a distraction from the task at hand, from the cleaning and tidying, to paying bills and fiddling around on the internet. This last one is the worst of all. The internet is the 21st century equivalent of television, newspapers, games arcades, the mailbox, the red light district, the jukebox, magazines, cinemas, and endlessly readable encyclopedias – all merged into one hellish screen. And that’s without even mentioning Facebook.

I am no David Mitchell it seems. Without a ritual I may be condemned forever to procrastination and distraction. Without my own eccentricities and odd habits, I feel that there is maybe something crucial missing that is preventing the next literary masterpiece from bursting forth from me in a single fortnight. Though probably not. Until that does or doesn’t happen, I will continue cursing the cats and staring at space, surrounded by my Biros and binders and cups of tea.

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ANTHONY CUTHBERTSON is a writer, editor, and founder of the off-beat literary magazine, Do Not Look at the Sun. Born and raised in England, Anthony obtained a degree in literature at Queen's University in Belfast, before moving to Paris. His work has appeared in various journals and magazines, including Notes from the Underground, Fogged Clarity and The Guardian.

12 responses to “Writers and their Rituals”

  1. I myself tend to sit on the chair before a computer and not leave without typing three pages a day of rough draft. It looks little but does add up to more than a thousand pages a year. I recently discovered the art of rewriting and learn to respect the work process. Sometimes I get lazy or erratic about it, but it seems to work so far…

    Nice article by the way.

  2. Thank you for culling all those interviews!

    The idea of writing standing up is an interesting one. I’ve found lately that the cats (there are just 2 of them so it really is pretty remarkable that they’re able to be so expansive) take up all my writing spots. And I’m a sucker for my cats. I like to see them comfortable. Maybe it’s time to try standing.

    I’ve found there’s this sweet time in the morning – usually between 6 and 8 – when my brain just hums with connections. I’ve become pretty protective of morningbrain. I don’t like to cut it short because its way of maneuvering layers or synapses is just so distinct from the way my brain works the rest of the day. When I look at this objectively, I can see that that time for reflection is probably part of writing. That makes sense to me. But in my skin, I tend to get a little more anxious about whether I’m writing enough – actively writing.

    At any rate, it’s so so so good to hear how other people negotiate this. Thank you for sharing.

    • Cats do seem to be a problem for quite a few writers that I spoke to, the way they get in the way and demand attention. One writer told me that she imagined her cats to be frustrated writers, the way they clamber across the keyboard. I liked that idea, and can see the same with my cats, though unfortunately so far they’ve come up with nothing better than: m lsu éS/JNZBgggggggggggggggggzekbLO29

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Welcome to the TNB family, Anthony!

    Ah, rituals… I’ve yet to lock into one that lasts long term. My experience with Novel #2 has been quite different from Novel #1. Like you, I write only at home. The first book was written entirely on a computer, this second one almost entirely by hand in either pencil or purple pen (depends on which narrator I’m dealing with) in spiral-bound sketch notebooks or on really nice paper (ditto). I’ve written almost all of my essays within the past two years by hand. I think it short circuits my temptation to edit. I admit to needing a first cup of coffee and half a stick of incense. Sad but true.

    I’ve tried to borrow other writers’ processes to no avail. I’ve learned I must figure out what works for me, then change when it needs to be changed.

    Your masterpieces will get written, but perhaps not the way you expect…

    • Thanks Ronlyn. That’s an interesting concept of using different colours/pens for different characters, I might try that. Like you I prefer to write into a notebook or onto really nice paper as it makes me more careful with what I’m writing, it has the same affect as a typewriter in that respect.

  4. Interesting article, Anthony.

    I think that we need rituals as a way to trick us into writing. Like, if we sat down and said, “I’ve got to write 1000 words today!” that just would seem like a chore, whereas if we sit and have one cigarette, two cups of coffee, spin around four times, then take shit and write on the toilet… it would be the same routine that had worked before, so why not?

    Well, to some extent.

    Part of me is always looking for an excuse not to write, and I am too weak-willed to overcome it, so I often do the things that have helped fuel a good writing binge in the past. I guess it’s like sports people – you have your lucky charm or whatever.

    Anyway, right now I like to make a cup of coffee whilst listening to two Bob Dylan songs, then sit and drink it whilst listening to two Rage Against the Machine Songs, and then I read the last ten pages of what I’ve written… then start. It is working well, and whilst I realise it’s silly, the thought of just sitting and writing without it is quite scary.

  5. Cheers David. It sounds like you’ve got your ritual sorted! Reading about the rituals of some sports people, it seems the lengths some go to are fairly drastic/ unhygenic… each to their own, I guess.

  6. Balzac drank 300 cups of house blend a day? Vic Hugo wrote naked? Great stuff to know and I feel 62% less odd on the whole. I think, as you seem to have concluded, that the worst thing you can possibly do is try to stuff a square ritual into a round hole. In other words, develop an affectation for the sake of it. Kenneth Tynan traveling to Spain and pretending to fall in love with bullfighting comes to mind. Funny hats, various feigned mental illnesses, and writing with a peacock quill are unlikely to improve anyone’s chops. But I will admit that last year I bought a test tube of Moliere’s syphilis on eBay, just in case.

  7. James D. Irwin says:

    It’s always fascinating to read about other writers and how they go about their business.

    I’m fairly fortunate that my internet connection erratic and often the one big distraction is gone. I prefer the early mornings, starting with tea before moving on to sweet black coffee.

    Since Christmas I mostly write in my pajamas. It’s a strange turn of events, but it works.

    I can only write in the afternoon if I’ve started before hand. I lose motivation otherwise, and distractions kick in. When I’m in the groove, as it were, nothing will stop me. However, getting into that groove is a rare and precious thing.

    Welcome to TNB by the way.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Oh, and my writing space is an absolute mess. I’m renting a house with my brother and a friend in the arse-end of Winchester. Right on the edge of town by an industrial estate. I have the smallest room which is littered with books, clothes, notes, and a disconnected old fashioned telephone.

      I can’t write when the place is tidy. I thrive on the chaos of it all…

  8. JSBreukelaar says:

    I love the idea forcing the help to hide one’s clothes. That’s taking writing naked to a whole new level. And I thought I was a caffeine addict. But 300 cups a day—even just espressos. You wonder how he found time to write. Nice to have you on board.

  9. Alex Williams says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking read. I too am having problems with rituals. I’ve tried the 4.30am (watching the sunrise) one; needless to say I fell asleep shortly afterwards and had the Grog Monster from Hell haunting my head for the rest of the day. I tried the ‘night owl’ option and duly fell sound asleep by around 10pm. And I am far from industrious thanks to a high speed internet connection which allows permanent access to demons such as Facebook, The Daily Mail, email, eBay and worst of all …. the dreaded Google.

    I did however whilst Googling (and on something of a steep tangent from where I originated), find this article about old Winnie. I should think I would fit into this sort of ritual pretty well. I have one minor query though: when will I have time to write my novel?

    Quote:
    Winston Churchill.
    While Churchill’s routine may not be for everyone, it seemed to revolve around lots of food and drink. He would rise at 7:30 and stay in bed until 11:00 where he would eat breakfast, read several newspapers, and dictate to his secretaries. When he finally got out of bed, he would bathe, take a walk outside, then settle in to work with a weak whisky and soda. Lunch began at 1:00 and lasted until 3:30, after which he would work or play cards or backgammon with his wife. At 5:00 he napped for an hour and a half, then bathed again and got ready for dinner. Dinner was considered the highlight of his day, with much socializing, drinking, and smoking that sometimes went past midnight. After his guests left, he would then work for another hour or so before heading to bed.

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