Writers Talk About Writing
Why You Should Ditch the Resolutions and Make Rituals Instead
The lure of making resolutions for the new year is practically irresistible. Lose ten pounds. Go to the gym three times per week. Stop smoking. Start meditating. Save more money. Do a better job of managing stress.
But I've been re-thinking the subject lately and realized my earlier notions about resolutions were misguided. I'm now inclined to think we should abandon them altogether and replace them with rituals. Here's why.
1) Ritual is a nicer word than resolution. It sounds friendlier and more relaxing. If I play the word association game, "resolution" makes me think willpower, deprivation, pain and hard work. On the other hand, "ritual" brings up: incense, bowing, fine ornaments and calm. Rituals are particularly important for writers who, after all, do something quite magical. Did you ever see the show "Murphy Brown," starring Candice Bergen? I didn't watch it regularly but one funny line has remained with me. Murphy had just given birth to her baby and was reflecting on the wonder of breastfeeding. "The next thing you know is someone will tell me I can slice off pieces of my arm and serve them up as ham," she said. I feel just as incredulous about writing. Isn't it remarkable that we can create entire sentences when nothing existed before?
2) A ritual is something we're more likely to do willingly rather than resentfully. Because we can chose the rituals we follow — and we chose what feels right to us — we're more likely to do them. When my husband and I married 25 years ago, we chose to meet all our guests at the door to the church. To us, this felt friendly and welcoming and, besides, I didn't want the pressure of being the bride who is expected to surprise everyone with her fabulous dress. The ritual didn't suit all of our guests but it pleased us.
3) Rituals create safety and security. We know what's going to happen next so we feel calm and relaxed. If you're a student and you have a ritual of using a particular pen to write exams, taking that pen out of your pocket or purse lets you know it's time to write an exam. I once took a writing course from a New York based author who worked from his dining-room table. Every morning he'd clear off the table and place half a dozen tchotchkes on it — his symbols that the table where he ate his meals had suddenly been transformed into his writing desk.
4) Rituals allow us to take advantage of automaticity. Once we learn how to ride a bike, we don't have to think about how to maintain balance. Our bodies know exactly what to do. The same principle is true of reading. Once we get past grade 3, we don't "sound out" words any more, because we recognize most of them immediately. This automaticity allows us to sidestep the need for willpower and instead, relax into our work. (Isn't that delightfully ironic? The idea of relaxing into work?)
5) Rituals don't require our belief — or even any logic — to work. Tennis player Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks, without washing them, through a single tournament. Check out this list of seemingly crazy sports rituals that apparently work.
Here is my writing ritual. Upon waking at 6 am, I pull on my housecoat and quietly grab the clothes I've carefully laid out on my dresser the evening before. I tiptoe out of my bedroom so as not to wake my husband and I go into our kids' bathroom to dress. (I don't have a shower or breakfast until I've done at least an hour of work.) I climb the stairs to my office, which is in a loft in our house, and put on the kettle for tea, a cup of cream of Earl Grey.
While waiting for the water to boil, I set my Action Enforcer — a Mac-based digital timer — for 30 minutes. (Whenever my husband hears it he says the ticking sound reminds him of a crazy Tinkerbell. I never thought I'd be able to write with that blasted noise in the background; turns out, it helps me focus!) Then, as soon as the tea is steeping, I open the file for my book and I write at least 500 words.
I do this five consecutive days every week. Paradoxically, while the ritual is rigid and highly structured, it gives me a delicious sense of freedom and possibility.
In the same way a frame helps define a photo or a piece of art, my writing ritual helps define me. It can do the same for you.