Why habit and ritual are important to writers (and how to create your own) – Gina L. Carroll

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By Gina L. Carroll

One of the challenges of writing is creating the time and space to do it. Writing is an art. In order to bring forth your best life stories in their highest form, you must treat your writing as a creative process and think of yourself as an artist.♥

The creation of art requires regular practice. The only way you will complete your writing projects is to keep at it. The best way to keep at it is to tailor a writing habit to your life and your goals. And the best writing habits include rituals and behaviors that inspire you and keep you on track.

For our purposes, rituals and habits are not interchangeable terms. A habit is something that you do with enough regularity that it becomes automatic, so automatic and engrained that it is difficult to relinquish. A ritual is a ceremonial action performed according to a prescribed order. Rituals usually announce or signify an important occurrence. If you endeavor to create a writing routine that contains both regularity and ceremony, if you develop helpful habits that include ritual, you greatly improve your odds of success.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,Mason Currey’s instant classic, lays open the habits and rituals of one-hundred and sixty-one of our favorite artists, including a fair number of authors. The accounts are mostly the artists’ own words. And the words of these prolific creators do more than just hint at how important is the deliberate carving out of a daily practice. They share their very personal approaches to establishing specific writing spaces and determining their optimally creative (or simply the most opportune) times to write.

According to Currey, Maya Angelou preferred to work away from home, so she kept a modest hotel room near her house where she would write from early morning to early afternoon. She found more success in the sterile setting of “a tiny, mean” hotel room furnished only with a bed and sometimes a face basin.

For her first novel, Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice chose to write at night and sleep during the day. She claims the solitude and quiet of the evening hours helped her concentrate and think best. But I suspect something about that schedule was most fitting for her nocturnal subject matter.

Toni Morrison developed an early morning practice by rising around 5:00 a.m., making coffee and then watching the sun rise. She says that seeing “the light come” is crucial to her routine because it is her way of approaching the mysterious process of writing. For Morrison, rising early and making coffee is part of her habit. Watching the light come is the ritual.

What most of the authors who are featured in Daily Rituals have in common is that they endeavor to write at the same time every day, limiting their sessions to one or two locations. As you work on your writing projects, I recommend this for you, too. Spend a week testing different locations and different times of the day to determine what works best for you. When and where do you feel most productive—focused and creative?

Research shows that early morning is optimal for creative pursuits because our willpower reserves are in the highest supply in the morning. So completing tasks that are difficult and that require willpower, like writing, are best completed early. Studies also show that creative endeavor is best engaged soon after waking when the frontal cortex is most active. Many authors seize the a.m. hours to do their best writing. Even late night, hard drinking authors like Ernest Hemmingway and William Faulkner managed to make the most of a regular early morning practice. Anne Rice, post-Vampire, eventually discovered that mornings worked best for her, as well. Aine Greaney, in her book, Writer with a Day Job: Inspiration & Exercises to Help You Craft a Writing Life Alongside Your Career, suggests another theory to explain the superiority of a morning practice. The early morning writer can capitalize on the dream state from which she has just emerged, since according to Greaney, creative writing draws on the same subconscious side of the brain as night dreams.

I like writing and researching in the morning because my family is still asleep, even the dog; the house is quiet and so is my cell phone; and the stresses of the previous day are a faded memory. The key to mornings, for me, is to avoid television, emails and social media. As soon as I check my emails, the magic of the morning is over. My “day job” has officially begun.

Though most of the writers featured in Daily Rituals, expressed a preference for solitude, their choice locations varied widely. Like Maya Angelou, I prefer to write in closed-in, austere places where I receive very little outside interference or distraction. This has meant different locations over time. Early on, I converted a walk-in closet into my writing space and found sitting in that tiny, unadorned room with no windows, just a desk, chair, lamp and laptop very comforting for work. One of my clients loves to write in the same spot by the lake near her home. She prefers the expansiveness of the water and sky. Mark Twain locked himself in his office for the entire day, while Jane Austen wrote in the family sitting room in the company of her mother and sister, who quietly sewed nearby. When you establish the ideal creative spot for yourself, each time you arrive in that space to write, you will be able to find your focus and concentration with greater ease, as your regular location will signal to your brain that it’s time to work.

Rituals help us train the brain, too, by elevating the importance of the practice with ceremony and repetition. Your ritual need not have a practical purpose outside of this. It can be any action that has meaning for you. The key is to perform it every time you begin your writing session. According to Mason Currey, Gertrude Stein, while she lived in France, preferred to write outdoors and liked to look at rocks and cows at intervals as she wrote. So she and her long-time companion, Alice B. Toklas, would hop into their Ford and take a drive in the country until they found a good spot. While Stein prepared herself for writing with campstool, pencil and pad, Ms. Toklas took a switch to the backside of the nearest cow to coax it into Stein’s line of vision. Once inspired, Stein would only write for fifteen minutes to half-hour per session. Apparently, the self-proclaimed genius spent more time engaged in the ritual than the writing. Your ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle at the beginning of your session to help mark the beginning of your writing experience, or like Toni Morrison, simply watching the sky fill with light at first dawn.

Even simple actions, when done reverently and repeatedly, signal your brain that you are about to do something important. You can also add three big yawns before you begin. Researchers believe that yawning increases blood flow to the brain and promotes brain growth and activity. In this way, you equip your mind for the work ahead.

So much is written about writing habit and ritual because the challenge is real, and increasingly so with our multiple electronic devices and the current twenty-four-hour information onslaught. Every moment you pay to setting up your writing habit will be well worth the effort.


Gina L. Carroll is an author, speaker, and editor who believes that everyone has a story that matters. Also the author of 24 Things You Can Do with Social Media to Help Get into College, she helps students use their social media to share their best stories and show their highest selves online; and as a partner at Inspired Wordsmith, a writing services business, Gina helps aspiring writers and business professionals get their life stories in print. A longtime freelancer and blogger, she has written thousands of articles on an exhaustive variety of subject matter, in addition to maintaining her own four blogs.

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