Pop Quiz Writers: What do you do?

I’m getting my head around starting a PhD next month and earlier this week I undertook the mammoth task of tidying my desk. It’s amazing the difference it makes, looking at it now gives me a feeling of control that is otherwise slightly lacking in my frame of mind as I leap into the unknown. It also gives me a sense of possibility about my writing, rather than looking at the random pile of papers and post-its that was there previously and inspires nothing more than a passing thought of “eugh, I need to sort that out.”

I was thinking about the difference those couple of hours of effort has made to my mind set when I met with a writer friend yesterday and we got to talking about the rituals we undertook before we started writing. There’s nothing magical in intent or result about these rituals, we have not unlocked unparalleled access to a mythical muse. It’s more about getting your head in the right space to concentrate on what you need to do – and sometimes trick yourself into writing even when you don’t initially feel inspired. Some people light candles or meditate; others seek out the perfect soundtrack and begin writing when the music starts. I have a writing cardigan and when I’m wearing that, it’s time to get to work.

There are some aspects of writing that can’t be taught and the writing ritual is one of them. You have to find your own way, let the process evolve and trust what works for you. What I call my writing cardigan has no inherently literary or magical properties; it’s one that my Mum knitted for me when I was a teenager and at this point it’s a little frayed and lost its shape. Because I love it, I can’t let it go and initially I would wear it when I was writing because that’s something I do at home on my own and frankly it’s probably not fit to be worn in the outside world. Over time, it became a signal to my mind that I was going to be staying at home and writing whenever I put it on.

I think that’s what the writing ritual is all about. We all have lives outside of writing, and most of the time you’re working hard to keep that going – whether that’s working to keep a roof over your head, looking after children or just the smaller things like keeping food in your cupboard or making sure your car has had its MOT. It’s something very personal and it depends on how you write, and how much time you have. If you have all day, by all means take an hour to meditate and do what you need to in order to get your head in the right space. If you’re cramming writing into an already busy life, it may be that you just need to take a deep breath and connect with your writing. You don’t need a clear day, a perfect space, a tidy desk or your lucky table at a coffee shop to do good work, but if you’re finding a lot of other things competing for your attention, the ritual can help.

I think the other thing about rituals is that you’re bringing some level of magical thinking into play, and that’s another important part of the process. I am aware that from the outside, my writing cardigan is faintly ridiculous, and there’s not really any chance that it would help to lend it to anyone else if they were stuck. I can – and do – write without it. However, if you’re struggling with maintaining your momentum, or finding the idea of your big project daunting, clearing a space to write and finding a way to get yourself there can make a big difference. Now if you’ll excuse me, my cardigan and I have some work to do.