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Ritualize Your Writing: A Shortcut Into Creative Productivity

“Just four more flaming bowls, and FINALLY I can start writing…”

Back in February I did a piece about the immediate productivity boost I got just by yanking the cable that connects my desktop computer to my Wi-Fi router.

It worked for a painfully obvious reason: the elimination of a major distraction: das Internetten. But, in my carryover-from-childhood inclination to tear things apart and see how they work, I’m often not satisfied with surface explanations.

And I came to the conclusion that there was another reason why that tactic was effective, a reason that may ultimately be more powerful, running much deeper, than the obvious one.

However unwittingly, I’d established a distinct new ritual for the sole purpose of readying myself to perpetrate creative productivity.

The Function Of Ritual

Life is full of rituals great and small, simple and elaborate, formal and informal, but there’s a common denominator between most of them: Their core purpose is to usher us from one state of being into another.

The wedding ritual exists to mark the union of two into one.

The funeral ritual, to formalize the transition of life into death.

The awarding of a martial arts belt, to signify the satisfactory completion of a block of training.

Pass through this type of ritual and you become something new, something different from what you were before.

But the transitions don’t have to be permanent. Their effects, the states of mind they conjure, can be temporary, too. Intentionally so.

Think of a liturgical ritual like the Mass. Its underlying goal is to usher the believer from a state of mundane, earthly consciousness into a state focused on the spiritual. Medieval theologians likened this process to the tuning of a bell … but instead of metal, tuning a person so that he would resonate at a higher frequency than he did before.

In this context, ritual is a shortcut. A bridge. A wormhole in space between two distant galaxies that can get you from one to the other much quicker than if you were to traverse the full gulf between.

When compared to the mundane places we often occupy, what is writing, then, if not a higher, more resonant state of mind?

Why Ritual Works

The mind adores patterns. It hunts for them everywhere. It loves to link things together and it thrives on making order out of chaos. And it’s a whiz at bundling specific states of mind with associated physical cues.

As a kid, I would sometimes see baseball players — pitchers, usually — go through the most peculiar sequences of activity before ever throwing the ball. It looked to me then like blatant superstition. And maybe, even to the players, that’s all it was. But they did it anyway.

However, specialists in Neurolinguistic Programming would see something quite different here: that what the players were doing was repeatedly taking the heightened state of focus necessary to throw the pitch how and where they wanted it, and anchoring it to a unique sequence of behavioral events.

Repeat the events — tweak nose, swipe thumb along bill of cap, rub opposite elbow — and, ideally, this silly little sequence will usher you into the desired state of focus.

Every pitch, then, becomes its own ritual.

Revisit the liturgy for a moment. Think of the incense, the candles, the Latin chanting, the presence of the altar and the the stole around the priest’s neck. Think of how quickly these cues work together to induce a change in state of mind. You don’t even have to be a believer to feel some kind of tug. Because their symbolic power runs centuries deep.

Now … imagine the potential waiting to be tapped by pairing a few unique cues with the belief in yourself, and in the tale you’re telling.

Establishing A Ritual Of Your Own

Long before there were ever such things as priests, there were shamans. The shaman’s job is simple in description, complex in performance: to journey between the worlds of matter and spirit, and bring back something of value for the tribe.

Not everybody approaches writing that way.

Just the ones that resonate. Even if they don’t know it, or think of creating in those terms.

With the shaman, it’s ritual, usually involving a drumbeat, that serves as the vehicle for the journey.

For the writer, looking for an expedient route from the mundane world of bill-paying and car-pooling to the enveloping realm of story, ritual can take a hundred thousand forms. It’s whatever works. It’s the cues that mean infinitely more to you than what they appear to be on the surface. Whatever actions reach inside and flip your switches.

You might have a ritual already without even realizing it. That singular coffee mug you only ever fill before you sit down to write. That CD or iTunes playlist you only cue up when it’s go-time.

Whatever the ritual is, though, there are a few qualities that should shape it. It is:

Unique. Whether a solitary act or some nose-cap-elbow combination, it should belong exclusively to your writing preamble. Nothing else. Even the act of disconnecting from my router, as simple as that was, wasn’t something I did for any other reason.

Performed mindfully. You know how you absently swat your hand at the light switch when you enter a room? Don’t do it like that. Whatever action you’re taking should command not just your full attention, but your full intention. When unplugging that cable, I pause and remind myself that what comes next is sacred time.

Repeatable. When it’s simple enough to do without worrying whether you’re doing it right, that leaves you free to focus on intent. And it’s probably best if you can do it anywhere. Sure, you swear by tucking one foot to your belly and hopping one-legged across the room … but do you really want to do that in Starbucks?

Self-reinforcing. Some things we do over and over again to the point of rote meaninglessness. An effective ritual takes the opposite trajectory. Its power should grow in the doing. It should accrue the weight of legitimacy. Because it works. For you, it works.

So journey well, and happy trails.

Now come back with something wonderful.

***** It’s 2-for-1 day! You are most cordially invited over to my blog, Warrior Poet, where the latest, “Agree To Disagree: The Key To Constant Conflict,” will be going up shortly. Ish. Shortlyish.

[Photo by Paul Stevenson]

15 comments to Ritualize Your Writing: A Shortcut Into Creative Productivity

  • Clarentine

    Oh! I need a reference for the concept of tuning a person to a higher frequency. (I’m working on a novel about bell magic.) Where should I look?

  • Brian Hodge

    I’m not crystal clear about where I read that … it’s just one of the huge jumble of things that have stuck in the filters over the years.

    But my first impulse was to recall a little book called CHANT, by Katharine Le Mee. It was a book associated with the huge-selling CD of the same name, from 1994, by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. It’s subtitled “The origins, form, practice, and healing power of Gregorian chant.”

    You might also look into the work of a guy named Jonathan Goldman. He has a book called HEALING SOUNDS (and I think a web site by the same name). That’s more about toning and overtone chanting — I was interested in it mostly for didgeridoo and sound design tinkering — but some of the principles elaborated on might apply for you, since the key factor in a lot of it is frequency resonance.

    Good luck!

  • “Repeatable” — aye, there’s the rub. Gotta get past that repeatable aspect. Think maybe you can over-do that. Like an old vinyl record with a nick in the grove, my ritual for writing keeps repeating: leap out of bed…leap into canoe…paddle miles away from computer…make land…adventure all day…paddle back…leap into bed…. And then it starts to cycle all over again the next day with no writing done. Um, except to post on Brian Hodges excellent column.

    — Sully

  • Brian Hodge

    Maybe you just approach ritual in a really long-term way, and they last for days, even weeks at a time.

    Then again, how are you at dictation? Kevin Anderson, probably best known for taking over the Dune franchise, also lives here in the Rockies, and he’ll sometimes take a little voice recorder out on a long, solitary hike and draft pages verbally.

    I could never work that way — it would probably soon degenerate into a lot of frustrated grunting and blasphemy — but aren’t you Irish types supposed to have the loquacious gift of gab?

  • Funny, but I used to call it in. Phone my voicemail and leave notes. Now I just use the memo function on my cell phone. Thing is when I’m done being Irish loquacious and go home, I am unable to translate the Gaelic. :-}

    Srsly, I remember when the idea hit me for my first novel — a potboiler — I was out running, and I stopped to ask a woman who was hanging laundry on a clothesline if I could borrow pencil and paper to write a few notes. Yes, this was in another millennium. Write on, amigo…


  • Brian Hodge

    For some reason I’m picturing you frantically rushing at her while batting aside big wet sheets, like a scene in a slasher movie.

    Another millennium, maybe, but I still love the smell of line-dried laundry!

  • I love mental triggers, and for me, it is coloured pens. If I have a few dozen different colours (and I usually do) to write with, I’ll usually produce something worthwhile. This always works for 1st drafts. For 2nd drafts however, you’ll have to pry the computer from my cold, clammy hands.

  • Brian Hodge

    Oh, definitely, color can be such a potent cue. I like to break those pens and markers out when brainstorming, doing a mind-map, something like that.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BJ Muntain and Elizabeth S Craig , Rebecca Enzor. Rebecca Enzor said: I think I need to get a ritual now! … Ritualize Your Writing: A Shortcut Into Creative Productivity http://bit.ly/aHZPL0 […]

  • Personal rituals have amazing power but so few people understand how individuals can go about creating them. Wonderful and insightful post!

  • Brian Hodge

    Thanks, Amanda. Anyone with a tagline like “Living Mythologically,” yeah, I’d think they might relate.

  • Thanks for this terrific post, Brian! You’re so right. Rituals are a springboard into a unique, desired state. I very much appreciate the reminder, and hope to put this into practice this coming week.

  • Brian Hodge

    Glad to have helped, Susan. I’d love to hear what you whip together from it.

  • Brian Hodge

    By Martel Sardina, and ported over from the other version of this blog’s split-brain set-up:

    Brian –
    Just wanted to say that this post reminded me that I need to pull that plug, too. I’ve been caught up in all of the social networking stuff and have really noticed a dip in productivity because of it. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

  • Brian Hodge

    I hear you. With all the options available to + expectations on everyone in general and writers in particular, it seems like just maintaining balance takes constant awareness, constant vigilance.

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