Friday, September 07, 2007

This Ritual Called Writing

from Jacqueline

I’ve just walked my friend’s dog, and now I’m about ready to start writing. Of course, I have my own faithful canine companion, my own furry muse, but I’m in northern California for a few days without my Sally, so I borrowed Samba. Samba belongs to my friend, Kas, who’s away at a sales conference, and seeing as the dog walker only goes around the block with Samba on a leash, he doesn’t get that off-leash freedom blast in the hills – which is where I come in. And I need that blast as well.

I was walking Sally on the open space close to our home one day, when along came a group of morning walkers. One of them knew I was a writer and had read all my books, so introduced me as a “local author.” By this time Sal was looking at me as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, heard it all before – now can we get on with the walk?” But as I was about to squirm on my way, one of the women asked me if I found the wonderful countryside inspiring for my writing, or if I lit a candle and did a little ritual before I wrote. So, I told her – no candles, I have to write where I am, but I do like a walk to think about things before I get going. We tried to get on our way, Sal and I – I had a desk to get back to and Sal was thinking of breakfast – but this lady was most insistent to know about my “rituals.”

I know many people do have rituals – meditation, yoga, breakfast – but it always fascinates me, that non-writers often have this idea that writers wander like lost souls waiting for the muse to turn up, at which point we hide in a garret to put our inspired words onto the page. The fact is that most professional writers – whether novelists or journalists, full-time writers or got-a-day-job-too writers, are on some kind of deadline, which means that, come what may, you turn up at the page and you write, and if you are lucky some of what you write is worth reading back to yourself.

I used to fall to my writing first thing in the morning, thinking that if I didn’t get it done then, I would fail to write anything that day. I didn’t trust myself to leave it until the afternoon. Then I had to change my perspective. I was so busy with non-writing author responsibilities (touring and such like) that I had to write most of my third novel, PARDONABLE LIES, from hotel rooms on the road. Whenever I had an hour or two to myself, I would sit down and write, forcing myself into that zone where I could create the next few scenes in the story. Stephen King, in his book “On Writing,” says that if you write 1200 words per day, you can get the first draft of a novel down in three months. That has been my goal ever since, and some days I cruise right past the 1200 words, other days I limp towards them – but I can now sit down at any time of day and write my 1200 words, and almost anywhere. But at some point before I write, I have to walk, get my body moving while I think about what I’m going to write. I can’t do that sitting down – unless it’s on my horse, my other furry muse.

Going back to this idea of the perfect place to write, I think that even writers have an idea of what sort of place they would write in if they had their druthers, rather than any space not already taken in the house. But it’s interesting how that doesn’t always work out. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter in a coffee shop, and later moved on to be able to write in any room in any one of her several very large homes – but by all accounts, she missed that coffee shop and has been seen lurking in coffee shops in Edinburgh again, probably trying to get to grips with that crime novel she's writing. I remember reading a story about Richard Russo, the author of EMPIRE FALLS, who also wrote in coffee shops. He had this dream of one day having enough money to build an extension on his house so that he could have an office just the way he wanted it – his very own place to write. Of course, he made the money, had the extension build, bought the furniture he’d lusted after, sat down to write and ... couldn’t. It was too quiet. He needed the background noise he’d become used to. Back to the coffee shop.

Following his dreadful accident some years ago, Stephen King wrote (in ON WRITING) of the months he spent in a sort of daze of pain in his home. He wasn’t writing, he wasn’t doing much at al except trying to get through each day. Then one day he told his wife that he felt like writing again, so she set up a desk for him under the stairs. Apparently, when he first began writing, under the stairs was the only place in the house for him to write, and he was starting all over again.

Nostalgia almost led me to buy an old schoolroom-type ledger desk at a garage sale last weekend. I didn’t buy it, because I had no idea where I would put it, but my first ever desk, given to me by the shopkeeper at the end of our road when his daughter left home, was an oak school desk from the previous century. I loved that desk and would sit at it for hours writing away. I have no idea what happened to it, but I think about it often.

So, to wrap up these musings about how and when we write and why, I am going to pack you off to another blog: (sorry, have forgotten how to embed the url into the text of my post). In her post today, Barbara Abercrombie, writer and amazing teacher, quotes Paul McCartney (Our Macca): “He said he sits down and looks into this black hole in space and asks, ‘I wonder if there’s a song in there.’ Then he tries to craft whatever he sees as a song.”

That’s Paul, circa 1967. Wonder what he'd just seen in the black hole.

Well I’ve been for a walk, and I know there’s at least one scene in my black hole today, so I had better get on and write it. In the meantime, what about you? Do you need “rituals?” Or do you just sit down and write, come what may? Do you write at home? In your dedicated office? Or are you a coffee shop writer? (Hmmmm, sounds a bit like a Paul McCartney song – “Coffee shop writer, coffee shop writer .... oooooo, ooooo, ooooo.”

Have a lovely weekend.


  1. I'm a "write only at my desk" person, but the time of day for writing is shifting, so I'm getting better at that.

    But it's not just this desk ... this room ... this lack of noise. I think I need the view of the Golden Gate Bridge outside to stir me.

  2. It's not exactly a ritual, but I'm one of those 4:30 am writers -- it just turns out that that's when I think I do my best work. The trouble is that for the past 2 summers, while writing my first novel, this has come into conflict with a mid-Atlantic horse person's desire to get the ride in before heat and humidity start up in force. The result is the ritual is now totally messed up, and as the weather eases I'm struggling to get it back again...

  3. My morning ritual is coffee and the newspaper in bed. Then I go to my computer. By necessity, I write wherever I am, either on my laptop or on paper. I used to light a candle before starting my writing day but worried I'd set the house on fire.

  4. from Jacqueline

    Louise, I think if I had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge I would just stare at it all day! I used to have a view of Mt. Tam, and every now and then I'd just stop what I was doing and stare at that mountain.

    Lisa, I know exactly what you mean. This has been one hot summer, and I have to ride early or not at all, so even though I have always thought of myself as a morning writer, things have to change in the summer. Then, of course, once I'm out with the horse, there always seems to be something else to do - clean the tack, check the water (again), make sure all the horses have a treat - so that by the time I get home and had something to eat, it's noon or one before I go to my desk.

    Patty, I often wish I could linger in bed, but my Sal gives me the filthiest looks if I'm not up and about by 6:30am!

  5. Jackie,
    This is close to a piece I was writing for a future blog.

    Just today someone asked me, "So, still writing?" No just a phase and it passed.

    People don't seem to consider writing a job.

    I formulate ideas all day then write in the evening.

    JIm B

  6. from Jacqueline

    Oooops, sorry to steal your thunder, Jim, however, this is where we prove that two people can write on the same or a similar subject, and they will produce completely different pieces. Wasn't it Kurt Vonnegut who wrote that every book that was ever to be written has already been written (or something along those lines)? If that was the case, we'd all be looking for another creative black hole.

    I'm sure your day yields so much to inspire your writing. I know that wherever I go, whatever I do, I am picking up bits and pieces here and there - conversations, images, little scenes observed - like a squirrel out looking for nuts.

    And about that comment - you are so right, people just don't see writing a a job. There was one author (wish I could remember who it was) who was asked when he wrote. He replied, "Monday to Friday, 8 'til 5. It's my job." Great answer.

  7. I keep a candle lighted so that I can burn what I have written. Cannot seem to muster the ability to stop editing.

  8. Oh, dear - put that candle away right now! You should never burn your creative output. Having said that, one of my teachers once said that when you go through to edit your work, you should kill your darlings - the bits you like most in your own work are more likely to be the sections you should be editing. Not sure I agree, however, I do believe that everything we write becomes "inventory." You might not think its going anywhere today, but leave it to stew for a while - time is really the best editor.

  9. Hey, all!

    Just off a flight from Japan last night, and ya know, some of what I've learned from you all kicked in for inspiration while I was away. I now have a snippet on teddy bears to use, from a Japanese/Italian restaurant, and a sense of mystery on the Great North Road in England; for my mystery novel ideas. I also made some directional notes for sequel stories to one of my funky SF christmas short stories - this whilst listening to my beloved rattle on about his favourite topic (Godzilla)at the World SF convention in Japan. A small notepad is a wondrous thing to carry around. :-D

    I was on three panels at the convention - two of which were about mystery novel crossovers and what else fans read passionately, ie mystery, etc. They were the most fun I've had at a convention in years. I bandied the Naked Authors blog and your names about wildly: people even took notes. :-D

    I don't have rituals per se - however the odd row of knitting or crochet has a tendency to settle my thoughts and organize them before I do anything that requires thinking, plotting, planning or any other serious scheming. Sometimes I like silence to vent my ideas into, and others I need to fill with music to fit the mood.

    Instead of walking, try dancing when the weather is bad. :-D And Jacqueline: when you were gazing at Mt Tam, it was probably thinking that it was nice to have company. Then again, I think I've been Japan too long...

    Good to be home. Deadline on Monday for Dinosaur book. Off to England in ten days. Life is never dull. Now, time for a nap.

    I missed you guys!

  10. Welcome back, Marianne - we missed you! Sounds like you've been having one heck of an adventure - and off again soon (I'm off to the UK and France at the beginning of October - back to the Somme Valley to prepare for another Maisie Dobbs). And I'll try some dancing - love dancing, so it should shake a few words loose

  11. Ta, Jacqueline. I'd almost wish to be part of your luggage for your trip to the Somme. Sigh. If you're laying any poppies this trip, might you possibly lay one or two for me as well?

    NOw that we've finally got the Japan bit over with, I'm so glad to wake up this morning and really start to look forward to England. Just went and picked up our rail passes. Cool. Also bought a map of England today: gonna plot bits of the Great North Road for a novel idea I'm developing. Spent two hours of early am yesterday writing about the protagonist. She's finally told me her name. Of course, it's a mystery with a bit of paranormal stuff thrown in. I'll be greatly interested to see where it all goes. FOr now, it's puffing along quite nicely.

    Meanwhile, I will so look forward to the next installment of Maisie. Have fun. I'll be thinking of you walking those fields...and mentally lending a shoulder for support now and then. :-D


  12. i think you mean "paperback writer"?

    and you call yourself a beatles fan...