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This Whole Writing Thing

Shortstops, Libraries and Tyler Avenue

If you spent a weekend with the crew at Grandma Fischer’s, you spent it their way. Growing up, more than a few of my weekends went like this: Saturday night was Lawrence Welk, then whatever cop show was on, then everybody got to bed, on time. Sunday morning call came on time. And so forth until we trooped the three blocks to St. Raphael, on time. Afterward, and also on schedule, came the Krispy Kremes. Later, if the housework kept on schedule, the ladies would crack open a beer. Ah, Sunday.

Life on Tyler Avenue ran by ritual.

Great, you’re thinking, a fine story. But what does it have to do with writing?

The ritual part. For Grandma Fischer, the repeated practice of a productive weekend. For writers, a key to productivity.

Back then in Louisville, if you were a kid into baseball, you rooted for the Big Red Machine. Their shortstop was Dave Concepcion, a hell of player. He could field, he could run, and he could hit. And I can’t remember him ever stepping up to the plate without a lightning-quick Sign of the Cross. Baseball. It takes fast hands.

Ritual.

The authors of The Power of Full Engagement are consultants who worked with both high and low-performing business execs, professionals of various fields, and even some major athletes. Consistent across the top performer clients are the rituals they wove into their life. They fill their days with routines and reminders of self-purpose that maximize capacity and keep them on task. Conversely, a lack of intentionality–and of daily ritual–sapped the low rungers of energy. The big takeaway: Rituals become habits, our auto-energy boosters and course-correctors. Excellence, says Aristotle, is not an act but a habit. If it works for philosophy and high-end consulting and batting .290, it’ll work for authors.

At Killer Nashville a few years ago, Peter Straub described how every morning he put on his suit and tie and walked to the New York Main Library. Writing was his job, the library his office. I’ve heard Anne Perry speak of her writing pads and room with a view and Nelson DeMille say much the same but with a smoke in hand. William Faulkner infamously said that he needed inspiration to write, which was why he made sure inspiration arrived every morning at 9AM.

I’d seen the same benefits in my day jobs, me hip-wader deep in business processes. I’ve coached the opposite in healthcare, and yet with writing it took me a load of failed and inconsistent output to slap my forehead V-8 style and connect the dots: Writing needs process. Ritual.

My prime creative time is mid-to-late morning, after a walk and a jolt of Diet Coke. With late afternoon exer-cise, I can have a second productive wave in the evening. My brain needs plenty of blood. Oh, and music that puts me in the right frame of mind, often the Rat Pack if I have humor writing ahead. Music helps, but only before a writing session, never during. I edit in a different space than where I draft. I don’t do personal tasks in either place. I write evenings and weekends, but I Write Something every day to keep those ritual fires burning. The fires, man, that’s what it’s about. So long as I worry as much about how I’m writing than what I’m writing, I’ll keep writing…and better.

What works for me won’t work for you, but trust me, a ritual waits for every writer. If you’re struggling with a manuscript problem or for fresh ideas or to block off creative time, step back and think about creative energy first. About rituals. What summons ideas to mind and you into the chair, both on time. Faulkner’s muse clocked in at nine. Does yours have a time?

Which isn’t to say ritual is easy. Rewarding ain’t ever easy. Me, I’m distracted by shiny objects or Pressing Issues, and I’m habitually quick to snap flow for minor research or editing. Some days I fight for a complete thought, let alone a compelling sentence. Those are the times I need ritual most. Otherwise, sooner or later I’d get up from the chair. And stay gone.

Grandma Fischer taught me better than that.

first published in The Crime Scene (SinC Middle Tennessee)

2 replies on “Shortstops, Libraries and Tyler Avenue”

Well said, Bob. Often my most productive days are the ones that start with me depressed and sure that I have nothing to say. But, if you exercise the muscle and keep the faith, good things can happen.

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