“ Routine is the condition of survival.” – Flannery O’Connor
Is ritual necessary to the making of art? I hear arguments on both sides. While I have recently heard several writers I respect more or less say that for them writing rituals are anathema, the truth is that artists throughout history have settled themselves into the necessary frame of mind and physical space by marking the time set aside for the practice of their craft with some type of highly personal ritual. And it appears as though the having of a ritual is more the norm than not having one, at least that is one thing I gathered from exploring Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Curry.
One of Curry’s goals with the book is to “show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.” In essence, it is these small, often seemingly insignificant, routines and rituals that box off the incremental bits of time necessary to make art, that in fact create the space between daily life and artistic practice which allow an artist to set aside not only the time, but her very self, to become an instrument in service to her unique gift.
The word routine suggests the idea of merely going through the motions or even a lack of engagement with the task at hand. But Curry makes the point that daily routines or rituals surrounding one’s creative practice are also choices and that “in the right hands, [these choices] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.” In other words the routine or ritual signifies the settling down to the task at hand, it initiates the habitual practice which will allow the work to commence, proceed and ultimately finish. It is a signal to the body and the mind that “it is time.” Thus, for certain artists, rituals can be an essential component in their creative processes. And these rituals or routines are as widely diverse as the artists who practice them and Curry’s book is an enjoyable wealth of examples of the diverse ways in which all sorts of artists approach the time designated to engage their work.
I confess to having a simple ritual for accomplishing my writing, and while it is assuredly less colorful than some others, it is no less effective in enabling me to achieve an openness of body, mind, and spirit in which I can create.
My ritual begins with an obnoxious alarm, which does a pretty decent job of dragging me out of bed at 5 a.m. on most mornings. After a valiant effort at my morning meditation, it’s a solitary coffee and breakfast during which I spend about 30 minutes reading — this nutritional caffeinated interlude is essential to promote blood flow to my still somnambulent brain – at the end of which I am ready to pay a visit to my novel.
The room where I write is dark. I light a fragrant candle, bless myself, and say a prayer for guidance in my work. The candle and prayer are essential reminders that I am beholden for the gift of my art and that whatever I manage to craft must bear light within it.
Then it’s time for poetry, which at the moment happens to be a moment’s rest reading selections from Averno, by Louise Gluck. I read somewhere that a writer should read a poem a day to keep her use of language supple and facile and I think this is wise advice. Prefacing my writing time in the company of a brilliant word-artist is the mental equivalent to stretching before lifting weights. Words used with precision fire strong images and sensations in my mind, speeding access to the as yet undiscovered store of words, ideas, and pictures waiting to be chosen to bring the world I am creating to life.
Then I simply write as much as I can on my own project for 15 or 20 minutes. At the end of my allotted writing time, I save what I’ve written, say a prayer in thanksgiving for the work I’ve been able to do, blow out the candle, and walk back to the world outside my imagination to begin my day as mom-teacher-wife and all that entails. Far from feeling routine, these simple daily habits leading up to and through my writing time immediately prepare my mind, limber up my imagination, and open an emotional and spiritual space to encounter the strange mystery of the creative process. They enable me to persevere in finding my way through the fictional world and characters I am creating. From my own experience I can say that having a ritual attached to my writing practice reminds me what I’m about and signals to my brain and heart that the time to work and “be” in the world of my novel is NOW.
This doesn’t mean that I am unable to write without the ritual, however, and I think this is an important point, because I hear other writers suggest that there is some sort of superstition attached to having a writing ritual, that it limits you to creating only against the backdrop of the ritual and conditions you to need or believe certain things about your artistic practice without which you hamstring yourself and so are unable to accomplish your work in the absence of said ritual. The mind is a vast and mysterious enterprise and certain temperaments or personalities are extremely susceptible to stimuli. For these individuals to align themselves and their creative practice to a routine or habit may make it impossible for them to do the work of art if their lives or circumstances change suddenly and the ritual becomes impossible or the space becomes unavailable or the object associated with their ritual is lost or destroyed. I like Bernard Malamud’s perspective on ritual as quoted in Curry’s book. Clearly, he sees value in rituals and routines, but emphasizes there is no substitution for hard work and self-knowledge.
“There’s no one way — there’s too much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place — you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time — not steal it — and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually, everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.”
It is up to each artist to ensure that the work takes priority over any ritual and that she is able to write in the absence of the ritual simply because the work must be done. After all, in my day-job, I must show up even if I do not have the right outfit or am missing some of my materials. The principle of committing to and accomplishing the work must take precedence over any “accessory” that inspires or motivates the worker.
That said, rituals can be of great assistance to certain artists. It’s all in how you think of them. In her book Pen On Fire, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett says that “rituals help us to change modes.” She compares a writer’s ritual and what it accomplishes to her actions upon entering a Catholic church, whereupon she immediately dips her finger into the holy water font and blesses herself. This simple act “helps me transition to a more spiritual place,” writes DeMarco-Barrett. “For writers, rituals counteract inertia and trigger the desire to write.” And for some writers, this is the golden ticket. For though writers may disagree on the importance of or even the need for ritual, no writer will ever tell you that it is easy to keep her butt in the chair – to even GET to the chair – to sit down to write. It is one of the most challenging aspects of the craft and no writer I’ve ever met has found it easy to WANT the pain of what writing really is, as opposed to the romantic notions we conceive when we aren’t actually doing the work. And this perhaps more than any other reason is a strong case for building ritual into your artistic practice – because it helps you to be and do what you are meant for. That’s a tall order, but the ritual helps us rise to the challenge.
The word ritual itself suggests formality. It even sounds religious. Ritual implies the act it signifies as being special and important, worthy of ceremony. We have ritual ceremonies for all of the special and important events in our communal lives as humans: We have rituals surrounding the swearing-in of witnesses, judges, and heads of state; rituals surrounding childbirth and death, commencements and weddings, birthdays and gala benefits. Rituals signify that the event we are participating in is something worthy of notice and that by our participation in the event we are in some sense “becoming” something other than what we are or were before. Rituals signify movement from one state of being to another.
The practice of creating art can and should be elevated to an act worthy of ritual, even if that means the ritual is carried out by the artist in solitude. The mere fact that an artist has a ritual implies and signifies an awareness of the importance of the creative act and the need to be very clearly present to the mystery inherent in that act, as well as to the mysterious transformation of self within the act.
In her diary, Virginia Woolf touches on this in a subtle, numinous way. She writes: “It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced in the raw. One must get out of life . . . one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain. . . [W]hen I write I’m merely a sensibility.” (Tuesday, August 22nd, 1922) in this, Woolf alludes to the practice of living in the present moment. Rituals can accomplish this, enabling the writer to be focused on the task at hand, with all its attendant requirements, open to the unfolding mystery of creation. If I believe the practice of my art is a sacred act, something like praying, my writing ritual is capable of “transitioning me to [that] more spiritual place” which DeMarco-Barrett refers to, and in some way opens me to receive inspiration. My writing ritual allows me to escape mental chaos and distraction by placing me in the now, attentive only to what flows from some unknown place in my imagination to become the words on the page. It is an experience of seamless, quiet focus. It is the beginning of the practice of the presence of God. My ritual leads me to create from a place of prayer. All art can be a prayer when carried out with an eye towards being in the present moment. Writing rituals and the act of creativity itself are then elevated to something sacred and the ritual signifies the importance of the act.
Regardless of the oddity or seeming banality of the artistic ritual, the goal seems to be to open the artist, to move her out of absorption with the self, thus allowing her to become a conduit to the act of creation. And this is a worthwhile goal to have, any way you accomplish it.
Portions of this piece originally appeared on Persephone Writes.