Writing and the Creative Life: Routine or Ritual?

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Synopsis

A look at the routines and rituals that allow writers to get creative.

I am fascinated by creativity, in particular how creativity manifests itself in the wide variety of people I meet or learn about. That has been one of the more intriguing aspects of the many interviews with writers I’ve been fortunate enough to do this year.

Those of you who follow those interviews likely will have noticed I ask each writer a few of the same questions about their process, including this one: How do you write? Because that really is where the rubber hits the road, where creativity becomes productivity.

The responses in the interviews, of course, have been varied. Some writers are like Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part 2, Identity Thief, The Hangover Part III) and don’t seem to want or need a defined pattern:

I have goals, and I just feel like it doesn’t matter how I get there. If I get there I get there. I have an office. Sometimes I write at home. Sometimes I go to the office. Sometimes if I’m feeling antsy I’ll go write in a public space. Sometimes I write at night, sometimes during the day. Sometimes I write hours at a time. Sometimes it’s 20 minutes. The one thing about me that’s been consistent in the 17 years I’ve been doing this is in eight weeks I’ll have a screenplay. I’m very good that way. I don’t dick around. Knowing that, I can say to myself, “Well, not happening today. Not writing,” Because I know that doesn’t mean the script is not going to get written. The script always gets written.

But most writers I interview do have a writing routine. Julia Hart, who wrote the upcoming movie The Keeping Room, has an approach I’ve heard many times:

I write for about 6 to 7 hours everyday. I’m trying to be better about taking breaks, but that’s the part that I’m working on, is figuring out where to take the breaks during the day. I write pretty solidly every day, all day.

The idea of writing every day is a common one and what’s interesting is how much of a routine this can become for a writer. Liz W. Garcia, writer-director of The Lifeguard and writer-producer of the TNT TV series “Memphis Beat,” says this:

It pains me when a day goes by when I don’t write. I hate it. There are other things of course, there’s the weekends, or days when we have a lot of meetings or something, but I try to be writing every day.

Routine almost as compulsion. Arash Amel, who wrote the upcoming movie Grace of Monaco, noted this:

I write every day. It’s a sickness. If I don’t write, it’s like I haven’t had my shot of whiskey in the morning. By the way, I don’t drink when I write. Except coffee. Two espressos, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. [laughs] I write 9 AM through 6 or 7 PM. So, it really is a job, with its own structure and pace.

It’s own structure and pace. When I hear that, I begin to wonder are we talking about routine… or ritual? This place we go to in order to write. These little patterns like two espressos. Not one, two. Amel expressed another piece of the creative puzzle I have heard a lot in my interviews — music:

I have to play music. That’s the one thing. I will be blasting soundtracks and I like to make playlists of soundtracks and all kinds of things for a particular project. It’ll be of practical film music, stuff without words, which kinds of sets the mood, and so on. I’ll compile those playlists, and they’ll keep evolving for each particular project.

Eric Heisserer, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, The Thing, and the upcoming movie Hours which he wrote and directed, adds simply this:

I work in private at my home office. I write to scores. I write to a lot of instrumental music.

I think of my own offices, home and university, how I have created these type of shrines at each, my desks cluttered with objects of meaning attached to stories I’ve written, stories I’m writing, talismans toward which I can turn my gaze or pick up and handle, touchstones to keep me grounded in my creative flow.

That suggests going beyond routine to ritual. Perhaps we need both. Routine ensures we put ourselves into a position where we can engage our story and produce pages. But creativity is not about producing widgets. No matter how much we think we understand a story or have figured it out, the fact is stories are organic by nature. Thus finally, what we do when we write a story is try to wrangle magic. And while the routine creates the opportunity to reach out for the magic, perhaps it’s those rituals which help us get there by tacitly acknowledging a key fact: We are putting our trust in something beyond ourselves.

This story universe, these characters, their unique personal histories and how all of that plays out in the narrative unfolding in that mystical place between where they live and our own imagination, all of that somehow infused with magic.

Some of us don’t need routine. Some of us do. The admonition to write every day is perhaps the single best piece of advice for any writer, aspiring or professional. But let’s not forget about ritual. They may exist in our writing life even if we’re not conscious of them… whether it’s a shrine of talismans, the need for instrumental music, or a daily dose of two espressos.

For an interesting article, check out this article from The Creativity Post: “How & When Writers Do it,” by Susan K. Perry who talks about routine, ritual and flow.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

Featured image: Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo writing in his bathtub.

This post originally appeared at Go Into the Story.
 

Tags: creative routines, creativity in action, go into the story, ritual, writing

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