How & When Writers Do It

How & When Writers Do It

Arts May 11, 2013 / By Susan K. Perry
How & When Writers Do It

What makes words flow? Some authors and poets swear by a highly particular writing ritual. Others swear they don't do anything special to get to that place where the words begin pouring forth.

Some time back I questioned, in depth, a large number of novelists and poets (76 in all). Nearly all had won awards for their writing or were bestselling authors. When they described their creative process to me, most mentioned some sort of routine. 

Not all writers concede that their routine is vital or important, or even that it matters all that much. Some, though, are aware that the activities they pursue pre-writing do matter. I suspect that the majority of the rest do what they do so routinely that their "rituals" are no longer on a conscious level.

The particulars of a writer's rituals may be perceived as somewhat fetish-like. Whatever has worked in the past will work every time, right? Mustn't deviate. Habits become entrenched, writing happens, and before you know it, you're in flow.


We may not be able to distinguish between genuine rituals and what some say are "just" routines. One author might typically re-read the work from the day before, and another might hold rather superstitiously to only writing in a certain notebook by hand. Superstitions related to types of pen and paper may be akin to thinking a rock keeps devils at bay, and being afraid to try to live without the rock (or like prayer or wearing a lucky dress or carrying a rabbit's foot). Some routines, though, such as carving out a space that is free of distractions, unplugging the phone, and having coffee nearby, obviously serve the purpose of helping shift consciousness from the everyday to the writer's imaginative world. Such routines make flow possible.

As Dana Reinhardt, an author of young adult novels, said in a recent interview,

I think inspiration only comes in the middle of writing. I think thinking about writing doesn't work; writing works. And the act of writing is when the inspired moments come, I believe.

When I discussed flow entry with writers, music came up again and again. It may be that one or more of the senses has come to be associated with flow entry, maybe related to the fact that the senses operate from a different part of the brain than the logical part. Flip on the music, smell the incense, taste the tea, whatever—perhaps that helps many writers make the switch from active thinking to "letting it come."


Here's a fact that helps explain how flow is experienced: when I've spoken with writers, they are often unable to describe their most recent writing-in-flow experience. What they tend to do, instead, is describe what they think of as a "typical" writing experience, or all typical writing experiences. Which reminds me of how sex is experienced.

When I fell in love with my husband, I could, at any time of the day, recall the last time or two of making love. Each single intimate event stood out as unique, special. As time went by, I began not to be able to distinguish the sessions so readily. While each was enjoyable and much looked-forward-to and happily recalled for a while, separate incidents were less easily distinguished after some time had passed.

It's the same with flow. As the writer gets into a routine, he or she begins to lose recall of particular writing sessions, except for the especially unusual ones, the peak experiences, the ones undertaken in a new place or inspired by something unusual. As with sleep, too, who remembers how they feel asleep last Wednesday? But you might recall the night you stayed up to watch the sunrise, or the time you slept on your friend's couch, or the time, decades earlier, that you slept overnight in a park with your boyfriend because you'd been locked out of the dorm.

And so it is more efficient to simply get on with it, then to use all that mental energy thinking about it and planning it. Which doesn't make sex, or sleep, or creative writing, any less mysterious or valuable. Just harder to talk about.



Ursula K. Le Guin spoke about her writing process at a reading I attended at a library more than a dozen years ago:

I would rather be writing all the time. It's what I enjoy most. But I need time for the well to refill. I have an inner Germanic spirit that says, 'You should be working all the time.'
I get up, have breakfast, pet the cat, pet the cat extensively (it's an old cat), remove the cat from my lap, sit down to my notebook or computer. If the writing's not going well, I pet the cat, find a little housework or pet the cat some more. When the work's going well, I write my head off till noon, then stop and have lunch. I work three or four hours at a stretch.

 I found it telling that when I interviewed Le Guin myself, by mail, soon after that, she described her daily routine more mysteriously than that. She didn't mention the cat at all.

Other posts that discuss ways writers do it:

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Susan is the author of KYLIE'S HEEL (Humanist Press, 8/2013). Follow her on Twitter @bunnyape

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