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Supercharge your creativity with writing rituals

Creativity is often portrayed as a lightning bolt, a thunderclap, a divine spark from the heavens.

That’s not surprising when you consider that the word ‘inspiration’ comes from the Latin word ‘inspirare’ (‘to breathe or blow into’) implying a divine composer at work.

But beneath this romanticised notion lies the reality that creativity thrives on matters far more mundane – like discipline, structure, and consistency.

Routines and rituals can thus pave a path towards greater creativity and productivity.

What are writing rituals?

A writing ritual is any set of actions that you perform before, during, or after, you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be).

Whether it’s brewing a pot of coffee, lighting a candle, or pressing ‘play’ on a Tibetan singing bowl soundtrack, writing rituals can help you to settle your monkey mind, marshal your energy, focus your attention, and make the best use of your time.  

There’s no ‘right’ writing ritual. It’s what works for you.

Some common ‘opening’ writing rituals include going for a walk or swimming laps before writing.

Others include completing morning pages, journalling, engaging with writing prompts, repeating affirmations, sharpening pencils, drawing tarot cards, meditating, burning incense, rearranging a vision board, or reading a few pages of a favourite book.

‘Closing’ rituals at the end of the day can be just as important as those that occur at the start.

They draw a line underneath the day’s work, easing the transition to rest or play.

Closing writing rituals might include tidying up the workspace, making notes about what’s been completed or needs to be done the next day, doodling, or engaging in a series of stretches.

Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, looked at the work of more than 150 novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, and considered how they compelled themselves to write.

He concluded that rituals “can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources”, including time, willpower, self-discipline, and optimism.

Why do writing rituals work?

Writing rituals are effective for a wide range of reasons:

1. Writing rituals calm the chaos

They provide structure, order and stability amid the uncertainty, vulnerability, and instability of any creative endeavour.

Writing rituals provide something you can count on, amid all the practical, logistical and other questions that arise on a daily basis.

Does this idea have legs? Can I execute this idea effectively? Will I get paid this week? This month? Ever?

In The Luminous Solution, author Charlotte Wood notes that routines and rituals maintain ‘a consoling sense of order around the essential chaos of the creative process’. Prefacing any writing session with familiar rituals makes it easier to enter a flow state and access deeper levels of inspiration.

2. Writing rituals reduce decision fatigue

It’s estimated that adults make around 35,000 decisions a day. In psychology, decision fatigue refers to the physical, mental and emotional depletion we experience when we’re constantly having to choose between different courses of action. Decision-making drains energy, leads to poor choices such as procrastination, impulsivity, avoidance and indecision, and tips us towards over-reliance on shortcuts (which, for travel writers, is when cliches like ‘hidden gem’ and ‘city of contrasts’ start to rear their heads).

Reducing decision fatigue allows us to be more intentional about the work we do. Establishing set times in which to work and how to approach, conduct and end the working day, can thus expand the space available for making creative choices. Rick Rubin, author of The Creative Act, points out that Albert Einstein wore the same thing (a grey suit) every day for this reason. ‘The more you reduce your daily life maintenance tasks, the greater the bandwidth available for creative decisions,’ he wrote. ‘Limit your practical choices to free your creative imagination.’

3. Writing rituals tell our brains it’s time to work

I spent a couple of years working in Queensland’s Quitline service. What does this have to do with writing rituals? A big part of the smoking cessation counsellor’s role is helping clients figure out what people, places or situations trigger their seemingly irresistible desire to light a cigarette. For some smokers, the cue, or trigger, was sipping a morning coffee, for others, it was after work drinks, or getting in the car, or talking on the phone, or watching TV, or catching up with friends.

Cues put our brains into auto drive, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. They tell us which behaviour to perform and then, after we perform it, we receive our reward. (For smokers, it’s shutting up those screaming nicotine receptors in the brain; for writers, it’s seeing the completed words of pages mount up.) Over time, a self-reinforcing loop is amplified. ‘The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges,’ Duhigg writes. Writers can take advantage of this quirk of brain circuitry to build a powerful writing habit.

4. Writing rituals build self-trust.

No-one cares about your writing as much as you do. By carving out time and space for writing, you’re re-affirming your commitment to your craft, day after day after day. Can’t find time to write? Read this. Writing rituals serve as anchors during times (many times) of self-doubt or uncertainty, providing comfort and reassurance. They build resilience in the face of rejection and criticism. They quell fear. Writing in Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says that ‘fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun.’ Writing rituals draw a line in the sand that says, ‘This is what matters. To me, at least.’

Writing rituals support you in showing up for yourself, no matter what else is going on. ‘You have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock you must write,’ says Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer. Writing rituals help us bypass the desire to seek external validation. For freelance writing can be a crapshoot at the best of times. Pitches fall flat, editors move on, publications fold. Stories I’ve poured my heart and soul into get passed over, while those that have bored me from the get-go somehow find enthusiastic readers. It doesn’t matter. Just do the work.

5. Writing rituals put you directly in the path of the muse.

There are writers like Matthew Reilly who write only when they feel like it and good luck to them. I have to sit down and do the work no matter whether I feel like it or not. So too did the highly disciplined Jack London, who turned out 50 books before his premature death at age 40. In his 1905 essay, he suggested, ‘Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it.’

That said, there remains something magical, mystical and mysterious about sitting down to work every day. Writing rituals help the Girls in the Basement do their best work. They let the Muse (whoever and whatever that is) know we’re serious about what we’re doing. ‘Power concentrates around us,’ wrote Steven Pressfield in The War of Art. ‘The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favour in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.’

And inspiration knocks.

Over to you: What are your must-do writing rituals?

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