You know how you eat too much turkey every year, or that third helping of mashed yams? You eat more than you want. You have to spend weeks speed-walking to lose the pounds gained in just a few days...and yet, next year, you do it all over again?
Well, it's possible to replace bad rituals with good, healthy ones. It's easier to replace a bad habit than just stop it--because that bad habit was doing something for you, or you wouldn't bother. I learned that while taking off 50 pounds this last year--white knuckling a problem can't last more than a few weeks, but replacing bad habits and rituals with good ones gets you working for yourself, instead of fighting yourself.
I've developed a number of non-writing rituals over the years, but thanks to the help of friends, fellow writers and a shrink or two, am moving away from them. Here's some of my biggest non-writing rituals, and how I'm letting go of them.
1. Talking instead of writing.
There's often a pre-writing period for any project. At this time, various parts of your brain toss an idea around. Your unconscious spits something up into your subconscious mind, manifesting as a vivid dream or 2:00 AM scribbled note. Then your conscious minds shakes the concept, bolts on a few temporary scaffolds, and dumps it back into the nether regions, rather like stones in a polishing barrel. Eventually something comes out that you can't ignore anymore, and you start writing things in permanent files on the computer.
During this vulnerable stage, I would often tell my husband all about my brilliant ideas. This drained my writing energy, and invited unqualified comments at a vulnerable stage. A writing mentor (thank you Mr. Landau!) mentioned this to me, and so now I write my stories instead of telling them. Like with any sudden change in behavior, I warned my husband what I was trying to do. Now he cheerfully busts me when I slip up.
2. Comparing myself to famous authors
This ritual is another way to cripple up my inner artist. Perhaps I was frightened of the commitment of being a writer, or the terror of being a failure, or just not used to how different my dream novel is from the one that ends up on the page. Whatever the real reason for self-injury, comparing myself to Robert Parker or Dashiell Hammett and finding myself wanting was a very effective non-writing ritual. After dwelling long enough on just all the ways I was deficient, it felt impossibly difficult to start a single sentence.
Nowadays I try to notice if I'm scared, and give myself a mental hug instead of a mental beat-down. On especially bad days, a short stroll through my old writing is enough to convince me that I'm improving--and the only way to get better is to write more. Plus, I'm lucky enough to have friends who will remind me that nobody can be Robert Parker or Dashiell Hammett--and nobody can be me either. Comparisons are odious, as John Lydgate said (and Cervantes and Marlowe and Donne!).
3. Not Writing
This is the most insidious not-writing ritual of all. Every day that I don't write is a ritual exercise in not writing, and ritual can become astonishingly powerful with repetition--that's why we invented them, after all. Now, what "every day" means to you is undoubtedly different than what it means to me, and it is almost never literally seven days a week for anyone. But like any exercise, if you stop for a week--you've really stopped. Not writing has become your daily ritual. Of course there are times in life when you can't write--a sick loved one needs succor, an arduous book tour wakes you up at 6:00 AM and won't let you sleep until midnight, changing jobs eats all your creative and intellectual energy, or moving homes or survivng natural disasters. The big things can occasionally push you into not writing for a bit.
The best way to break out of this most powerful of rituals is, for me, the same way I broke out of a lifetime of poor eating habits. I learned them from the UCSF Nutrition folks. They are the habits of people who've lost 100 or more pounds and kept them off for five years or more, slightly modified for writing:
-- Write it down. Just like NaNoWriMo, log your writing hours, how you were feeling, how easy or hard it was to show up to the keyboard. Not as a form of punishment, but as data. Our memories are too kind, our rationalization powers very great. A good, honest log will help you ask the right questions--what happened last week? What did I make more important than my writing? Can I change that priority?
-- Measure it. Using the scale regularly fights self-delusion. Check the size of your novel once a week. And don't punish yourself for missing goals, but adjust the goals, look for root causes when you fall short. Treat yourself kindly, like a doctor would. But don't ignore the facts.
-- Plan it. You don't eat healthy by accident. Just as I had to learn to plan a weekly menu, shop for only the things on my list, and develop my "no" muscle when the inevitable temptations arose, I had to plan my writing time. Every life has some complicating factor. For me, it's my challenging, changeable, and surprisingly stressful day job. Step one was that I had to start blocking out my calendar. No meetings before 9am, because I'm home writing from 5-7:30. No mid-week latenight adventures, because I can't get up at 5:00 AM if I went to bed at midnight the night before.
I'm still getting to "done" with these replacement rituals. And I'm hoping to see my word counts rise just as I've seen my weight shrink and my health improve. If you want to drop-kick your non-writing rituals, try anything in this post and see if it works for you. You'll know when you're on to something. Just don't give up.
During this holiday season, I wish this for everyone--healthier rituals, more love and compassion, and time to enjoy the friends and family whom you love and cherish.