The thing about rituals is that they are usually grow out of efforts performed in the hope of achieving some sort of desired result. If they work, they endure and become very important. Whenever I hear the word ritual, I usually think of ceremonies, religious and otherwise, but it applies to writing as well.
I remember reading about the modern master, Elmore Leonard, who worked for years working as a teacher while trying to make it as a writer. He would purportedly get up at five every morning to write, and would not even turn on his coffee-maker until he’d typed that first line. Isaac Asimov used to keep several typewriters in a room, each with a different writing project in the roller. If he got stuck on one, he’d simply move to the next one and resume writing. Both Ernest Hemingway and John D. McDonald would cease writing each time by stopping in the middle of a sentence. This provided them with instant momentum when they resumed. Obviously, it worked well for each of them. The key is finding one that works for you.
As far as writing rituals for myself, I’d have to say I definitely have them, but mine change from time to time and project to project. Back in the day, I had an old Underwood Typewriter that I bought at a second hand store. It was the same type of machine that the great masters like Hammett and Chandler had used back in the days when writers were writers. Can you imagine the dedication of these men in typing out an entire manuscript on one of those old, manual typewriters? Think about having to retype an entire page if you made a mistake. No wonder their stuff was so much better than a lot of the homogenous prose of today.
But I digress. As I was saying, I had this old, Underwood Typewriter, but I wasn’t a very proficient typist. I’d managed to get through college as an undergrad by finding (and sometimes paying) young ladies to type my papers. Otherwise, I would be forced to hover above the old Underwood using the “hunt and peck” method. I got a little more proficient at typing in the army where all the reports had to be typewritten. We even had electric typewriters to aid in this endeavor. When I got back to civilian life, I was dismayed to recall that I’d loaned the old Underwood to a college girlfriend. But she’d put it to good use typing me a “Dear John Letter” when I was overseas. So, devoid of other avenues, I began writing in long hand. I would go to the library each night and write for two hours. The librarians never asked me what I was working on, but I’m sure they had some fun speculating. Looking back, this was my first writing ritual.
Eventually I took a typing course in my second college experience. I was working as a cop by night, and attending classes at a junior college by day. (This wasn’t as industrious as it sounds. I was using up my GI Bill and Illinois Veteran’s Scholarship benefits.) The typing course was one of the most difficult that I undertook. I literally had sweat forming on my brow each time we took one of the timed assignment tests on one of those typewriters with the blank keyboard. Each mistake was one point off. If it wasn’t for those sections of the tests about naming the parts of the typewriter, I would have barely passed. But pass I did, and emerged with a sense of accomplishment. It’s not just balderdash that I’m sometimes known informally as “The Fastest Keyboard in the Mid West.”
My new-found proficiency with typing spawned another writing ritual. I bought a Panasonic word processor and began typing out my novels and stories. I had the machine set up on a desk, with my dictionary and reference books on one side. As part of the ritual, stacks of handwritten notes, magazines folded to specific pages, and cut-out newspaper articles would also collect in stacks in this area as I proceeded to work. It was part of my ritual to catalog and sometimes throw away a lot of this research material after my project was completed. This got me through a couple of novels, quite a few short stories, and countless articles before it ran its course. Modification to my writing ritual was in order, and I found myself hovering over the machine as it printed out pages. I would collect them all, in order, and them reinsert them to make the headers, having to adjust the page number manually each time. Still, it was faster than using a typewriter.
Eventually, like all mechanical items that were built with a planned obsolescence in mind, the word processor broke down. I bought another one, and continued my writing rituals, but this one, too, succumbed to the inevitability of not having been built to last. (Plastic will never replace the sturdiness of the shiny black metal of that old Underwood.) So I moved on to a computer.
My first computer was a great learning tool. Unfortunately, I learned a little too much, and began doing some of my research on line. As much as I loved the convenience of e-mails, web surfing, and all the rest, I sadly realized that these things inadvertently cut into my actual writing time. With the Panasonic word processors and even the old Underwood, when I sat down at the desk it was to write. My writing ritual had morphed once again, requiring me to check e-mails and surf the net a bit before each writing session officially began.
The ritual underwent another transformation when I transitioned to a laptop. I found the convenience of being able to change locations to write very convenient. I love the mobility of the machine, and have developed a completely new writing ritual in a completely new room: the kitchen. I’m close to the coffee maker and microwave, so taking a quick lunch break during a writing session only requires a few steps. This was two or three books ago now, and I’m totally convinced that I’ve finally perfected my writing ritual. It works for me, and that’s all that counts.
I remember reading a sad footnote about Dashiell Hammett, who toward the end of his life, was interviewed by a reporter. Hammett hadn’t produced anything of quality in many years, but he kept an old Underwood typewriter in his room. The reporter saw it and asked if the father of the hardboiled school of mystery fiction was working on a new project.
“No,” Hammett said sadly. “I keep it around to remind myself I was once a writer.”
Like I said, rituals have their importance.