Writers, like actors, often bring elaborate ritual and routine to their craft. We may favor a certain time of day or a specific location or require accompaniments like coffee or tea or music or silence.
Everything has to be “just so” in order for the creativity to flow.
But in the real world we don’t always have the luxury of choosing the time and place where we write.
Writing Amid Chaos
I was reminded of this recently when I was working on a major client project. They were announcing an acquisition, so it was a bunch of us locked in a windowless conference room for four weeks.
We churned out draft after draft of speeches, presentations, emails, video scripts, talking points, FAQs, timetables and a host of other documents.
(This, along with my move to a new house, is what’s kept me otherwise occupied for the past month.)
The atmosphere was one of constant noise and interruption. People talking back and forth, asking each other for stray bits of information (“Are we calling employees ‘associates’ or ‘team members?'”), the client coming in with news that changes everything you’re doing. You know, basic chaos.
And I had to write some pretty important things, like the CEO’s messages to 200,000+ employees.
It was hard to concentrate. But you know what? I put my head down and just did the work. I cranked stuff out like a machine. And, remarkably, some of it was pretty good. A video script I wrote for him had just a single word change!
Our Rituals Are an Excuse
So that reinforced for me that very often all these rituals and traditions and props we cling to are just security blankets. Or worse, sometimes they serve as a convenient excuse to procrastinate.
I can’t write because the coffeemaker’s broken/the dog is barking/it’s too noisy/it’s too quiet/etc.
How I Switched Up My Routine
I started letting go of these conditions a couple of years ago when I wrote my first book. I always considered myself a morning writer, and that’s still when I enjoy writing the most.
But I wrote that whole book in the late afternoon/evening hours.
Every day I would take off work around 5, walk over to the corner Argo Tea, grab a chair outside (this was summer), and write (or revise) another chapter.
It was a fantastic experience. In some ways, I suppose, I traded one ritual (morning in my apartment with coffee) for another (evening at the cafe with tea), but it was important to learn that I could do great work at another time and in another place.
And, of course, under any circumstance, as in a crowded, stuffy conference room. Or right now, for instance. As I write this first draft, a guy is steam cleaning the upstairs carpet and this big ugly machine is 10 feet from my office howling at me like a banshee:
Sure, I could have locked myself in the basement, but I thought I ought to put my money where my mouth is and endure it.
Shake Up Your Process
So if you’re a writer and you have a lot of favorite rituals of your own, I’d recommend shaking things up and letting go of your ideal scenario. You might just find you’re not as dependent on all those conditions as you think you are.
Who knows? You might find an even better time and place to do your writing.