The Rituals of Work

The last couple of days, I’ve been writing about work. I’ve written about how sprints help me do my best creative work and about the meditative benefits of more process-oriented tasks, which got me thinking about the way I work and the rituals I find myself going through in preparation and execution.

Writers are creatures of ritual. From the (most likely apocryphal) standing ritual of Hemingway to Elmore Leonard’s long-handed scrawl on legal paper, it seems like every famous writer has an equally famous ritual. Why are writers so closely associated with ritual? Well, it probably has to do more with the solitary aspirations of would-be writers than of the writers themselves. But people who put words together for public consumption are by no means the only ones. Pick up almost any business culture magazine – Fast Company, Inc., whatever – you’ll find article after article on productivity highlighting the work rituals and habits of successful people.

I have discovered my rituals by observation, not design. I never set out to plan the way I work, but I do tend to do the same things over and over, especially when it comes to writing. There’s nothing magical about them, but all the recent thinking about work got me to notice things in a new way. Here’s a list of some of my rituals.

  1. Laptop, not pen. I write my daily journal long-hand with a fountain pen. I like a medium nib, something heavy. And I like non-ruled notebook paper. When I write, I do it on a laptop, never the desktop down in the basement. I like the idea of being able to move around, even if I never do. I write in Apple’s Pages, but back things up to Evernote. There’s just something about Word… it brings back memories of past stress.
  2. Coffee to my right. It doesn’t matter the time of day – early morning or late at night – when I sit down to write there is always a fresh cup of coffee about five inches from my right pinky. No real rhyme or reason here, just habit. Every time I put the coffee down on the left, it feels misplaces. The coffee can be from anywhere – home, the office, Starbucks or a gas station (I’ve drank a lot of gas station coffee). I may not even drink it, just the odd couple of sips. But it is always – and I mean always – there.
  3. Music directly in my ears. I wear a pair of earbuds because I won’t notice the weight. I listen to the same albums over and over. Every book, every article, every blog post or white paper, it’s one of three albums: Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver” or Andrew Bird’s “Armchair Apocrypha.” Not only are they my favorite albums, I have listened to them so many times I can ignore them. Plus, I’ve listened to them enough that I fall into the rhythms of the songs. I need noise when I’m writing. Silence makes my mind wander. I also need focused noise. I’ve tried listening through speakers, no dice. Ambient noise isn’t predictable enough. I need regular noise.
  4. First sentences first. Sounds obvious, but my early training as a newspaper reporter ingrained in me a need for a solid lede. If I have a first sentence in my head, everything else just flows. If I only have an idea instead of an articulated beginning, I’m all over the place. I need a first sentence. It’s the basis for all that follows. I spent more than a year researching my first book and tried writing as I went along. It wasn’t until that first sentence solidified that I could really get to work. It sets the tone, focuses the perspective. It’s vital. The first sentence of that book about Oliver Hazard Perry and the War of 1812? “I should have rented the golf cart.” Yeah, what follows from that is pretty true to that first idea.
  5. Lean in. When I’m writing and writing well, I’m hunched over the keys. I’m at the front of the chair, feet crossed below me, elbows leaning on the desk. I’m as into it as I hope the reader will be when they sit down.
  6. Notebook and pen nearby. Never used, but I like having them there just in case.
  7. No research. I know a lot of writers who research as they write. They listen to interviews, reference written materials, check notes. I can’t do it. It all has to be done ahead of time. I am a  creature of habitual groove. I have all the research in my head when I sit down to write, I’ve memorized the quotes, I know the facts. If I get tripped up, it’s time to stop writing and do more homework. I can always check things when I’m done.
  8. No editing on the fly. I don’t edit when I write. I write. I don’t go back and read what I’ve written the day I’ve written it. I might fix a typo or fill in a missed word, but, for me, writing is a head-down run up the middle. No time or sense in looking back until the play is over.
  9. No talking. When I’m writing, I need focus. It’s reason I write in sprints. Don’t talk to me, I’ll probably ignore you. If I’m lost in my mind – as I need to be in order to write – I become oblivious to the outside world. I don’t mean to be a dick, but if I do stop to talk to you, I’m done. The folks at work laugh about this. They joke that they can tell when I’m in the office in body only. They’re right. I can’t help it. It’s just the way my brain works. When I’ve finished a thought, I’m more than happy to chat with you. I love people. But if I’ve stopped in mid-flow, I’m done and I feel like a failure for the rest of the day.

That’s about it. I don’t have many rituals, but these are things I find myself doing or needing when I write. Do you have habits? I’d love to know. But, please, spare me the Hemingway story. If he did write standing up, it was probably just because the room would start spinning if he sat down.

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