Friday, March 8, 2013

Rules & Rituals

I'm not a big rules person. Oh, I believe in the Golden Rule and all that other good stuff I learned and have been (trying to) faithfully practice since Kindergarten. But when it comes to writing and life, there is no one size fits all rule book. So my advice to clients and students: forget every rule all those well meaning teachers, friends and self-help articles gave you.

Here's a sampling of some of my favorite iron-clad concepts that I've buried in wisdom's backyard: you have to write every day; never read anything while you're immersed in a project; read every single thing you can put your eyes on, only write what you know; never write from the opposite gender's p.o.v; never write in the present tense; set the scene with explicit physical descriptions; limit physical descriptions; never use adverbs!

The rules are endless. And some make sense for some people some of the time. But none of them work for everyone all the time. And since most of my clients and students are folks who have little writing experience, haven't written in a quite some time or are battling artistic blocks, handing them a list of restrictive rules seems counter-intuitive. What I try to do instead is provide prompts and offer suggestions. I encourage people to try different approaches. Play, experiment, see what fits, what works for you.

While I eschew rules, I am a believer in rituals. Not that there's a rule about it, of course, but I find developing rituals--and for me I often change them to ensure their freshness and effectiveness--help me fall into a positive, creative groove.

When I'm in a writing funk ( yeah even coaches and teachers get stuck), I will fall back on some of the practices I embraced years ago following Julia Cameron's principles in "The Artist's Way." The biggest among them: the dreaded "Morning Pages." When I first started that program, I found it difficult--no--excruciating to have to scribble three long hand stream-of-consciousness pages every single morning. For one thing--despite a checkered radio career that included hosting not one, but two morning drive shows, I am not, by nature, a morning kind of gal. I also found that rather than producing anything resembling Virginia Woolf's famed style, the pages had an early laundry list quality with a disgruntled overtone.

But after a week or so, I got into a groove and the writing started to contain glimmers of meaning and inspiration. Not that I follow this practice religiously. I go through journal writing jags; and when I do it it's usually at night. That works for me. If you're like some of my students who just can't cope with morning pages in the morning, try them at night. See if that works.

Music is also a big part of my writing process. I usually have the radio or a CD on while I'm writing. And often before I start, I'll listen to a particular song. The song often changes depending on the project. For a while, I'd listen to the entire disc I of Van Morrison's "Hymns to the Silence" before even tackling a single word. Somehow this musical meditation lured me into the characters' interior lives. It was a little time consuming, and it may have been a subconscious stall tactic. But for a time, it worked, so I indulged myself.

I've experimented with when and where I write, too. I wrote most of the first draft of my first novel at Starbucks in long hand. Much of the second one, too. I always write my first drafts in long hand. And since I need a Rosetta Stone to transcribe my own handwriting, I am motivated to hit the computer for the first re-write immediately if not sooner.

I've had clients who need to wear a particular sweater, write at a certain time of day, eat the same breakfast, go for a swim or walk before or after writing, surround themselves with good luck talismans, read a bible passage, open a fortune cookie. Hey, I'm from the whatever works school.

Just remember as a rule, there are no rules when it comes to rituals.

Cheers and onward,


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