Writing Rituals and Totems

One thing I noticed during my time spent in and out of the NaNo forums was a few threads talking about writing rituals and writing totems. Now usually when I write, its in my favorite black chair with Smudge, the black Macbook, perched atop a laptop cart while my feet rest on a soft square meditation chair. I've surrounded myself with a few post-it notes stuck to the writing board regarding a few miscellaneous game ideas. A stack of books sit in the table portion of the tray waiting for me to read or grab one to search for a spark of inspiration. When I am at home, my hipsterPDA also sits up on that shelf, with a trusty pen so I can capture thoughts about my projects or other To-Dos that hit me at the random moments. This setting feeds the ritual that is my writing life.

When I go to this space to write, I close my eyes and focus myself on the task at hand. If it's writing an article, as I am doing so now, I take a few minutes to think about what my topic is and gather the bits of information on the topic that I have collected over the past week from websites, books or my own inner musings. This is part of my writing ritual. Sometimes, especially during NaNo, I plug in Quzpit the iPod or start a streaming internet station to listen to and let the music help guide my inner muse to crank out the publication. Often I light a scented candle or stick of incense (my favorite scent is Pumpkin Spice) which helps me further separate myself from daily reality by giving my senses something new to interact with.

This year brought me a new tradition. I have started collecting writing totems. A friend of mine bought me a plastic ninja figurine from a store she wandered into while visiting me. It's tiny and plastic and he has a red sash and looks like he's flying through the air giving an unknown target a punch. When she handed it to me, after having me shut my eyes tightly closed, she told me that it was a plot ninja and I was to keep it by my side during the time I wrote my novel. He's been in the crook of my laptop desk ever since. A few days later, eating a sugar boost of Dove-brand chocolates, I opened my small square piece of chocolate to discover this quote underneath:

The wind tells a story, listen.

How appropriate! The chocolate reminded me to listen to what the wind had to say, right before I sat down to start writing. Even though the chocolate is gone, the wrapper, now carefully smoothed out, sits under the plot ninja waiting to be read every time I come to my comfy chair to write. It too, has become one of my writing totems and part of my writing ritual. I also keep a particular tarot deck near my desk, the one that I've deemed is going to be my Creative Writing Brainstorm device(tm). Together these items constitute my writing totem kit that I will one day place in a special box or bag to easily carry with me no matter where ever I go.

A writing ritual and totem carries personal meaning. Everyone may have their own ritual, from simply putting on music as I do throughout the day, or closing the door to carve out the precious moments you have to write. It helps to gently draw out the Muse and give it just the right amount of peace and quite (or chaos) so that you can listen to her tell you how to write without letting your inner editor barrage in to tell you how dumb or wrong your writing seems. When you pay attention to the muse and write from the source of your creativity, you create pieces (journal entries, stories or poems) that carry your passion.

Totems, on the other hand, function as a physical device to help draw your muse out to play. They can be a favored set of fingerless gloves, someone made you; a funny hat that you wear (it's rumored that Chris Baty wears a Viking Helmet when he writes); or a stuffed bunny who wears a pirate scarf that sits next to you when you write. Totems give your hands something to touch and play and allows your mind to roam over the possibilities that the direction of your work can take. Getting writers block? Why not grab a book and read a random passage. I'm sure the exterior input generated by a book totem, will send an idea sparking through your head that you can use as a spring board to write. The plot ninja, which sat next to my desk... reminded me that no matter where my words went, I always had something to write about. Occasionally, when my mind pauses to think before writing something down, I grab that ninja and twist him in my hands and it helps focus my thoughts--guiding them into the sentences I want to carefully write down on the page.

I'm sure that if you look around you, and think about what you do before you set out to write anything down on a page (or computer screen) you'll find that you have your own personal set of writing rituals and totems. I'd like to know what you do and have next to you when you write. Do you have some special item that helps draw your muse out to play that you keep by your writing desk all the time? Feel free to share your writing rituals and totems in the comments of this article.

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I've been hesitating to say this

but I'm working on doing the exact opposite of this.

Yeah, I have my own rituals, my own special writing place for when I plan to do some "serious" writing. I have to have the radio on, and tuned to one particular station. I have to have a glass of diet coke at the ready. I play one hand of 'Royal Rendezvous' solitaire before I start my wp. And so on.

But I came across eye-opening advice in one writing book, unfortunately I don't remember which it was. The author pointed out that if your writing is dependent on a particular place/time/object/whatever, then you won't be able to take full advantage of serendipitous chunks of time. That half-hour in the dentist's wiating room, the fifteen minutes waiting for your always-running-late luncheon partner, even the forty minutes waiting for a laundry load to finish. Okay, in that last one I could run up two flights of stairs, boot my computer, tune my radio, start a hand of solitaire...and waste at least half the time I could be writing. I've always tried to take advantage of those bits of time, but mostly it was making notes, tinkering with outlines, making lists of possible character-revealing moments -- not full-out 'serious' text creation.

So lately I've been forcing myself to write 'seriously' anywhere, anytime. I have a carton full of partially used notebooks dating all the way back to high school. All sorts of sizes from steno pads up to five-subject 8 1/2 X 11 monsters. College ruled or wide spaced, and a few quadrille left from various lab courses. Now I carry one, any one, with me whenever I leave the house.

The same thing for writing implements. I've been using cheapo Bics, and a really nice Waterman fountain pen, and mechanical pencil, and gel pens of a zillion hues, and Papermate stick pens, and even one time a high-lighter I'd grabbed by mistake. (NOT recommended.)

It still feels strange to me, but I am learning that I can indeed write with any combination of paper and pen, and what's more, do it with the pad balanced on my knee and some nosy parker seated right beside me asking 'What are you writing?' and such over and over.

So, dueling advice:

Develop a ritual so your mind knows NOW is writing time.


Train your mind to write anywhere and anyhow so you don't waste free time.

I guess, as always with advice, you have to see what works for you.

Painting Totems

My creating totem, is having my studio clean. When I let it get messy from studying for my college classes. I can study in a total dump of shedded clothes and papers and notes everywhere. But I cannot paint or make art in that environment.

I am considering after reading this article, beginning to develop another totem. Because of the size of my work, and all the supplies it requires--paint, canvas, drop cloth--it is unlikely that I will ever be able to just paint anywhere. So this method could work very well for me.