What We Can Learn From The Great Gods of Writing: Success Comes from Rituals and Superstition

Certain authors have very specific complexes or actions that they have to take before they can get into the right frame of mind for writing. For example, George Steiner takes a page of prose in the “any relevant language” and reads it quietly to himself before he starts writing anything.1 Jack Kerouac is not only suspicious of the full moon; he is “hung up on the number nine.”2 Despite admitting that he is a Pisces (the horoscope sign) and that seven is a better number for Pisceans, Kerouac still attempts nine “touchdowns” a day. As he states, “I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced.”3 Capote has the same obsession with numbers. He never phones people if their numbers add up to an “unlucky” number. He rejects hotel rooms for the same reason. He is unable to tolerate yellow roses (despite saying that they are his favorite type of flowers), and adheres to “primitive concepts.” For example, he “can’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray,” “won’t travel on a plane with two nuns,” and “won’t begin or end anything on a Friday.”

Poet Anne Sexton puts on certain types of music when she feels a poem “come on.” For example, she wrote her poetry to the music of “Bachianas Brasileiras” by Villa Lobos for three years. Whenever she feels a poem come on, she tries to physically bring it out.  “A heightened awareness comes over you,” she says, “and you realize a poem is buried there somewhere…I run around you know, kind of skipping around the house…I get very tense before I’ve told the truth, then I sit down at the desk and get going with it.”4

My advice: Writing rituals might help ground you into “work-mode” and get you into the right frame of mind for both creativity and efficiency. For example, though Kerouc’s rituals may seem strange, they gave him the energy to type out On The Road in three weeks and The Subterraneans in three days. Toni Morrison has really good advice regarding each individual’s personal writing ritual. She says, “I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves: What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”5 Wesleyan students adopt a range of rituals to help them concentrate. Laurel Dezieck says, “I take a minute and a half before I start any test or any work to just breathe in deeply, settle myself, almost meditate. It really locks me in the zone. I can do work for hours after that.” Like Capote and Kerouc, fellow writing tutor Marlene Sim places certain requirements on her external space: “I always clean my room right before I start working or arrange a few things around. It ensures that I can concentrate for the next few hours. It’s my work ritual!”

Whether writers are naturally quirky people, or whether writing itself creates these eccentric details in its writers, we see that writers can be a strange bunch. Some of these writing rituals and details are fastidious, some are particular and some are just downright strange. Nonetheless, all have helped them focus on their work and create great pieces of art.

By Vernie Chia ’11

[1] Steiner, George. The Paris Review, Winter 1955. Interview by Ronald A. Sharp. Print. 14 Dec 2010. [2] Kerouac, Jack. The Paris Review, Summer 1968. Interview by Ted Berrigan. Print. 14 Dec 2010. [3] Kerouac, Jack. The Paris Review, Summer 1968. Interview by Ted Berrigan. Print. 14 Dec 2010. [4] Sexton, Anne. The Paris Review, Summer 1971. Interview by Barbara Kevles. Print. 14 Dec 2010. [5] Morrison, Toni. The Paris Review, Fall 1993. Interview by Claudia Brodsky Lacour, Elissa Schappell. Print. 14 Dec 2010.

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