Writing Practice & Rituals: Summoning The Dark Arts of Creativity
Sand Castles by Sister72
Photo credit: Sand Castles by Sister72 on flicker

Before my first writing experience in college, I had written mostly letters and game ideas, aside from the start of one ill-fated novel that disappeared in a flash of static electricity taking my Commodore 64 with it. My real introduction to writing as a craft was through the obligatory English 101. It was taught by a pair of instructors who modeled the human brain; one an emotionless stickler for ‘The Elements of Style’ and the other a cherubic and childlike mind with a poet’s soul. This unlikely pairing showed me how the art of writing could be both technically polished and creatively inspired. Whenever I run into difficulty in my writing practice I return home to the lessons I learned about the ‘practice’ of writing, specifically the creative technique of mind mapping. Mind mapping is a free association technique for brainstorming about a central topic. The idea is simple and with practice, a highly effective method of developing creativity. However the mindful practice of mind mapping starts even before one puts pen to paper.

Developing a Writing Practice

As any writer will tell you, writing is a process and many have some kind of ‘practice’ they use that makes the words flow. The idea of a establishing a practice is central to the craft of writing. As with any skill, if you want to improve you have to practice regularly. You have to do the thing to get better at the thing, whether it’s weight lifting, running marathons, or Super Mario. It takes making the time and having a plan; an exercise routine, a route to run, or a horde of microwave chimichangas and a 3-day weekend. Writing is no different; you have to train and it helps to have a method. Take your time building this practice and ritualize it as much as you can. Get clear on tools you need, time you set aside and the environment you create for writing. Having specific practices you follow when getting ready to write can help ‘set the mood’ so that going to your writing becomes more automatic with practice. It is likely you will return to it these early rituals when writing gets tough in the future so take your time to find what works and let it evolve naturally.

Create a Writing Space

Having a place helps too. Look for a space to hole up in and do the work, your place for spinning yarns. You are going to be there quite a bit, so it should be comfortable but not too comfortable. Remember it’s a workspace so you’ll need your tools at hand, whether that’s pen and paper or a laptop. Choose the tools that work for you and experiment with different media if you’re not sure. Some writers dictate into a phone, others can’t work without a quality pen and good paper that takes the ink. Bring your favorite beverage, whether it is coffee or tea, water or whiskey. Be cautious with the latter or you may end up developing a completely different habit. These will become the tools of your craft as you study to be an artisan. Don’t assume there is only one way to write, yet realize you are building a ‘writing ritual’. The tools and place you select are just trappings but in the early stages, but they will become the ‘sacred space’ of the ritual that helps summon your creativity. Once you settle into a method that works you will likely be stuck with it, at least until you learn to internalize the technique and can take it beyond your writing space.

Clearing your Headspace

Once you have your tools and workspace sorted, it is time to focus on headspace. Especially in the initial stages, try not to bring anything into your writing space that doesn’t belong. Cellphones and music bring distraction to your creative space and should be avoided if possible. These bring their own words to a place reserved for the ones within you.

If music helps you focus, try something instrumental but avoid the lyrical. The part of your brain that thinks in words, the phonological loop, can easily be distracted from your writing process by the introduction of a catchy tune. That voice you hear in your head as you read these words is the phonological loop in action. When you get a song stuck in your head, it is stuck in this loop that can only process one stream of data at a time. If it has to choose between your fledgling writing and an awesome song or an insidious jingle, you lose.

As you enter your writing space do so with a little reverence. Most of us left our creative self back in childhood and it can be shy. Don’t make it compete with your daily life. Try not to bring stress of the world to your writing or it will show up on the page. If you meditate, then start there. Otherwise try to clear your mind and relax as best you can. Bring a calm focus to your writing space and you will find it more productive.

The Process of Mind Mapping

When at ease and ready to begin, select a writing topic and write it in the middle of a blank page. Try not to struggle too hard with this, but select the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t censor or judge what arises and be willing to wait for it. Remember this is a practice and you will get better and faster the more time you put in so give yourself permission to start slow.

Once you have a topic, write it in the middle of the page and circle it. As other thoughts about the topic come to mind write them down anywhere and circle them. Connect these ideas to the topic by drawing lines between them. If these ideas relate to others write them in and connect them.

There is no right way or format here, just write anything that comes to mind as quickly as you can, without censoring or judging. The idea is to capture everything that comes up no matter what the quality. You never know what stray thought may lead to something useful. If you get stumped or led astray, return to focusing on the topic in the center with a clear mind. Dump everything that comes up onto the page. Stick with this for five or so minutes. You are done when one of two things happens; you exhaust the topic and nothing else comes or you start to get a feel for what to write and how to begin. If the former, then you should have a map of all the things you want to include in your work, a sort of visual outline of the topic including all the important points and likely specific language to use. If the latter, set the map aside and get writing!

Writing The First Draft

With regular practice you should find this process flows directly into the act of writing more and more frequently. Again and this is one of the hardest parts of the technique to master; do not censor anything! Leave typos be. Don’t worry about complete sentences. Don’t use backspace or the arrow keys at all. Forget everything you ever learned about diagramming sentences, paragraph construction, and grammar. Learn to let every thought flow onto the page and let it be a mess. Editing is not writing. Proofreading is also not writing. This is the rough draft and the more you let it be rough, the faster and more fluidly creative your process will become.

When you begin to run out of things to say or feel done, you are. Save it, close it and walk away. Seriously. Walk away. Go. Take a break, at least for a few minutes. Now is the time to bust out your phone, refill your beverage, or go outside. Do whatever it takes to put some distance between you and the work. Don’t worry, we’ll wait…

Craft Your Writing through Revision

Here’s where Gestalt psychology comes into the mix. When your writing is fresh in your mind your brain doesn’t much care what’s on the page. It will fill in missing words, translate typos, and even make you read what you ‘intended’ regardless of what you actually wrote. Optical illusions that ‘fill in’ missing space or make identical straight lines appear different size or bent operate on this same principle. In the case of writing, the brain will translate or create language it ‘thinks’ is there simply because it should be. The best solution to this, and an imperfect one at that, is time. This is why it is best to always have someone else read your work. Their brain does not automatically know what you meant. Though they may ‘expect’ certain language and fill in accordingly, they read in their own voice and that makes them more objective, but not perfectly so. Reading out loud helps here too. Or if you want to feel less crazy, have your word processor read the text back to you. Computers do not suffer from this same gestalt tendency. Most software such as MS Word can convert text to speech but if not there are websites that can do so.

The final tip I want to include is this; write once, revise many times. While the above generates an initial draft quickly and without excess effort, that draft is far from finished. Revision is also not a single stage process. No matter how flawless your copy, most any piece of writing can be improved. At a minimum, read once for initial copyediting and once more for polish. If you have not read your work at least twice, it is not done.

The flip side of this maxim is the corollary; beware ‘revision paralysis’. Striking the balance of ‘good enough’ in a finished product is sometimes an art in itself. Continue to grind on a piece until it becomes overworked and we break it. The first or last few lines of any work often get the most attention and therefore the worst treatment. Workshop with smart people you trust to restore objectivity when you can. Break up longer pieces and work on them in sections. Don’t keep reading and rereading your intro. If you’ve seen it a hundred times of course you hate it. Perfect writing is a unicorn; it’s elegant, beautiful, and mythological. ‘Done writing’ is a family pet; you see it all the time, it’s nice to the neighbors, and everyone loves it as long as there’s no mess on the carpet. Bring your writing in dirty, clean it off, brush it out smooth, and then take it for a walk. Rinse and repeat.

Read, Write, Revise, Repeat

Keep in mind writing is a process that begins with reading. If nothing is coming out, try putting something in before coming back to try again. Work the process of writing and your product and productivity should both improve. Maintain regular mindful practice and lean on techniques like mind mapping if they help to get the juices flowing. Once the words start to come, don’t fix. Remember, editing is not writing. It’s a separate task and you should make time for it, but not while you’re writing! Learn to make ugly first drafts and you should find you write more and more creatively. As you set down to write, remember the words of Shannon Hale, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Here’s a little more sand;

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