Friday, 5 October 2007

Weekly Friday coffee ritual

I have a friend who has published four novels. She cannot write a word if her house is not spotless. Between projects her house is -- as she describes it -- comfortably lived-in. But when she's writing.... She has to allocate extra time for cleaning when working her way through a difficult section and cannot write at all when her teenaged son brings his friends over. She's too agonized over what they're doing to her spotless order.

Another friend of mine reached the point where he could work at home. Book packaging as well as writing, through the magic of the internet he didn't have to get out of his robe in the morning to be at work. Except he did. After a dangerously unproductive month, he discovered that he got nothing done unless he dressed as though going to the office at his old day job. Ironing his shirt and putting on a tie to sit in the former third bedroom and write.

We all have our rituals. I have to have a pen and paper at m elbow when writing at the computer. I'm not sure why, but more than once I've borrowed a pen I never used from the wait staff at the coffee shop. Just being in the coffee shop is important to me. Left alone -- like now, as I type this -- there is always the real danger I will nod off over the keyboard. Though I never look directly at it -- hunched over my keyboard with my baseball cap pulled low -- I must have activity around me. (When working in my kitchen -- like now -- I set the oven timer to go off every thirty minutes just to be safe.) (And yes, I'm wearing a baseball cap, and yes, there are 2 pens and a pad of grid paper six inches to the right of my laptop.) There's a coffee shop not far from our house that's perfect for writing -- just the right amount of comfort to the benches, tables wide enough to spread reference materials, and a constantly changing population of UNCW students to keep the atmosphere active but not intrusive. Their coffee is terrible, though. Can't drink it. I buy tea and muffins to pay the rent on my booth; and I'm not a big tea drinker. (British writer Karen Traviss once said Americans don't drink much tea because American tea tastes like gnat piss. I have no idea how she knows that comparison is apt and have no intention of checking her sources.) If traffic is light, I drive the extra ten miles to my favorite Port City Java.

I don't know a writer who does not have at least one non-writing bit of their environment that must be just so in order for them to create. Some of these make sense (the nearby activity to keep me awake); others do not (the pen and paper I never use). Are these rituals conditioned by memory (I was doing this when I wrote my first good story, so I must always do this to write.), or born of a need for structure to frame what is in many ways a free-falling endeavor, or manifestations of our own doubt -- an effort to conjure whatever energy or muse is really doing the writing -- or are they merely small comforts, familiar things to which we cling on the dark journey into our imaginations?

Yes. I think. And maybe no.

What are your rituals? And from whence to you suspect they sprang?


JJ said...

Great topic Kevin, thank you. It’s very apt for me since I’m struggling amid sick kids to make it to my recently acquired office to write.

I’ve always loved to write, and written mostly non fiction articles, but a desire to write a novel has required a different process – I’m floundering a bit trying to ascertain exactly what my method is… I think it’s mostly to do with the stamina needed to complete a novel – it’s not a sit down for a couple of hours to write 1,000 words that I’m used to with writing an article. Something I’ve learned though is that all self discipline disappears if I stay at home. I have a nice little office space at home, but it’s a dangerous few strides to my bed and a good book.

My most successful sessions of writing have been when I’ve taken my laptop out to Starbucks. I have concluded from this that I need more order than staying home provides. I have several friends who rent offices in a block about 15 minutes walk from my apartment and they have recently moved out of a little room that’s too small for them, and for one month’s trial, they are subletting the little office to me.

Bearing in mind the children have been sick all this week, and in a couple of weeks it’s half term, I am panicking slightly, but IF I write, and my word count goes up, I will take over the rental of this office to continue the practice of ‘going out to work.’

Other silly bits are that I cannot write with music on – though the noise of Starbucks doesn’t seem to irritate me, and I have to type – I can no longer write longhand, sadly. And I need a constant supply of builder’s tea – yep none of that gnat’s piss for me!

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Great topic indeed. I need a keyboard, and that's about it. Like JJ I can't do anything in longhand. Unlike JJ I wrote the whole of my first draft in sessions of 30-60 minutes, three times a week, because that was all the time I had available. Now I work in longer chunks of time when I can, but am still happy with half an hour if that's all I can manage on a given day. There's always something I can achieve in that time. Also, if I've only got half an hour, I'm much less likely to procrastinate, and I congratulate myself rather than beating myself up if I only do a little. I'm better with quiet, but can close my ears to most forms of noise/activity; for example, I've done good work on trains and in airports.

I hope, in the future, to develop an essential ritual involving a panoramic sea view and a butler.

Caroline said...

This is interesting. I have no rituals. None at all, but I have ritualised my need to not have any rituals(!)

I decided very quickly that if I formed habits, I would be giving myself a 'get out' to not write. It is how my brain works. So I decided not to need a glass of wine or a cigarette (I don't smoke) or a certain pen or certain positioning of the sun ... I fought against my urges.

Now I am one of those people who write whenever and wherever ... in theory any way.

I look forward to other people's responses.

Flowerpot said...

I don't need much but I do need peace and quiet - relatively I mean. Next door they are renovating a flat and have been for months so I'm used to teh racket and have learned to write over Radio One blaring out! Good to hear others' experiences.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I don't have rituals so much as bad habits. A mug of tea, hand-rolled cigarettes and a dog or two at my feet.

Lazy Perfectionista said...

I can't do ANYTHING without water and warm feet. I always have a litre of water with me, no matter what I'm doing, which is a leftover from my singing days. And cold feet are just the worst distraction ever, so I have a wonderful collection of stripy (and I like to think lucky) socks to warm my toes!

Juliette M said...

I'm similar to Caroline. The only thing I would say is that to get a LOT done, I need (and in general, prefer) a desk space. Preferably surrounded with the CDs I like to listen to while writing (Marilyn Manson, My Chemical Romance, Type O Negative, Tori Amos) and my books I use for research (Celtic myth for the fairy books, Babies Names books, etc).

At the moment, I have a laptop, which I move from living room to dining room depending on where my fella has gone so I can type and keep him company while he plays computer games/watches TV/whatever. (I get masses of guilt at abandoning him in another room on his own, while I write in the evenings, as we dont see one another until 7 pm when he gets in. So I've taken to trying to get home for 5.45 - 6 pm so I get an extra hour's work time. I know the guilt is silly. He says so, too!)

However, I am really missing a proper desk space, which I don't have as our house is not really a permanent set-up - I bought an Ikea desk and then we decided to move, so I never put it together. It's still boxed up in the hall. Our move fell through (we are still looking, though) and one of the first things I do when we eventually move to a new house will be to put my desk up and surround myself with my research books!

My only bad habits are listening to music while I write, but that's again a preference rather than a must-have.

Long post for a coffee morning! Pass the mocha.

KayJay said...

I have to type, longhand is ok for ideas and a bit of plotting, but cannot for the life of me do anything more substantial unless I type.

Can do desk, table or in bed. I wish I could write whilst walking, as that's when I get all my best stuff.

Must haves:

A drink - tea, coffee, water, diet coke, Panda juice, wine
Lipbalm - Kiehl's
A tissue - worry object/comfort blanket

I used to listen to music but now I find I have to have quiet. I do however, ABSOLUTELY NEED to turn on the radio every half hour or so, just to check that London isn't burning down or something important like that.

Afterwards, it takes me a quite while to snap out the world of my book - does anyone else have this problem?

Maybe that's a whole new post!

Graeme K Talboys said...

I cannot sit with may back to the door. And warm feet are essential. I prefer peace and quiet (although I have no objection to bird song), but if that cannot be had, I just put on the headphones and play music. Other than that... The first book, I ever wrote was mostly composed atop a harvest hill in Sussex. The first I had published book was researched in a university library booth in the mornings and written up in an arbour in the botanical gardens in the afternoon. I use a desk these days as it's the most convenient place for the computer, but given the first two conditions (and either quiet or my own music), I think I could write most places and most times.

CTaylor said...

One of the biggest struggles I had with my writing was stopping smoking. When I was a smoker I HAD to have a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray next to my computer and I'd chainsmoke through the night as I wrote (yes, I did suffer from a very ashy keyboard. Nice!). One of the many reasons I was afraid to stop smoking was because I thought it might stop me from being a writer. I didn't know how to write without smoking! I thought maybe there was some writing magic attached to smoking and that, as soon as I packed up the fags, the magic would wain and I'd never win another short story competition or get published ever again.

I did struggle for several months after I stopped smoking but I persevered and the writing magic came back.

These days I don't really have much of a routine but I DO have to be alone when I write and it has to be dark outside. I also like some kind of background noise (normally the TV turned down a bit or a CD playing - but one where I don't know all the lyrics so I don't sing along!).

Anonymous said...

Dear Juliette

Thank you so much for the lovely comment you left on my blog. I'm so glad you enjoyed the YPC - I love hearing when people do.

The Birds and the Bees (it's no longer called 'The Bees of Bonniebride' - they needed a title that was easier to remember!) is out in March - hope you enjoy that too. It was so much fun to write!

Very kindest regards

Milly Johnson x

Helen said...

I like my coffee in the morning. I may pop out and get a nice one from Starbucks or Costa or make my own instant. It has to be in my Emma Bridgewater blue tit mug I bought my Nana but for various reasons has come back to me. I check BBC News and Sky News online then read everyone's blogs, starting with this one and steadily work my way down the blogs on my sidebar.

Then I start to work.

Lane said...

I long for a room of my own and a routine. Sadly that hasn't happened so my 'workspace' rituals are borne of necessity.
I'm writing this scrunched up at the end of the kitchen table with the dryer noisily whirring in the background. Later I shall have to gather up my bits and wander like a poor writerly refugee to some other part of the house. If I can't find another flat surface, the writing will have to be longhand because I'm incapable of using the laptop without a mouse.
I would love to be able to write in cafes but I'm too nosey and know I would spend the whole time gawping around and listening in. I can write notes, ideas, musings, bits of character stuff in my car and in church halls waiting to collect various offspring from assorted dance classes. However I can't write my WIP in those scappy bits of distracted time. For that I need to be at home, in as quiet a situation as possible. Then with my self-indulgent 'writing' rituals including copious amounts of coffee, tea, lip balm, (Hi Kayjay!) and warm sockies, I can really settle and get on with it. (With lots of blog hopping in the breaks!)

liz fenwick said...

No rituals other than procrastenation......emails and blogs before writing. Have loved reading everyone elses. Great topic Kevin :-)

B.E. Sanderson said...

I'm a no-ritual writer, too. I try to keep a schedule, but life generally intrudes on that these days. Most times I don't like noise while I write, but that's more of a distraction thing than a ritual. (And yet sometimes I like to put in a tape full of harsh music to get me in the mood for violent scenes.) I like to have coffee beside me, but sometimes I set it down somewhere and wander off. I don't have a special pen, but I do have to edit in red or my eyes tend to skip over the missed commas, etc. And I have no perfect writing spot (we've moved too much for that).

Thanks, Kevin. It's interesting reading how other people get through the writing. =o)

Kate said...

For Nanowrimo last year I wrote mainly on the train on the way to work using my Alphasmart 3000 (I love it!!!), but would also write first thing Saturday morning while the hubbs was still sleeping, so it didn't take up any of our time together.

I did write a fairy tale (or almost all of one) while in a coffee shop a while back, but the waitresses and the nosey customers put me off, especially when the stupid waitress spilled a whole pot of milk all over my bag, table and work! I wrote the fairy tale in longhand, but my hand cramped up so many times, and I couldn't writ fast enough. I can type faster than I can think (hmm, doesn't say much about my brain power does it) so I generally prefer to type. Laptop keyboards suck, though, so I'm looking forward to getting a proper desk with a proper desk top computer when we move house.

I like to have some background noise. Preferably not music I can sing along too. Movies that I've already seen are good, coz they provide entertainment when needed, but you dont have to watch it at all. Plus they're usually 2 hours long. Thats a nice amount of time to write imo.

I hate human distractions! They're the worst because you have to give them your full attention, and I feel bad that I get shitty with them for interrupting.

Other than that... I cant think of much else to write. Its nice to hear about all the different ways people write.

KeVin K. said...

My friend Phaedra Weldon travels with and AlphaSmart and writes on it constantly. When the hubbub at Port City Java gets to be too much, I slip on the headphones and listen to Leo Kottke or John Coultrane -- nothing with words.

And -- back before writing paid for my laptop -- all of my writing used to be done on the family computer in the kitchen. Late at night after the kids had all finished their homework. And the stove timer going off every thirty minutes to be sure I stayed awake. (Or didn't nap too long.)

ChrisH said...

Great topic - sorry to be late. Um sounds very naff but I like to burn some oil - it's my signal to invite the muse in (gawd, can't believe I have admitted that online. And, btw, I'm not the slightest bit new-agey, it just seems to work!!

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello everyone.
I am very late for coffee morning it is ten to five here, have been shepherding six year olds to Harvest Festival. Am now slightly fatigued.... Great topic Kevin! I am the opposite of your tidy friend in that (as I have mentioned in one of my three blogs) I am an either or writer. I can either write or clean, either write or cook, either write or hold meaningful conversations, either write or remember to brush my hair...anyway you get the drift. So when I am in full swing, and thankfully this year has been full of work, then my house is a tip, I am a scruff and my husband does all the cooking. Before I start a new book I clean out my tiny office so that I feel all zen and fresh and ready, but usually within about a week I am hemmed in my piles of paper, coffee cups, bits of plastic wrapping and the junk mail it came in that I plan to recycle, but only get round to doing about once every couple of months. My handwriting is so bad that I usually type straight on to my PC, but my typing is so bad that it takes me about as long as it took me to write 5000 words to correct it!
However I sit down to write at 9.30am every weekday have a lunch hour at 1pm and then work to five pm. I suppose that is my ritual....disipline. That and staring out of the window approximately every ten to twelve minutes and making endless cups of decaff....updating my ipod....checking in with the racers....Anyway mainly it's discipline. It's the only way forward you know.

Kate said...

I am back in blog-world, with that 30,000 words by the end of the month to write.
My rituals are also my downfall: when I start in the morning, I like to look around the web. So that'll be some favourite blogs, messageboards and about five British newspaper websites.
Then I constantly check emails while I am writing. It's actually got a bit mad but it's a hard habit to break...
One I think I will have to break however!
I do agree that a change of scenery can really help - Costa Coffee near me is very friendly though they do sadly have free wi-fi and therefore this month they may be out of bounds!

Cathy said...

I don't really have any rituals apart from reading other peoples blogs, checking my emails, visiting eBay and Amazon...

I bought an Alphasmart from eBay earlier in the year, but haven't really used it yet. I am thinking of trying it out in the local Starbucks very soon...

Fiona said...

I can only write on my bed with my three dogs stretched out beside me. I have to have a 'real' cofee to start me off - the only time of the day I don't have instant. I've weaned myself off toffees so that I can see my toes again.

Helen Shearer said...

Hello everyone. Sorry I'm so late this week. I'm a coffee shop person too. There's something about strangers milling about that inspires me. I used to write everything longhand but I am learning to write at the keyboard. Though if I get stuck I get out a pen and paper and things start to move again. And I like to have tea nearby, although when I really get cookin' I forget to drink it. There's nothing more satisfying to me than a full mug of cold tea because it usually means I have five or ten good pages. If I write at home I have to have quiet but at coffee shops there's always music playing and it doesn't bother me. Why is that?

hesitant scribe said...

Kevin, what a fabulous topic.At last I can feel normal!

Hmmm, order. I think I need order too, like JJ, and my office though superb is too close to the living room, kitchen and washing machine, so I end up cleaning and tidying. I can't work when the kids are in, or when hubby is in. I find I need to listen to the radio, do all my lesson plans, and respond to all my emails before I can start to think about writing. Perhaps that's why my book is still largely in my head!

I did write tons and tons in Spain, so maybe that's what I need - to be in a coffee bar in Spain!

I also need a deadline. That usually does the trick!

p.s. sorry I'm late but was teaching all day yesterday!

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Kate.Kingsley said...

I don't have any rituals (sob!). Maybe I need to culitivate some, in order to increase my productivity ~ I'll get working one it (procrastinating, moi?!)

Kate K