Four years ago, I bought a brown felt cloche hat with the intention of wearing it whenever I was writing. It was mostly for the sake of starting a ritual, really. (Also, I really did like the hat, but I didn’t have the courage to wear it in public.) Ultimately, I found it uncomfortable, so I stopped wearing it while I was writing. I set it on a shelf and tried to avoid looking at it, instead.
After that, I gave up on rituals for awhile, writing them off as unnecessary and superstitious. Every so often, though, I looked at that cloche hat, which was gathering dust on the shelf. I wondered if I was missing out on something. No, I thought. Wearing a cloche hat every time I wrote wasn’t really my cup of tea. I tried not to feel bad about it, either.
Recently, though, my friend shared a great article from Scientific American blog explaining how rituals are linked to creativity which made me start thinking again about the value of rituals. The post discusses a study which explores the relationship between rituals and engagement:
In each study, the researchers found similar patterns. When participants engaged in a pre-consumption ritual—anything from breaking a chocolate bar in half and unwrapping and eating each half separately to rapping their knuckles on the table and closing their eyes prior to eating a series of carrots in a predetermined sequence—they anticipated the experience more highly, savored it longer, and enjoyed it more. They even found that the food they ate tasted more flavorful – and were willing to pay, on average, between fifteen and twenty-five cents more for it than when they hadn’t performed a pre-eating ritual. If they engaged in non-ritualistic acts, however, or observed someone else performing a ritual, the experiential effects went away.
In other words, the study found that establishing pre-consumption rituals can increase your enjoyment and engagement in activities, which suggests they can also increase your focus. I thought about what other authors did for rituals. Amy Tan said she looked at her shoes and tried to imagine they were her character’s shoes; Victor Hugo wrote naked so he wouldn’t leave the house; Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. And of course, there was Isabel Allende, the queen of writing rituals. In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Allende writes:
I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed — because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.
Wow, I thought when I read that. I need to be more like Isabel Allende. I need to have rituals!
Then, when I thought about it, I realized I did have pre-writing rituals. Not shaving-half-of-my-head-before-I-start-writing kinds of rituals, not the cloche-hat-wearing type of rituals, but small, ordinary rituals, like stretching my wrists, writing down the time on the clock when I started writing, turning off all the music, quitting all my programs, opening my notebook to look at my notes, and drinking a cup of water. My pre-writing rituals were right there the whole time, helping me focus on my work, and I didn’t even notice it!
Rituals, I learned, are not a one-size-fits-all affair. Their significances are constructed by the people performing them. I could write standing up, for instance, but it wouldn’t mean to me what it meant to Ernest Hemingway. Establishing pre-writing rituals takes a certain amount of soul-searching and self-awareness, but if you invest time into figuring it out for yourself, it can be very rewarding.
Finding focus is a wild never-ending roller coaster, but so far, it’s been a great ride. Best of all, I got some great ideas about how to become a more productive, dedicated version of myself. And so, this series comes to an end with a quote from Seneca the Younger:
To be everywhere is to be nowhere.
Words to live by, indeed.
Also in this series: