Writing’s Mysteries

I recently read a fascinating book about the rituals and routines of some of the Western world’s most creative people, including Hemingway, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Ben Franklin, Ann Beattie, Joyce Carol Oates, H.L. Mencken, Melville, Hawthorne… the list goes on. The book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, covers more than writers but my focus was the writers.

The oddities in habits and rituals of the famous are notorious, from weird hours to gallons of coffee to addictions to drugs and alcohol, not to mention some secret hideaways where they could escape for tranquility. It was delightful to read and I’d urge anyone who wants to learn more about writing to rub shoulders with some of these great writers.

Maya Angelou, for instance, doesn’t work at home but keeps a local hotel room that has little more than a bed. She has only a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. She arrives about 7am and leaves for home about 2pm.

These daily rituals made me think of the “oddities” or rituals I have in my own writing life — that is, on days when I am writing (which is not every day, of course). Here are a few of mine, should you care to know:

First, writing and reading are for me my job; it is not recreation or something I do when I have time. On writing or reading days I don’t consider playing golf or running errands. The day’s schedule is spoken for … to be sure, I do have interruptions at times. I will have coffee or lunch with friends and pastors, I will mow the grass during the summer or shovel the snow in winter or run to the post office, but I have to admit the whole time I’m working away internally on what I’m writing or reading. I can mow the grass and not remember later if I mowed it!

Second, my routine is 7:30 to 2:30pm. I’ll be upstairs, saying my prayers (Book of Common Prayer or Phyllis Tickle), reading e-mails, setting up tweets and updates for the day, and begin to think about what I’m writing or reading … and off I go to the basement and from the time I get to the desk until the brain starts to go mushy I’m focused — Kris thinks I’m in a daze and “just not here.” I have lunch around 11:30am but with as little as forethought as possible — I’m thinking the whole time, or checking the e-mail or a brief look at the news on TV. I want to think so little about lunch that, when Kris is home and asks me what I want for lunch, I can say, “Whatever you put on the plate.” If she put dog biscuits on the plate I’m not sure I’d notice. (As long as I finish with a crisp apple.)

Third, space matters to me. I grade in my office at Northern Seminary, I read in my chair in the back room, I write at my desk, I don’t grade at home, I don’t write in my chair, and I don’t read at my desk. A place for everything. Mixing space confuses my brain and body.

Finally, time matters. Writing and reading and research and teaching and preparing lectures can be all-consuming. The temptation, in my judgment, is that it can take over one’s life. I find the passion for writing and reading is best sustained for me by containing it into a schedule instead of letting it blow out a schedule. So, I work from 7:30 to 2:30, and the rest of the day is for reading and chatting and eating and walking and errands and the like. I don’t write or read for books at night or on weekends, unless (and this happens maybe once every three or four years) there’s some deadline that has to be met.

I can read during golf and baseball games, but not so easily during a Bears game, and that — my friend, truth be told — is why I can’t watch hockey. It ruins a perfectly good read. Too intense. Soccer is so slow I end up only reading and forgetting the soccer game is on.

So the essence of writing for me is creating, as the book’s title says, daily rituals.  The aim is tranquility.

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  • Darren Huckey

    I really appreciate getting these insights into your “personal space,” Scot. I’m a writer as well, and have trouble with the discipline aspect of a writing schedule, because unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of dedicating that amount of time to write (due to the many hats I wear to just pay the bills for our extremely modest living). Thanks for letting us into your daily schedule and being blessed to learn a little from that. Blessings…

  • MatthewS

    I’m much less intentional about my schedule and my space than I’d like to be. This is thought-provoking, especially the emphasis on tranquility. Thank you for sharing these windows into your habits.