Rituals and Writing

This is the season of pumpkins, black cats, and superstitions, and that has me thinking about writers and their rituals. Not all of us have rituals, but many of us do, and we’re in good company. 

Apparently, Charles Dickens had to arrange the ornaments on his desk in a certain way before he started writing. May Sarton cued up 18th-century music. Maya Angelou used the same writing ritual for years: she got up around five am, drove to a hotel, and was writing by 6:30. Longhand. On yellow pads. And she asked the staff to take everything off the walls so there was just her, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, and some sherry. Isabelle Allende begins writing every new book on January 8th, a tradition that started in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a letter that sparked The House of Spirits. 

Many writing rituals are more mundane. One author friend writes her first draft in longhand using a particular type of pen (she orders them in bulk). Another can’t write with shoes on her feet, only slippers. My ritual is an early morning walk, a check of email while I drink my first cup of coffee, and a glance at my ‘to do’ list. Then I’m ready to write. But I do like to have a sweater hanging on the back of my chair to pull around my shoulders when a chill (or insecurity) hits. The latter ritual goes back years to a hand-knit sweater my aunt gave me. Having it close was a reminder that someone had my back. It was a good feeling. 

You might think I’m fussy or just plain weird, but there’s nothing weird or merely superstitious about rituals. Neuroscience tells us that rituals can increase confidence, reduce worry, and make it easier to get things done.   

When we repeat behaviors, the neurons in our brains communicate together, wire together, and activate each other. If we do things fairly often in a similar sequence, our brains get used to that order and become more efficient at the task. 

“It’s like developing friendships,” says Dr. Brian Christie, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At first, the conversation is awkward and stilted, but as you become more comfortable and better friends, those conversations flow more easily. It’s the same with neurons. The neurons that fire together, wire together.” 

That means if the neurons for writing are activated at the same time as you follow a specific routine – whether that’s pouring your first coffee of the day, pulling on a familiar sweater, or rearranging the things on your desk as Dickens did – they’re primed and ready to go. And the more regularly they fire together, the bigger, stronger, and more powerful they become. 

I don’t know about you, but I can use all the help I can get. So, I’m off to check my email, glance at my ‘to do’ list, and get to work.  

My October Reads

I’m in the mood to escape reality for a little while, but given the current circumstances we find ourselves living in, I’m not going very far. Instead of hopping on a plane (not wise with the rising Covid numbers) or planning a future vacation (delayed gratification only satisfies me for so long), I’m escaping via books. I’m looking for fiction with appealing settings or nonfiction books by people who have moved to new countries. And if their book provides details about local culture, flora and fauna, and food, so much the better. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

The Peach Keeper by Sara Addison Allen

Plum, Courgette and Green Bean Tart by Lisa Rose Wright

The Beekeeper’s Promise by Fiona Valpy

Books read to date in 2020: 52

The Joy Factor

Last month I was lucky enough to take an all-day online workshop from Laurie Schnebly Campbell. Campbell, an Arizona writer and workshop facilitator, spent a few hours talking about how to put the joy back in writing. Her take is that writers sometimes lose that joy in the pursuit of publication. Being creative for the sake of creating is fun, but being tied to results can undermine joy.

It’s hard not to be tied to results. When I go into the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread, I expect I’ll end up with something close to edible. After I finish writing today, I’m going out to the garden to plant garlic. Come next summer I expect to be harvesting. I know intellectually that something might go sideways. There could be a power outage just when I get the bread into the oven or weather (or wildlife!) that negatively impacts my garlic harvest, but for the most part I anticipate positive results.

For a writer, positive results equate getting published. But they don’t have to.

A few days after the Campbell workshop, I had a phone catch up with a good friend, a fellow writer who recently lost her mother. Very soon after her mother passed away, a story idea took hold and she began to write. The idea excited her, the distraction from ‘real life’ was a bonus and she found herself being carried away by the story itself, and nothing more. The joy in the writing was propelling her forward in a way it hadn’t for a very long time. She wasn’t giving any thought to outcomes. In her words, she had no idea if the story would ever see publication and that didn’t matter. For her, the joy was in the doing. In the same way a violinist or any kind of musician takes joy in creating lovely music.

That was precisely Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s point. So, how do we get to the place where we aren’t caught up in the results, where joy is our fuel?

Here are some take away suggestions from the workshop.

Write something new. Write poetry instead of prose or a mystery instead of mainstream fiction.

Fill the well away from the keyboard/take some time away from writing.

Write to music that moves you.

Keep a selection of starter phrases on hand to kickstart your writing (examples: I wish I knew at the time . . . or If I’d left an hour earlier)

Go and sit somewhere with great sensory input.

Write about something you love that has nothing to do with writing.

Keep a journal.

And my personal favorite from a fellow workshop participant: “I go to the keyboard and say to myself ‘let’s just sit down and see what happens.’” In other words, she gives herself permission to play.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely give up my expectations around results. I still like knowing flowers will bloom when I plant seeds, cookies will be ready after I bake them, and books will be read after I write them. But I’ve decided to focus more on playing than striving, and to hold onto hope rather than expectations. Hope is a good thing to have these days. And for more on that, you might like to check out this blog by another writer friend of mine, Alice Valdal. https://www.alicevaldal.com/thanksgiving-2020/

National Library Month

Here in Canada, October is National Library Month. It’s a great time to celebrate libraries and especially librarians. I’ve written before about the pivotal role librarians have played in my life. It was a librarian who encouraged me to learn to write so I could get that first (and all-important) library card (I had to be able to sign my name). It was a librarian who encouraged me to learn to read. And there have been many librarians over the years who have played a key role in helping me source research information for my books.

Because of Covid, visits to my local library these days are limited to picking up reserved titles at the door and dropping them through the slot when I’m finished. One of these days I’m sure (at least I hope!) we’ll able to go inside and browse the collections. But for now, this will have to do.

Libraries and their staff do a tremendous job serving all Canadians, whether we live in big cities or small communities. Does the picture below look familiar?

How many of you ever used a bookmobile? I did as a young child when I lived in Deep Cove, just east of North Vancouver. We weren’t exactly remote but back then, Deep Cove wasn’t as built up as it is today. We had a portable library for a while, and then a bookmobile when the portable was being switched to a more permanent building. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but today I realize the significance and importance of uninterrupted library service.

Here’s a shout out to all the librarians out there who are working hard during these unprecedented times to ensure we still have access to library books.

My September Reads

Yesterday marked the autumn equinox, the first day of fall, and today the rains are forecast, reinforcing the fact that the colder season is just around the corner. Thanks to a neighbor who dropped off a generous box of purple grapes, I’m about to make a batch of jelly. When that’s done, I’ll tackle the Asian pears and turn them into chutney. Hopefully, the rain will ease long enough for me to pull the last of the tomatoes from the garden and clean up the basil bed too. In the meantime, I’m curling up with a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

With Malice by Eileen Cook

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

The Sundown Motel by Simone St. James

Books read to date in 2020: 46

And So It Goes

Last week brought to mind the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall . . .

Here on the west coast, the ‘rain’ we experienced was the ash fallout from the horrendous wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington. We’re still living with smoky skies and poor air quality as I write these words, but we’re far luckier than those who are living in the line of fire.  Fires on the west coast, hurricanes out east and a worldwide pandemic. No wonder the world seems on edge.

I was on edge this week too. I lost a full day of writing because of a massive Windows update. Yes, I’d saved, or at least I thought my computer had, but it turns out the computer save function goes to a temporary file. In the past, I’d always been able to recover temporary files but not anymore. Not with Windows 10.  A little rain must fall . . .

As Longfellow said, however, behind the clouds the sun is still shining. And in my case that sun came in the form of an interview by the editor of Second Opinion QB. It was lovely to chat with Lois Sampson. If you’re interested in our conversation, you’ll find it here: https://secondopinionqb.ca/qb-author-taps-into-young-adult-scene/

Since I opened with a somewhat bleak Longfellow quote, here’s something to remember when life seems especially dark:

What I’m Reading

I’m hesitant to say things are getting back to normal because they aren’t. Covid-19 is still very much part of our daily lives, with all the restrictions it entails. At least that’s the case if one chooses to err on the side of science and take precautions, which we continue to do in our house.

One thing that has gotten back to (some kind of) normal, however, is our library system. In late winter, our libraries closed their doors and borrowing stopped. I’m a huge library user and the move hit me hard. I have an e-reader but it’s not compatible with the library system in our new community, so borrowing electronic books wasn’t an option for me. Given that I like my Kindle Paperwhite, I wasn’t inclined to change either, though I seriously considered it as the shutdown dragged on. Luckily, things loosened last month and the libraries here opened their doors. We can request holds and borrow again as long as we make an appointment to pick up our books. There’s no going inside, no browsing the shelves as I love to do. But the libraries have found a way to serve their community while still making it safe and I’m grateful for that. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal

Identical Strangers by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein

Books read to date in 2020: 40

Crwth Cares

Here’s a spot of happiness in these difficult times. From now until October 15th Crwth Press is donating over 40% of all website sales to non-profits. That’s twelve authors and twelve different titles to choose from. Personally, that means when you order No Right Thing from Crwth, they will donate $6 to my charity of choice. I’ve chosen the Manna Homeless Society, a group dedicated to helping the needy and homeless in the Oceanside area and where No Right Thing is set.

I’m proud to be associated with a publisher that gives back. For more information on Crwth’s initiative, follow this link and check out all twelve titles: https://www.crwth.ca/crwth-cares/?fbclid=IwAR09yIwSgE4iZJ6bjO2xlrUfiKfBOBqtMQ-y47Pq7R_ZACEsqGPUqp2t3BE

You can find information on the Manna homeless society here: https://www.mannahomelesssociety.com/

The Dog Days of Summer

I think of the dog days of summer as covering all of August – that time when life seems to slow down. In years past, people often left town in August, though that’s not so much the case these days with Covid. But August remains a month when life seems more leisurely . . . work recedes . . . meals are simpler (popsicles for lunch, anyone?) and even clothing is lighter.  

Well, depending on who you want to believe, the dog days of summer may end next week (I’m not impressed; that reminds me of fall and I’m not ready for sweaters and slippers).

In ancient times, the Romans associated the dog days with the Dog Star, Sirius, which happens to be the brightest star in the night sky.  It’s so bright the Romans thought the earth received heat from it. In the summer, Sirius rises and sets with the sun and at one point in July, it actually conjuncts the sun.  Considered a particularly potent time, the Roman’s deemed the 20 days before this conjunction and the 20 days after as ‘the dog days of summer.’  That meant the dog days could run anywhere from late July to late August, and that’s still the belief in many European cultures today.

However, nothing stays the same, including the constellations in our sky. Given the precession of the equinoxes (basically the drift of our nighttime constellations) the conjunction of Sirius to our sun takes place earlier.  So, these days the Farmer’s Almanac lists the dog days as beginning July 3rd and ending August 11th.

Personally, I’m backing the Romans. Mind you, they also thought the dog days of August was an evil period of time when “the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and men were plagued with hysteria.”  They were so fearful they generally sacrificed a dog to appease the Gods. 

There’s no need for that around here. In my little world, the sea is calm, the wine is crisp and the dogs are happy. Yes, we’re still dealing with Covid and all that the pandemic entails, but somehow during the dog days of August even that doesn’t feel quite as bad as it did a few months ago. Happy August everybody.