This is the season of pumpkins, black cats, and superstitions. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking about writers and their rituals, superstitious or otherwise. We don’t all 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 the 18th century music. Maya Angelou has used the same writing ritual for years: she gets up about five, drives to a hotel and is writing by 6:30 in the morning. Longhand. On yellow pads. Lying on the bed. Oh, and she asks staff to take everything off the walls so there’s just her, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus and some sherry. Isabelle Allende begins writing every new book on January 8th, a tradition that began in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, one that sparked The House of Spirits.
Many writing rituals are more mundane. One author friend writes her first draft in long hand 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 work out, a quick 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. Oh, wait. I need a red pen handy (to cross items off said list) and 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 navy sweater given to me by my Aunt Edna. Having that sweater 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. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know rituals can increase confidence, reduce worry and make it easier to get things done.
Here’s how it works. 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, Director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At first, conversation is awkward and stilted but as you become more comfortable and closer better friends, those conversations flow more easily. It’s the same with neurons. The neurons that fire together, wire together.”
So if the neurons for writing are activated at the same time you follow a specific routine – whether that’s pouring your first coffee of the day, pulling on a familiar sweater, or rearranging the chotchkies on your desk like Dickens did – that means they’re primed and ready to go. And the more regularly they fire together, the bigger, stronger, and more powerful they become.
And I don’t know about you, but I can use all the help I can get.
So excuse me. I need to check my email, glance at my ‘to do’ list, and get to work.