Alumni Feature March 2011

Rub it for luck: rites and rituals of the spooky art

by Diana Jenkins

James Hogg’s 1824 novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is regarded as a ‘philo-psychological mystery,’ a term that might easily be used to describe the writing life itself. Indeed, let’s borrow Hogg’s title and recast it as The Private Habits and Confessions of a Justified Procrastinator, for surely the single most prevalent ritual among writers is task avoidance. You may call it a ‘routine,’ the way you skirt the perimeter of your writing day as though trying to catch your manuscript in the act of writing itself, but really, let’s be honest. Your slavish devotion to your morning espresso (tamp, tamp – pause – tamp); your dedication to current affairs (“Oh yes, I always read Al Jazeera online first thing; it’s the only way to stay on top of the Middle East situation…”); your insistence on clearing the Inbox before settling in for the day; all those small, carefully observed daily duties are bound up in the writer’s peculiar ritual of evasion.

As UK journalist Geoff Pevere notes in his article ‘Writers share the rituals of writing – or not,’ “the actual starting of the process always involves certain rituals of delay, the navigation of a perpetual inertia…As a recent survey of nearly 50 international authors…indicated, the only thing as universal to writing as writing itself is the avoidance of writing.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a leisurely warm-up. Your News Editor is a big believer in slow cooking, in creativity as in the kitchen. And I am not alone; calling up the necessary state of mind for writing requires a bit of persuasion for many of us. Writers are a bit like newborns, not least because some appreciate a nice big sleep in the middle of the day. But like babies, most writers value routine, however sloppy and subject to change it may be. An alumna who prefers to remain nameless has an operating model that sounds awfully familiar:

I’m better in the mornings, so I tend to try and write then, but not immediately upon waking as some writers like to do. I prefer to have a peek at the day first, breakfast, coffee, perhaps some exercise…[,] a read of the news online, to get me settled at my desk without asking too much, a glance at the overnight emails, and then I might be ready to pull out some work.

So what is the difference, really, between the habitual and the ritual? Perhaps it’s merely our own attitude toward it, because certainly our anonymous author does not regard this daily enactment in a remotely ceremonial way. “There’s no set ritual, odd for someone like me with my lists and spreadsheets and endless planning,” she says. “You’d think I would need my coffee in a favourite cup steaming away exactly twenty centimetres from where my left hand rests on the keyboard. Fortunately the act of writing doesn’t seem to be so rigid.”

Perhaps writers favour ritual because the alternative, more casual lead-up may not be a fortunate habit at all; certainly my personal experience suggests discipline is absolutely key to productivity. A lack of routine can too easily result in a lack of writing – and one of the most important rites of passage any writer must undergo is the oftentimes-belated revelation that one must in fact write in order to be a writer. Ergo, every single time we fritter away a morning, afternoon, day or week, we are uncomfortably aware of the time wasted. The opportunity squandered. The unwritten words lost. They haunt us, don’t they, all those nonexistent reams of uncommitted text, and so comes the next ritual: the schizophrenic attempt to outwit ourselves.

Just as ritualised as the dodged workaday itself is the writer’s sincere effort to mitigate it; I’d argue there are few things more writerly than instituting careful strategies to neutralise one’s own flight response. British novelist Louise Doughty admits in A Novel in a Year that her tactic for tackling her truant self is keeping ammunition at the ready:

One of the things that used to slow me down was my habit of telling myself I was hungry or thirsty when all I really wanted was an excuse to leave my desk. Sucking sugar-free mints or chewing gum distracts me from that excuse.

And yet sometimes the desk is the prime scene of the crime, especially since the advent of the World Wide Web. Bum resolutely glued to seat, it is now dangerously easy to let one’s fingers do the walking. Varuna alumna and ABC broadcast journalist Deborah Rice confesses a girlish excitement at the idea that ‘she’s got mail,’ admitting, “I feel very much compelled to clear the decks by downloading my emails first, even if I don’t read them – I’m okay with delaying gratification so long as my curiosity is somewhat dampened first. It’s only very looming deadlines that prevent me from doing it. Otherwise my mind wanders... what if... maybe... is there something interesting waiting in my inbox?

I used to love waiting for the postie when I was a kid, at first as a preschooler, then in the holidays, hanging out on the front steps, listening for his whistle, hoping (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that a letter would arrive for me. So I guess I’m still very tickled and surprised when mail does arrive.

Mail lust is one of the main offenders – probably because writers are generally so insecure we need constant reassurance that somebody loves us. As Levere notes of the author survey, “more writers mentioned email and the Internet than any other temptations, and several offered strategies for avoiding even these: the cartoonist Seth, creator of George Sprott (1894-1975), packs his old manual typewriter off to a hotel room to write, Canadian novelist Annabel Lyon (The Golden Mean) and American author Joseph Kanon (Stardust) install themselves in a public library.”

So what to do, and can rituals help a writer cut to the chase? In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advocates breathing exercises, saying, “Rituals are a good signal to your unconscious that it is time to kick in.”

Lamott also says a little prayer, and even your non-religious News Editor can relate to that. “God help me” often springs to mind when I sit down to work.

On Writing cover Of course, not all habits are as harmless as sugarless gum and the incantation of a soothing “Om,” and yet there remains a cultural tendency to give darker addictions a sepia filter. Who hasn’t mentally or actually championed this far more flattering tableau: a charismatic figure sits hunched over a Moleskine, intently scribbling or perhaps staring contemplatively at the ceiling, assiduously deaf to all but the muse, head cocked to one side by the sheer weight of that enormous brain, red wine or coffee at the elbow. Back in the old days, or during my own twenties certainly, a glowing cigarette would have further embedded us in this scene of the Serious Writer at Work. And while it’s not for nothing that writers talk about letting a story ‘percolate,’ ‘brew,’ and ‘ferment,’ sometimes those beverage-based rituals descend into darkness, and writers are uniquely well-placed to document their demons. In On Writing, the venerable Stephen King discusses what he calls the Hemingway Defense (sic):

…the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.

King is blunt on the subject of his own alcoholism, and scornful of the popular myth, so beloved of the Arts undergraduate, of the gifted drunk, an individual too burdened by genius to countenance a day’s sobriety. He writes:

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging… [but the] idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is probably most responsible for it are [] Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland…

Ernest Hemingway Images of these tormented literary lions are both seductive and enduring, and ritual imbibing defines many a writer’s day, from Frank Moorehouse’s famed martini mixing to Varuna’s own informal 6 o’clock quittin’ time. Still, as King insists, for some writers that ritual reward at day’s end is fraught with peril. “Substance-abusing writers are just substance-abusers,” he points out, “common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit.”

Perhaps King is being a little harsh, for there are few professions in which one must constantly contend with a league of imaginary voices shouting for attention in one’s head. And that’s without counting the fictional characters one conjures – I’m talking only of those two Muppets sitting in the box seat, forever heckling your every written deed while simultaneously persuading you of its untold value. Lamott refers to these particular voices as radio station KFKD, saying, “If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker? Blaring self-aggrandizement. Out of the left? Crippling self-loathing.”

It’s only those afore-mentioned rituals of praying and breathing that allow Lamott to move the dial and tune in to a frequency that allows her to write at all. She adds:

KFKD is on every single morning when I sit down at my desk. So I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer… Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it. Any number of things may work for you – an altar, for instance, or votive candles, sage smudges, small animal sacrifices…

Doughty likewise lives with her own version of Jim Henson’s Waldorf and Statler:

It’s hard not to listen to those negative little voices in your head. Who’d be interested in reading this? This is so dull. It’s never going to be published anyway, so what’s the point? If it’s any consolation, there isn’t a writer alive, published or unpublished, who doesn’t hear these voices. We all have our own self-destructive little habits. My favourite is the phrases in my head from the bad reviews of the previous novel, phrases that replay endlessly, like a tape on a loop, while I’m trying to write the current one.

Every writer must ultimately overcome the effect of these voices with the sole weapon at their disposal: more words on the page. Which brings us to another commonly ritualised practice: word counting. Leaving aside the issue of quality, there is something hugely satisfying about reaching one’s daily quota, and something equally demoralising about not. The target differs wildly from writer to writer, but whether you’re aiming for 1,000 words, a page, or a paragraph a day, writers with word count rituals would likely argue 1,000 mediocre words are a hell of a lot better than no words at all – and they’d be dead right. One can’t polish a pristine page. Still, a daily word count can be hard to honour; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Doughty suggests that, “…just like dieting, it is important to realise that there will always be times when it’s one step forward, two steps back. There will be days or weeks where you don’t make your word count, just as there are days when dieters tuck into fish and chips.

Indeed, like the habitual dieter, or the smoker who claims to want to quit, bemoaning one’s constant failure to reach the goal (say, finishing that novel…) can often become the ritual (or pathology) in its own right.

Place is the bedrock of many of the rituals around writing. Further to last month’s feature on claiming scribe space, it is telling to note just how many writers value consistency in their writing environment. And it’s often not the particular four walls that are so important, but what is contained within them, or, as Deborah Rice discovered (and as anyone who has worked overlooking Varuna’s garden knows), what lays beyond. “I was advised years ago by a screenplay tutor to have a dedicated writing spot, as so many writers do,” she says, “and I do agree that it’s a lot easier to get into the mood quickly when that habit is established. It’s not exactly a ritual, but it’s interesting that since I moved the desk in my room to a new location I have felt a lot more at home in front of the keyboard. Is it because the window is too high to see out of, and therefore not a distraction, or simply that the light doesn’t impact on the monitor so much?”

When you write in the same place every day, that site comes to signify beyond its practical, physical utility. As such, many writers like the space to operate as an extension of themselves, kitting it out in very particular ways with specially selected objects. The author survey to which Levere refers yields some interesting insights:

While several writers prefer a fixed and familiar place, there [is] disagreement on how those places [are] most effectively appointed. Some keep their rooms full of muse-firing objects and decor: art, clippings, quotations, volumes of cherished poetry or prose. […] Some prefer deliberate austerity: walls clean of anything but white paint, phones banished, even windows darkened by blackout curtains.

Of course, it has to be said that for every writer with a dedicated workspace, there will always be the itinerant Other, the roving writer who makes a point of refusing to sit still, but I would argue along Foucauldian lines that insistent placelessness invariably becomes its own space. To constantly disavow habit is itself habit-forming, as with Levere’s example of Canadian writer Jacob McArthur Mooney, who says, "I try very hard to write anywhere, at any time, without the crutch of a specific place. Flexibility, like tenacity, is an important source of independence. Writers don't need workshops, and they don't need offices. The nature of our craft means we can piggyback on the world as much as we like, follow it around with nothing more ostentatious than a notebook and a spare moment.” Well, that and a potentially crippling pride… which may prove tricky for the man who spurns crutches.

Some writers are sartorial in their ceremony. Our unnamed Alumna admits, “I used to like to wear a particular hat, but that was only really because it kept my hair out of my face. The same hat became (and still is) my cooking hat, for the same reason!” where Levere cites The Scottish novelist Eleanor Thom (The Tin-Kin), who says, "I do have a special cardigan, but wear it for other things, not just writing, and I never wash it. Someone knitted it for my mother in the 1970s, and it makes me feel secure when I wear it, like a magic cape!" Talismans also abound, though their connection to writing is not necessarily immediately obvious. Speculative fiction author and Varuna Alumna Lara Morgan agrees, saying, “I have a little bronze statue of an ancient Greek horse I picked up in Olympia and a smooth little rock which came from a beach in Byron Bay – the first writers’ festival I was ever part of – they sit under my monitor.”

Now, as any writer worth their salt (mmm… s-a-a-alt…) knows, snacks are imperative, and one reason we like working in the same place is that we know where the food is hiding. For a writer, pausing for a snack is kind of like taking Communion during Mass, except with chocolate wafers instead. Beyond its procrastination value, snack time is an important contemplative moment. It’s usually valuable to pause when the work is progressing poorly, but sometimes one takes a break when an unexpected ribbon of thought unfurls. These bolts of inspiration need room to breathe (which is probably why some writers – Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo – are long-term runners, and almost all are incurable walkers), and preparing a snack requires the perfect unit of time required to tease them out. Personally I find Doughty’s mints pretty joyless; I prefer the snack that is also a treat. Some writers exercise rather more restraint, with Levere noting only that, “Some hoard cookies while others guzzle tea. (In the case of Canadian novelist Ian Weir, author of Daniel O'Thunder, up to a dozen bladder-straining mugs per session.)”

Lara knows of what Levere, er, steeps, being unequivocal about her own daily need for a little tea ceremony. “Failure to have tea results in no work,” she says. “And it has to be in the mug. For years I had a handmade pottery mug with a little lizard attached to the lip, but that died recently and my mother bought me a new ‘writing’ mug; a lovely receptacle of Highland Pottery from a little town in Scotland. I can’t drink out of anything else – unless it’s coffee.”

The mug – ah yes, I still mourn the loss of mine. This was specifically a coffee mug; my Royal Doulton Winnie the Pooh mug has been my very particular teacup for 15 faithful years. The coffee mug, on the other hand, was a hand-thrown little number from Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Acquired in 1999, it travelled around Europe, lived in London for two years and returned to Sydney with me, surviving multiple moves and a multitude of writing projects only to end its days scattered across my current kitchen floor. It was my writing mug, a constant ceramic companion, so I almost shed a tear – and that was before I discovered how impossible it was to replace. I’ve been through countless vessels since – some conducted a perverse degree of heat, others were stupidly awkward to hold, still more sent coffee cascading down the outside and, invariably, my front – until I finally settled on a handsome set of four (added insurance against my butter fingers) only a month or two ago. In all honesty, the pressing issue of finding the replacement coffee mug became far more preoccupying than the work itself, which doubtless explains the latter’s failure to set the world or even a single letterbox on fire.

Speaking of fire, one of the most important and apparently unavoidable rites of passage is developing a genuine disdain – and in some cases an outright horror – for one’s earlier work. Many a match has been lit to deliver an author from his or her back catalogue of embarrassment. Most writers will admit to cringing when sneaking a peek at something from the early days. Some refuse to read their own past work at all. There’s a pretty good reason for this: the writing is usually crap. As Doughty says:

When you look back at your early work, in years to come, what will make you cringe is bad prose. Unconvincing plot developments or poor characterisation will make you wince a bit, but only sloppy, over-written prose will make you want to chew the carpet…

Olivetti No wonder the idea of that backyard bonfire of the vanities is so popular: there are times when only wholesale destruction will do. Fire is dramatic, dark and mystical, qualities that help explain Patrick White’s inner pyromaniac since they inform so much of his writing, and while the rest of us may like the idea of burning bad writing, few of us will have White’s brittle resolve. Perhaps it goes further; if writers exude an aura of ceremony, it may have more to do with fiction than fact. Writers writing about writers are prone to investing their characters with habits beyond what we might practically pursue in reality. Fictional writers are the fantasy selves, leading ideal writers’ lives, and writers are nothing if not slightly fetishistic about the possibilities.

Alumna Jewelene Barrile gives her writer characters more in the way of ritual than she is able to observe herself. “I love rituals,” she says. “Writing rituals are my favourite. In pride of place on my desk is How I Write: The Secret Lives Of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe. Sublime text and pictures of authors describing their desks, talsiman objects & routines… The main character in the novel I’m currently writing has the more exotic type rituals my writing soul craves, plus that important instinct that at the end of the day, it’s all about the words.”

Here’s an excerpt from Jewelene’s manuscript:

What mattered to him?

He wrote on his grandfather’s blue Olivetti Lettera 32. This was the one Marcello Nizzoli designed in 1963. It had that arty red key to set and move tabs. It was the same model Cormac McCarthy and Leonard Cohen used.

He unzipped it from its case each morning. Next he’d lift its bail rod to insert a sheet of paper behind its roller, screwing the side knob until it emerged. Each letter made a satisfying clack when it hit the page.

What writer doesn’t have an abiding affection for typewriters? Jewelene’s excerpt speaks directly to something very basic in my own heart, and I’m convinced it’s because typewriters require a modest ceremony by their very design. The ritual inheres in the function. And yet I work on a computer, as does Jewelene; the romance is largely lost.

“By comparison, my set up’s lack luster,” Jewelene continues. “I have a bay window shaped desk along a bay window. I have dreamy translucent white blinds so leaf shadows travel over my keyboard as the morning progresses. These shadows remind me that in writing, less is more. I prefer to work close to the moment when I wake up and my dreams are still hovering. I always have my Moleskine beside me, and my red Lamy pen – in fact both must be with me wherever I go. If the world outside my study gets noisy, I play A Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis to drown it out.”

Jewelene favours Blues, Stephen King writes to blaring heavy metal music, I prefer silence… chances are you work to a particular soundtrack too. Perhaps we ritualise our writing world in order to find our way back from imagined ones, dropping daily breadcrumbs that reliably lead us out of the bewildering forest of our minds.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: So what’s your novel about?

‘My Synopsis Sucks: rising to the challenge of first impressions'. Have you lost track of how many draft synopses you’ve written? Does the task make you want to pull out fistfuls of your hair? What’s it for, anyway? Is it a plot summary? A position statement? How much do they really matter? What have you learned about the good, bad and ugly sides of the dreaded synopsis? Examples of what has worked and what hasn’t would be much appreciated.

Alumni Abroad: Alicia Gilmore

Itchy feet? Prepare to scratch and scratch hard as Alumna Alicia Gilmore reports back on her Tyrone Guthrie residency. Don’t forget: all Varuna alumni are eligible to apply for this incredible opportunity.

Tyrone Guthrie 1 It was magnificent.

When I arrived at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (Annaghmakerrig) at the end of November 2010, I asked a couple of the staff members, ‘Does it ever snow here?’ ‘No,’ I was assured, ‘never.’ I hadn’t been looking for reassurance; in fact I had to dismiss a brief twinge of disappointment. As beautiful as the ever-changing quality of the light, the luscious greens of the countryside, and the glorious tones of the autumn leaves and toadstools that carpeted the pathways around the lake were, I wondered what it would be like to sit by the fire at the big table with the other residents or at my desk working away as snow fell outside. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. As Ireland and Europe were about to experience an extremely cold winter and heavy snowfalls that saw roads and airports close, Annaghmakerrig was the best place imaginable to be trapped. (Five cancelled flights and four days in Dublin airport at the end of my time in Ireland forms a completely different travel tale!).

I was fortunate enough to spend a month at Annaghmakerrig and after further travels in Europe and the UK have returned to Australia with a rewritten draft of my novel, notebooks full of fragments, writings and sketches, hundreds of photos, fabulous memories of my stay, invitations and a determination to return to Ireland. When I first reached the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the big house and cottages were full – the candlelit dinner table was crowded with sumptuous meals and surrounded by a vibrant mix of writers, artists, musicians, a translator, filmmakers and actors, as well as Mrs. Warby, the alleged resident ghost. No matter the time of day, conversations were always stimulating, inspirational and fun.

Around the breakfast table might be Tyrone Guthrie’s celebratory telegraphs from Lawrence Olivier and others being passed around, or a hilarious discussion on philosophy, inspiration, or the downward spiralling Irish economy… There was company and collaboration when wanted, or time and silence as required. There were impromptu music performances, a couple of readings in the library, visits to studios, and a fellow resident and I even managed a couple of stints as photographer’s models (aka willing victims) and assistants.

Tyrone Guthrie 2 It wasn’t only the residents who were energised and enthused to be at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the staff was incredible. I can’t mention the generosity, support and friendliness of each of them, but Martina’s smiling face each morning, as she delivered freshly baked bread and scones, was certainly something I missed on my first morning back in the ‘real world’. I’d taken Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap to Ireland with me and when Martina asked if I’d mind leaving it for her when I left, we made a deal. Her amazing bread recipe for his book. She became the recipient of an amazing Australian novel; I became the proud owner of recipes to help me deal with my post-Tyrone Guthrie withdrawal symptoms.

Each day I went for a walk down to the lake and then either around the lake, along some of the local roads or through the forest. The scenery was stunning, each day brought something new. Then it began to snow and became a picture perfect winter wonderland. A few of the residents left while they could, others had to extend their stays, with no remorse in sight, as the roads became increasingly icy and treacherous. From a full house on my arrival, there actually was a time when the only residents were myself and another artist. With the entire house and grounds at our disposal, to say we had fun is a major understatement.

Roaming the grounds in the snow taking photographs, venturing outside each morning to look at the animal tracks in the fresh snow, exploring the wonders of the house and lake, and leaving food out for the numerous birds and animals that were creeping closer and closer to the house in hunger, including a young fox cub that came to the kitchen door one night, were just some of the memorable moments. Explaining to the staff that we’d discovered the wine and chocolate stash was another! Lake Annaghmakerrig was the only lake in the district that hadn’t completely frozen, so from the few swans I’d seen upon my arrival, we now had at least 50 at one count, as well as flocks of ducks and other water fowl. Unfortunately this also brought out the hunters, so often walks would be accompanied by the distant sound of gunshots and spent cartridges littered part of the shoreline.

Tyrone Guthrie 3 A new director, Robbie McDonald was appointed during my stay, as Pat Donlon, the outgoing director was retiring. To celebrate the new director’s arrival, a traditional Christmas lunch was held for the board members who had travelled from across Ireland and the residents. From the Christmas tree to the polished silver and the glorious meals and desserts on offer, I felt incredibly privileged, and in also in perilously grave danger of being unable to fit into my jeans!

I accomplished the goal I’d set for myself of finishing the rewrite of my novel but I achieved and received so much more from my stay at Annaghmakerrig. I cannot find the words to express how thankful and grateful I am to all at Varuna for allowing me this fabulous opportunity.


Peter Lach-Newinsky has won the 2010 Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Prize (he also won the 2009 prize). A chapbook On the Innocence of Clouds has just appeared as No. 104 in the Picaro Press Wagtail Series. Another chapbook Collidoscope is forthcoming (April 2011) with Mark Time Books.

Roanna Gonsalves’s radio documentary Doosra: The life and times of an Indian student in Australia continues to fill the airwaves. An illustrated essay/radio documentary, scripted and narrated by Roanna for ABC Radio National's 360 program, Doosra was first broadcast 20 March 2010, and then on 24 March 2010, 22 January 2011, and most recently on Australia Day 2011.

Roanna’s play Yet to Ascertain The Nature Of The Crime was staged by the Melbourne Workers Theatre in November 2010, scripted by Roanna, with Raimondo Cortese, Damien Millar and the company.

Michael Giacometti’s story ‘Elijah Upjohn, public hangman’ won the 2010 Trudy Graham Biennial Literary Award (Prose) . He is an Australian Poetry café-poet-in-residence at Café Gonzo, Alice Springs.

Read 4949 times

Leave a comment