The Writing Ritual: How I get into “the zone” to write
This is a guest post from Eric Michelson, a writer, editor and member of the nDash Content Community.
You know the phrase, “inspiration strikes in the strangest of places?” Yeah, it’s true. Barreling down the highway at 70 mph is not really an ideal time to be struck with an amazing idea for a novel, but it happens. (True story: One time I actually had to pull off to the side of the highway and write down a poem… and then a police officer told me I needed to move.)
But I’ve also learned that I can stoke that inspiration to strike whenever I want it to. It simply requires my mind to be calm, flexible, and always ready to work.
But before I get into my specific ritual, I need to mention one thing:
Practice makes perfect.
Writing is a skill that, like all other skills, needs to be practiced… daily. If this discipline is not maintained, my work will suffer. Every day, at least once a day, regardless of what other projects I have going on, I need to write something.
I like to think of it like I’m panning for gold. The more I look, the more gold I’ll find. Likewise, the more I write, the better my writing becomes. As far as I know, every great writer in the history of writing has maintained this level of discipline.
- Rohld Dahl would lock himself in his study and write every day for 5 hours regardless of whether or not he “had something to write.”
- Ernest Hemingway would write every morning and keep track of his daily word count on a chart.
- William Faulkner famously said, “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.”
This discipline is so crucial.
We as writers are not defined by our prolific failures; we’re defined by the pieces of gold that we stumble across after keeping our minds well-maintained, well-rehearsed, and ready to strike at any moment.
If someone sits down to write and says, “I can’t think of anything to write about,” I say, “You can think that you can’t think of anything. Write about that.”
Pre-Work Ritual: Chill out for like… 2 hours
When most people wake up, they start moving around, grumpily accepting that the beautiful dream world is no longer a viable option. They need to get down to business and be “responsible.”
Usually the first thing people do is check their phone, email, Facebook, etc.
For me, this is a recipe for failure.
As a writer, I feel it’s my job to parlay the human experience into words. By taking about 2 hours to simply accept and be present with my surroundings, my mind, my body, and my recent re-awakening into the “real world,” I’m allowing myself to feel the underlying sensations of truly being human.
Immediately after waking, I meditate for one hour.
Meditation has not only had profound benefits on my life in general, but my writings have become much stronger and way more creative.
Because meditation has taught me how to listen to the subtle voices inside my head. It sounds borderline Schizophrenic, I know. But these voices are the hush whispers of my subconscious. When I dream, it’s these voices calling the shots. These voices are the roots of all my creative impulses.
Apart from any of the other benefits of meditation (of which there are many), learning how to tap into the creative madness (read: genius) of my own subconscious has been one of the most remarkable learning experiences of my life.
Who knew that listening could be so productive?
“Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.” – Margaret Chittenden tweet
After meditating, I’ll slowly gather myself, eat breakfast, and get ready for the day. This takes about another hour. I then move to my work destination. (During the move is when I first check my phone, email, and/or Facebook.)
My location: My home is lonely, people are my muse
On occasion, if the “inspiration has struck” immediately in the morning, I won’t leave my house and I’ll furiously write out my ideas. Most of the time, however, this doesn’t happen.
Maintaining a discipline takes a lot of effort. It’s like going to the gym: I know it’s good for me, but I really don’t want to do it. If I only went to the gym, “when the inspiration struck,” I wouldn’t get much exercising done and I’d be wasting a lot of money on a gym membership.
But over time, I’ve learned that if I don’t go to the gym, I’ll become unhealthy. Likewise, if I don’t maintain the discipline of my craft, I’ll be unemployed. If I stay at home and do useless things on the internet, I know that at the end of the day I’ll feel bad about myself and I won’t have any money to pay my internet bill (which is necessary for doing useless things on the internet).
So part of my freelancing ritual is treating this job like a real 9-5 job in a real office. I leave around 8 in the morning and I go to the “office.”
Except, 8 in the morning is more like 10 in the morning, and my office is a coffee shop.
The physical act of getting up and moving, to me, is like a symbolic transition from my home life to my professional life. I need to change environments in order to feel like my work day has begun.
I like to go to places where others congregate. Again, I feel my job as a writer is to connect with my fellow humans. And how else could I gather insight into the universality of the human condition if I didn’t walk among the sludge of daily life?
The simple act of being around others as they move about their day allows me to feel like I’m not some holed-up recluse spouting off opinions on the internet. My ability to literally see that there are others around me, at the very least, makes me feel a sense of community.
From this community, I can ALWAYS draw inspiration.
Coffee shops, in particular, are my go-to staple because they let me sit there forever, they have comfy chairs and working power sockets, and the Wi-Fi is usually pretty solid (when I’m required to use Wi-Fi for freelancing).
Also, in coffee shops, there are always plenty of people around to keep me company while I dive into the dark, scary abyss of my subconscious.
My jam: Binaural beats
I’m about to say something that most people don’t agree with. Not only don’t they agree with it, they can’t understand it and usually end up judging me for it. Please don’t judge me, OK?
I don’t like music.
I just don’t.
I never listen to music.
And here’s the really strange thing:
I’m a musician…
So I’ll just leave that little piece of cognitive dissonance right there and move on to my point.
Many writers I know like to pop in their earphones and rock out to some music while they work. Personally, I find music to be the single most distracting thing when I’m trying to focus on anything, let alone the delicate nuances of my written voice.
I’d rather listen to a jackhammer pummeling cement.
Instead, I listen to binaural beats. Now, the science is definitely murky on the benefits of two semi-congruous tones simultaneously played to each ear, but this is what I use to help me focus. The reason I like binaural beats is because they’re consistent. There are no intricate harmonies or engaging melodies. There are no super catchy saxophone riffs. It’s just a steady stream of one constant, beating sound. There’s nothing to latch on to. Nothing will startle me. Nothing will excite me. Nothing will distract me from doing what I need to do. There’s only one constantly pulsing wave.
(That said, if for some reason I need to tap into those aforementioned Schizophrenic voices, I’ll wear earplugs and completely block out noise from the outside so I can focus on the noise inside… I swear I’m not crazy.)
My motivation: Nothing else can be done until this happens
The internet is great. Really. It’s great for so many things.
But all of those great things are extremely distracting when I’m trying to work. Facebook, YouTube, looking for jobs, arguing politics with strangers, learning about domain investing, watching adorable cat videos, and all the other random things I like to do on the internet are not helpful when I’m trying to do my job.
As a freelance writer, I am my own boss. If I worked in a company with a real boss, I probably wouldn’t be able to share cat videos on Facebook all day long and still get paid.
Again, keeping up a strict level of discipline is the lynchpin of being a successful writer. (Interestingly, it’s also the lynchpin of being a successful freelancer.)
I set a goal and I work to achieve that goal. Specifically, I set goals that are slightly out of reach, but always attainable. If I set a super-realistic goal, I’ll either procrastinate or do the job poorly with little focused effort. If my goals are challenging, part of my discipline is to acknowledge and live up to that challenge. If at the end of the day I didn’t succeed in fully meeting that challenge, at least I tried the hardest I could and the work day was as productive as it could have been.
And if my goal was challenging, and I managed to meet it fully, I’ll heartily reward myself.
Cue adorable cat videos…
I did it my way (so sayeth the great writer, Paul Anka)
To me, the only way to “get into the zone” is to build up the habit of “getting into the zone.”
It’s like eating vegetables. If you’ve been eating Big Macs every day for the past two years, switching to vegetables is surely going to suck. But after a while of eating vegetables and not eating Big Macs, you’re going to realize that you’re always in the mood for a nice big, fat piece of kale.
In the past, I’ve slacked on keeping up a discipline and I’ve had to pay the price for it. There’s nothing more frustrating than writer’s block when I’ve got a deadline that’s fast approaching and I have nothing useful to write. Nowadays, if an important job with a quick turnaround suddenly comes up, I’m able to produce a quality piece of writing with ease, style, and grace.
The simple act of maintaining a daily writing practice is like keeping my creative wheels greased. I’m always at the top of my game.
But it’s not just writing. This is true for any skill.
If a basketball player only practices once or twice a month, they’re not going to be the starting center for the NY Knicks.
If a business person only attends to their business whenever “the inspiration strikes,” that business won’t be the next Fortune 500 anytime soon.
I mean, would you want to have an appendectomy performed by someone who “dabbles in surgery?”
Of course not.
To perfect our craft, we need to practice that craft.
Adele sings every day. Oprah gives advice every day. Barack Obama does presidenting every day.
And I write.
Because of this discipline, I am perpetually “in the zone.”