This post was originally a guest post to The Faerie Review
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely am addicted. I get massive migraines if I miss my java fix two days in a row on day three. And there’s a smattering of science to support the concentration argument. One quick note on Science before we get deeper into this article: I’m going to brain check things I’ve come across and give quick references, but they are just going to be the first Google result when I check on something. I am not a scientist, and you are reading a blog, not Scientific American.
But that’s not why I have a bottle of Wegman’s cold brewed coffee on the table in front of me. I have it there because it’s part of my ritual. It’s one of the things that I do to help summon up the part of my brain that can put the words to paper. I don’t, strictly speaking, need it. But I find it easier to focus and put words to paper if I follow these steps.
This isn’t the first iteration of this ritual, nor is it the fifth. I adapt as my life changes, but some things remain very much the same. When I first started writing, I had just been laid off from my job, and started writing Reckless Magus because there are only so many hours a person can hunt for a job before they start to crack. When I first started writing, I would go to the local library with a selection of snacks to fuel me through the day, apply to several jobs, then pull up the manuscript in Google Docs and get to work. I wrote most of Reckless Magus in the Greece public library in Upstate New York, writing there until I found a job. After that, a friend and I split rent on a one-room office that I used to finish Reckless Magus and start on Dragon Magus. I would follow much the same pattern there, changing my snack of choice from pitas and hummus to chocolate covered espresso beans (and starting my descent into addiction). Now, I live in downtown Rochester, NY, and I no longer rent an office. But many of the same parts that I started with are still there, and it serves the same purpose it always did, opening myself up to the writing.
I feel like it’s the narrative I’m telling myself that is the active ingredient here. I go to the place where I write, so I become the me that’s a writer. It’s why I call it ritual instead of routine. It lets me change the gear my brain is running in, focus on sitting down and working. I would like to break down what I think are the active components of this ritual, what help I feel like they provide. What works for me isn’t something that could be copy/pasted into someone else’s life, but maybe it’s something that you can use to take a look at what you do and build your own rituals.
One key factor in all of this is accepting something fundamental about the human brain: it’s a highly evolved engine to find and make patterns. We see a few scraps of facts and expound upon that to fill in the rest of the blanks. It’s what meant we didn’t get eaten by lions back when we had to compete with them for the top spot in the food chain, we took some rustling grass and inferred “Lion.” My ritual for writing is just using that habit for seeing a few things and flipping the “writer” switch.
I write in a coffee shop. I know, I live the cliche. But it’s something that has worked for me for years. It’s not that I’m going to a coffee shop, but that I’m going someplace that isn’t the place where I do my recreational computing. I’m not in the place where I sit and play games, so I don’t play games. For someone else, it can probably just be a different room in their own house. If you have a space that’s for relaxing, relax there. If you have a space that’s for working, don’t pull up World of Warcraft and get that farmer the ten wolf pelts he’s badgering you about.
I use a Pomodoro timer plug-in in my browser to help me focus. Once I click it on, the next twenty five minutes is spent doing as much work as I can. It helps me set a solid limit. It’s a boundary I’m pushing against. I’m not writing with no end in sight, that can feel overwhelming. Can you write an entire novel in one night? I can’t, and I find it easier to focus if that’s not sitting in the back of my head as a goal. I have a set amount of time I’m writing and a short, five minute break to relax and let my mind wander. I typically do two or three of these a night when I’m writing, and rarely have I ended a night with less than five hundred words written. I think the time limit helps to break the task into something that’s smaller and more manageable.
Snacks. I normally have a small snack before I start writing. I tend to go a little loopy when my blood sugar gets too low, and having a snack before I start writing generally helps me hold my focus through the time where I’m writing. This one you’ll have to go back to the article I linked when I first started talking about coffee, our brains run on sugar, and making sure there’s enough in my bloodstream to keep me running reduced moments of foggy thinking.
And the vessel of caffeine delivery system that I started this article with. My writing sessions are normally about two hours long, so that means I ride the high of focus and wakefulness from the coffee and am in bed by the time the crash comes. It’s more than just the caffeine though. It’s also making sure that I am hydrated enough. Once I finish with the first coffee, I don’t go for another. I grab a glass of water, and drink those as I work.
In the end
The place where I am, the time I give myself to write with breaks, having some food, and coffee; all four of these factors are what make up that ritual that I use to summon my Write Brain. When you’re trying to tell a story, the best way to do it is to first tell yourself the story that you’re a writer. It’s not going to turn you into Stephen King, but it makes it easier to find a way free of all of the distractions that crop up in life.