Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sacrificing my rituals

[E.T.A: Kristen sends her apologies for Monday; she was laid up with a monster of a headache, which was highly incompatible with trying to blog. Here's hoping she feels better real soon!]

Here I am again, half way through the second week of school holidays and I’m starting to get all twitchy because the invasion of children (I have six of them in my house today!) means I have no time to write. At all.

I’m frustrated with myself for feeling this way. My eldest is in his seventh year of school; by now, I should be well used to the fact that school holidays always put a big old dent in my writing. So I’m trying to go with the flow, to work on being calm and serene and accepting, and to ignore the clawing panic in my gut that I’m losing my grip on the beast that is my WIP.

And yet I still wonder why I find it so hard to write a single word of my book when the kids are at home.

After all, my boys are pretty good; they understand that when mum is writing, it’ll be just for an hour or so, and then I’m all theirs …and really, with their PS3 and their computers and scooters and trampoline and the hordes of other kids in the street who are in and out of our place all day, they’re not overly devastated about not spending every waking moment with their mother.

But then there’s my five year old. She point-blank refuses to accept that when I close my study door, it is NOT to be opened unless the house is on fire or someone is spurting blood. Just doesn’t want to know about it.

I once heard a writer, a mother of four who worked from home and was sick of the constant interruptions, describe how she taped a big strip of black duct tape to the threshold of her study, looked each kid in the eye and told them if anyone dared cross it while she was working the punishment would be instant, agonizing, death. A little extreme, perhaps … but it worked. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all that. But even that wouldn’t work on my hugely stubborn Miss I-Am-The-Centre-Of-The-Universe-And-Beyond daughter.

And here’s where the guilt kicks in. She’s only five. Shouldn’t she be able to interrupt me to ask how to spell “paragon” if she so chooses? (she’s in the middle of a word and spelling explosion, and writing the word “paragon” exactly right was her obsession all Monday.)

And here’s where the small kernel that is just me, not a mum or a wife or anything but the person I once was before the children arrived, kicks back … heavens above, surely it’s not asking too much to be allowed an hour, half an hour, heck, fifteen minutes, to write? To do something just for me?

But I know that interrupting offspring and mother-guilt are only part of the reason why I can’t write with the kids at home. Because it all boils down to the fact that a houseful of kids messes with my writing rituals.

I know we all have them. The boiling of the kettle, the selecting of the right coloured pen, the pouring of the glass of wine, the organizing of the desk, one last look at Facebook … these rituals are the last line of procrastination we writers allow ourselves before biting the bullet and getting down to the business of writing. And I think in some way, going through these routines helps to neutralise the anxiety we feel (OK, I feel) in the lead up to the act of writing.

But even more than that, I think these rituals help us make that mental shift from the day-in, day-out stuff that occupies our brain, into the creative mode we need to access in order to write. Kind of like flipping on a switch. And having the kids home is short-circuiting my fuses.

Not that my writing rituals involve anything unfit for young eyes. I don’t sacrifice small animals to the writing gods or write in the nude whilst swigging champagne straight from the bottle. In fact, most of my rituals can be easily done with the kids at home – the making of the cup of tea, the selecting of the perfect biscuit (and by that I mean cookie, for you American types) to go with my tea, the choosing of the music that best suits whatever I am about to write, the kicking off of my shoes (for whatever reason, I find it near impossible to write unless I’m barefooted. Go figure.)

No, the main problem is that I’ve grown used to writing in silence. When I sit down to write I turn off the phone and I disable my email alert, so that the only sound I hear as I tap away at the keyboard is my music, turned down really, really, low. So of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I find it impossible to write to the sound of screeches and shouting and kids pounding up and down stairs and doors slamming and balls thudding against walls and the Sponge Bob Square Pants song turned up to ten and the plastic cascade of a whole tub of Lego being emptied on a bedroom floor.

Therein lies the problem. My writing ritual is incompatible with school holidays. And even headphones don’t solve the problem, because then I just obsess about what the heck the little blighters are up to when I can’t hear them …

So I’ll just have to continue cultivating a Zen state of mind, and then unleash a torrent of words when the darlings go back to school next week!

So, what about you? My writing rituals aren’t particularly exotic. Diana Gabaldon has said she lights a candle before each writing session. Sarah Waters (the author of several fantastic novels including The Little Stranger, reviewed here by Jen) confesses to wearing the same clothes through the life of a book, the same loose cardigan and track pants which become so tea and crumb stained that by the end of the book they almost stand up on their own. Monica McInerney, an Australian author, has said she had to wear a particular shade of lipstick (bright pink, if I remember correctly) when writing a particular character. And Agatha Christie warmed up her muse by eating apples in the bathtub.

So we all have our quirks. Which means it’s time to fess up – what are your writing rituals? And just how strange are they?


  1. I'm hearing you on the school holiday thing. In recent years I've taken to writing in the evenings when everyone has gone to bed. The trouble now is that my boys are 18 and 14 and they DON'T go to bed!!! Not in the school holidays anyway.
    I am feeling stiffled. Very very stiffled.

  2. Great post Rachel! Spot on about those rituals too - coffee, music *I choose* on in the background (which is why I can only rarely write in cafes), preferably a notebook and not the pc (and no shoes for me either - gotta be curled up on the sofa in comfy pants and socks )... small wonder I never getting any writing done with DH around, what with the tv instead of music and the hockey games on all the time :-)

    Otherwise I'd be writing every evening instead of constantly making plans to get up at 5 am.
    I like Diana's candle ritual, but again, incompatible with hockey, somehow. I like apples, but not baths. And going to another room isn't really an option, mainly because it's either the bedroom or the other room in our condo - unless I want to write in the bathroom, which I confess I have done a couple of times.

    Ah, the other room. That was *supposed* to be our library. But a day bed won't fit, there are too many books and not enough shelves, all our boring old files (e.g. taxes) also need space there, and on top of it all, it's full of CDs and tapes and musical instruments and an amp... not to mention this big old extra TV we can't seem to get rid of. Who wants to write while sitting on the floor, surrounded by all that?

    I wish I had a suggestion for you. Oddly enough, I don't think noises like that would bother me (heck, I want to play Lego too!), except of course if the kids are coming and talking to/interrupting you directly. Maybe some good old fashioned bribery, like a cookie jar between them and you? A guard dog? Can you bring the pc to the closet and close the door and hide?

  3. Hi Rachel,

    I was thinking about those rituals just the other day. The "real time" it takes to get x number of words down is maybe not very much, but the windup is considerable. I'm trying to get back to the routine of write first, check email/forums/blogs as the reward. It worked far better than the reverse.

    But write with kids, awake, in the house? That's a real trouble spot for me, too. That, and trying to get back to top production mode when they head back to school. Any strategies for a quick ramp up?

  4. Not a writer, really... But I read this on one of my (very rare) "non parent" days when husband and son were out together and I was acually home alone. It's AMAZING to realize the amount of things we can get done in very little time when there are no two year olds around. Mine is kind of like your youngest - he's absolutely sure that the only reason his mother is on earth is to be constantly at his side whenever he wishes it so.