Writing Rituals that Make Things Work

Rosemary Carstens

I’ve always been fascinated by how creative people balance their work and personal lives. Recently Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Knopf 2013) inspired me to wonder how those of us who rely on skill, training, and imagination to produce what has not been there before manage to push onward regardless of obstacles? What roles do persistence and passion play?

Three common elements stood out among the artist’s accounts in Curry’s book: passion about or obsession with their work, persistence regardless of outside interruptions, and a compelling sense that they must express themselves. Many had sleep difficulties (although they were not necessarily early risers) and most found respites in the outdoors. The vast majority smoked, often in a ritualized, meditative way as they mulled over the day’s work. But all, to greater and lesser degrees were driven to perfect themselves and their abilities. As an artist I interviewed recently told me, “Everything I see instantly morphs into possible artistic scenarios. My wife says my ‘art brain’ never shuts off. Even when I’m sleeping, I’m thinking about art.”

In my case, I constantly reimagine everything I see, read, and experience—reframing it to mesh with other influences, pondering how they can be reorganized into something fresh. It’s a lifetime habit and one that gives me joy—but it’s not a conscious choice. It’s a behavior that has me by the throat, a lover so attentive that at times I cannot tear my thoughts away to deal with the rest of my life.

Several ASJA members shared their thoughts with me on this topic and the words “passion” and “persistence” came up repeatedly, with a few personal quirks thrown in.

Catherine Dold, freelance science/health writer and editor, took on a monumental organizational task when she agreed to co-author The Recovery Book (Workman 2014). Putting together the 350,000-word draft was daunting and required detailed spreadsheets to keep track of chapters and subsections, time tables, research, and an array of deadlines. “It was all very soothing in a way because I could see progress unfold. Those spreadsheets kept me sane. Every morning I’d scan and update them and set that day’s priority. I didn’t stop until that specific task was done, which meant a lot of late night and weekend work. I rewarded myself with a bite to eat and an episode or two of series such as Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy, both great to watch when writing about addition and recovery!”

For Julene Bair, author of The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning (Viking/Penguin 2014), it’s often about the process: “No tricks. Just be present and do the work.” If she’s stumped by a problem passage, she’ll sometimes open a new file and interview herself, beginning with the question, “What are you trying to say here?” Those answers often become part of the actual text. Bair, like many of those in Curry’s book, often turns to the outdoors when she feels blocked. “Being outdoors and more in my body puts me in a different mode and I sometimes find myself rushing back to the house to scribble down ideas. Going to Kansas, where I’m from, awakens my deepest attachments, concerns, and interests. As I go east on I-70 and hit the grasslands around Limon, Colorado, my spirit soars. I am in my element. As I approach homeground my mind clears and, often, what I need to say in my work reveals itself.”

What’s the takeaway, the ultimate key (if not the guarantee) of success for us all? I think the answer lies in hanging in there over the long haul, through the thick and thin of inspiration and dedication. As the Sam Cooke lyric goes, just keep on “movin’ and groovin’.”