Challenge Journal: Rituals (I really need some)

Three weeks ago, I sat in the beautiful, cavernous Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Here is where I would write my last game story for The Michigan Daily — one of over 200 in the past four years. And it sucked. I was writing an acerbic column about the football abomination that the Michigan football team displayed in the Peach Bowl, and the words weren’t coming to me. Had I learned nothing in college from this newspaper? I labored through cyclical writer’s blocks, thesaurus reading, and getting a comprehensible idea down on the page. When it was done, my editor said he loved it. But I still thought it sucked.

I can truly say that I don’t have trouble starting the writing process. Sure, I can experience the typical struggles every writer goes through, but at the end of the day I’m a punctual, detailed writer. I had never needed a routine: no specific location, drink of choice, or anything to get me moving. It just happens, and that thought process has given me a lot of comfort to get things done.

Despite the relative ease for me to put words down, my column writing experience from a few weeks ago is my norm. Even though the writing occurs, the process can be strenuous with little validation. And when I finish my work, I hardly feel overcome with joy or satisfaction. I call it being results-oriented, but even then I only submit work that feels good enough to me. This unfortunate realization sparked by this class has created a need for personal change. With a few added rituals, I hope to inspire confidence in my ability to rituals and become more process-oriented with my work. Hopefully then writing becomes a wholly delightful experience. Some rituals that I didn’t think I needed, but hope to implement include:

First, leave my house. I often get consumed by the convenience of my home: a bed, a bathroom, a TV, snacks, and friends are right there, so it’s where I work. But all of these factors ultimately distract from focusing on the writing process. With more frequent, smaller windows to type sentences, writing becomes more laborious. With a clearer, quieter mind, which can be found in a more remote work space, I can write within a stream of consciousness and examine my writing more completely.

Second, celebrate after a finished assignment. Nothing too fancy, but something to look forward to beyond closing computer tabs and my laptop like seeing a movie or buying a nice meal.

Yes, they are baby steps. But I think it’s a good start and I am open to any suggestions that others have to reward themselves for their writing.

Challenge Journal: Keeping Up Rituals.

My capstone project is made of up three distinct parts: the “guts” (the research, observational writing, and written argumentative sections), the polished top (the website and the comments section), and the interviews (this is at least what I call them in my head). As I sat down at a library desktop to write a final draft of my “guts” the other day, I found myself completely unable to fall into a flow of writing. Everything I typed felt forced and clunky. I had allotted myself three hours that Saturday afternoon to do this, and, after thirty minutes, I had written a measly 300 words.

So, I reverted back to an old tactic that I used to do in high school and earlier in college: I turned off the computer and sat down at an empty table, promptly spread out all of my print sources, opened my “capstone” notebook, and began to write by hand. I ended up writing five pages front and back and, for the first time in a while, I felt like I was really flowing with my writing. I even drew out boxes and sketched pictures in places where I felt like I would use my multimedia elements in tandem with my writing on the website. When I was writing by hand, it felt like I had a greater degree of freedom to sketch out all of the elements of my project, which was helpful in creating a sense of unity that I had been missing.

I got a hand cramp after about two hours, so I stopped my writing. My goal is to finish up that “final” draft this Tuesday night (aka tonight!) and have it integrated to a site by Thursday evening. That way, this weekend can be spent editing the soundbites and maybe getting one last interview with a key faculty member. I might just continue writing that last bit of the draft by hand because the first attempt went so well. I also think that the process of typing up my written work, which I will also have to spend a fair amount of time doing, will act as a built in revision/proofing time (which I already usually have to force myself into doing anyway).

Thinking back on Twyla Tharp’s “Rituals”, I feel like I could have been more conscientious about maintaining some sort of steadiness in my project process. I wish I had thought to go back into my “bag of tricks” in terms of writing a little sooner, because this particular device worked so well. This semester has been very uneven in terms of time commitments (what with Porgy and Bess rehearsals and the opera and *gasp!* requirements for others classes) so going to the same place at the same time in the same way wasn’t always feasible for me in terms of when and how I was going to work on my project. That being said, I think I could have picked something a little smaller scale or portable that would help me get in the zone- and therefore prevent me from wasting time staring blankly at a new Word document page.

 

Regardless of the timing, I’m glad I had a breakthrough in terms of getting over the productivity slump that sometimes happens near the end of projects. My only question now is whether or not you all have also found some new (or old!) ways to inspire your brain to make the final push and fall back into a motivated workflow. Did any of you maintain rituals that you made at the beginning of the semester? Let me know!

How to begin: rituals for writing success

Over the years I’ve tried many rituals to kick off productive and profound writing sessions. Some of them have been effective, others not so much. All of my writing rituals have been incredibly mundane, but I don’t think such things need to be exciting. They’re simply meant to put me into a mindset that is conducive for focused production of text.

 

I solidified the best and current version of my set of rituals in the Fall semester of 2016. My “final exam” for an upper-level political science class covering the political history of modern (1945-present) day Germany required a total of 20 pages of essays to be completed in approximately five days. As you can imagine, I needed a way to kick myself in the ass and get going.

 

Firstly, I cannot write anywhere other than at my own desk, typing on my own personalized keyboard. There are LEDs underneath the keys set to a brilliant purple color, and the light travels in waves across the keys, bouncing from side to side at a steady pace. Purple is my favorite color, and the wave pattern gives me something pleasant on which to focus. The keys themselves are set on mechanical switches, rather than rubber domes, which gives them that late 1990s clickety-clack, IBM type sound.

 

Secondly, it is important for me to be totally comfortable. In the warmer months, this means wearing basketball shorts and an undershirt. In the cold months, sweatpants and hoodies. I can’t work in jeans; I don’t know why.

 

Thirdly, a beverage is important. Coffee, an energy drink, water, you name it. I need something to sip on.

 

With these tools, I’m usually able to produce some sort of useful writing. However, as I’ve written these steps out, I notice that while I practice many preparatory rituals, I have no finish line, no congratulatory obligations. Perhaps I would feel more motivated to reach the end of whatever segment I’m working on if I knew there was a mini-reward waiting for me. Should it be a favorite snack? An episode of whatever I’m currently binging on Netflix? A smoke break? I’ll be trying out some of these ideas over the next few days; I’m almost always working on something. Maybe I’ll post a followup about how each ritual felt. Let me know if you have any suggestions, please.