On Rituals: My Magic Writing Shawl

This morning I pulled my (as I once called it) 'magic writing shawl' out of the closet. It's from a time when I would sit on the floor to write, snuggled in the corner, happiest when I could nearly fully enclose myself with walls on two sides, a wall of books (inspirtational texts for whatever I was working on) the third side, and my massive bulletin board as the fourth. A small rectangular cell–with the added protection of the shawl I always wore around my shoulders.

This type of enclosure felt necessary to my writing practice then. When I neared the end of a piece, I would often get out of the house, resolve to sit in one of the local coffee shops until the draft was done even if that took all day and too many Americanos. But up until the last day or two of working on a draft, I found that shutting myself off from the world by essentially shutting myself in the smallest space I, my books, my notebooks and my computer screen could inhabit was what I needed to do my work.

There's many articles online, including this one from Brainpickings, that chronicle the habits of well-known writers, giving insight into how they wrote, the organization of their day, the instruments they used, their tricks of the trade for sitting down and showing up for the work. Routines and habits and rules can help organize the day and help you be more productive, relying on routine to get through when not feeling motivated or inspired. Rituals–particularly those that signal the start of the work, the transition into that other space–can make the work feel more possible, as you sit down, stares at the blank page or screen, and trusts day after day that something will come. Trust in the process embodied in the lighting of a candle or making a cup of a very particular kind of tea.

These rituals or routines–superstitions, even–feel unique to each writer, and yet there can be a kind of kinship too, similar to what I felt when seeing a picture of Colum McCann's writing space, and experienced the 'it's not just me!' kind of relief.

I had–and still have–other rituals that were central to my writing practice, but this need to feel completely shut off and shut in was the most important to me when I re-committed to writing. I didn't think about the why or wherefore then and intstead just trusted the impulse to do it. Thinkking about it now, I suppose it had something to do with all the time I'd spent denying my writing, trying to do anything that was like writing but wasn't being a writer. The turning inwards, the shutting off everything from outside while I wrote, seemed a kind of proof of devotion to my craft.

Eventually I moved out of the corner. I set my cushion below the window where the light was better. I couldn't see much, just sky and the tips of the trees and sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, a bird taking flight.

Last spring, feeling in my bones the cold and damp of the cement through the carpet, through the cushion I sat on, I abandoned the floor, and then at some point I also forgot to wear my shawl. It was hung up in the closet out of sight, and I got to work without it. I wrote every word of four drafts of my newest play without it.

I sit in the middle of the room now. The door is still closed tightly, but I allow myself–I allow the work–more room, more light, more of a view outside. There are still walls of inspirational texts but they are spread out, they take up more space as I create stack after stack for each new project I need to work on.

Today, for some reason, I thought of my shawl. Perhaps it's because it's fall, nearly winter, the first snow of the season on the ground, and I feel a need to bundle up. Perhaps it's because I'm working on a short story which, if I were to summarize what it's about in one word, would be enclosure. Perhaps I just needed to remember what used to be necessary to do the work.

I went to the closest–not even certain that's where it would be–but it was. I pulled it out, shook some of the wrinkles free, and then wrapped it around me, breathing in the mustiness of a once-cherished, now nearly-forgotten comfort.

And then I got to work.

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