Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ritual in Writing

by Jeffe Kennedy

I confess I'm big on writing rituals. In fact, if you read my regular blog, Love, Power & Fairytale Endings, you've probably read everything I have to say on the topic already, so you could skip today's blog.

My favorite religious studies professor in college, Professor Hadas, told me that once - that I'd already learned everything he had to teach and he would not allow me to take any more classes from him. He gave me a list of other professors to learn from. As I progressed through life, that assertion of his became one of the qualities about him I most admired. Many people tend to want to keep their students locked to them. They want to be forever the one with more knowledge, with a circle of admirers. One teacher I knew never released his students. He forever told them they'd only scratched the surface, stringing them along, to keep them by his side.

Professor Hadas described himself as a non-practicing Orthodox Jew. If you don't know much about Orthodox Judaism, this is a deliberate joke. Orthodox Jews believe in practice overall. Where many Christian groups say you need only have faith and the rest doesn't matter, the Orthodox Jews say you must do the practice and it doesn't matter what you believe. They hold that if you say the prayers and do the rituals, you create a space for faith to fill.

And believe me, the Orthodox Jews do a lot of prayers and rituals.

Everything they practice, from the 112 prayers they say every day, starting when they wake and finishing when they go to bed, to their dietary restrictions to the special clothing they wear, is designed to remind them of what is most important to them, which is the presence of Yahweh.

The crucial aspect of this is putting your attention on what's important to you. That's ritual in writing comes in for me. Writing is important to me. But I've had to work to make it important in my life. It's very easy to let all the busyness of life overcome writing time. We've all heard writers complain about how their day was so busy they got no writing done. What they're saying is "everything else I did today was more important to me than writing."

Harsh, I know. But true, yes?

Ritual is what creates the importance. It builds the wall around the space where writing happens - and defends it against everything that would love to eat away at it. So, I have things that make me think about writing on my study walls and on my desk. I sit down to write at the same time every day, wearing the same clothes. That's why I posted this not flattering photo of me, so you can see. I start with the same music that I've been writing to for years.

These rituals remind me that this is important to me. They cue me that now is the time to sit, to be quiet, to turn off the phone and the emails and the twitter and only write. This is a form of prayer for me. The Taoists hold that only when we concentrate with singular focus on something, are we whole in ourselves.

Plus I get to make up stories.

I may not have learned everything Professor Hadas had to teach, but I did learn this. And it's been one of his greatest gifts to me.


  1. What a great teacher and what a great ritual you have. I love the notion of doing the ritual so that the framework for faith is in place...though I much doubt I would love *doing* the ritual. However, there must be one small thing I can do to make writing more important, if only for a few hours a day.

  2. Ya know, I got that sweatshirt for Christmas this year... twice. I'm fairly certain my neighbors believe I wear the same clothes every day, but I get a grin each time I catch a reflection of the caution printed on the front of it because: A) My loved ones felt the need to warn the unsuspecting, B) My loved ones wanted me to be all snuggly whilst I wreaked havoc.

    All hail ritual and the defense of creative time/space.

  3. I think that's key, Marcella - just make a small space. It doesn't have to be a huge thing.

    Too funny, KAK! I love that it implies I'm dangerous. Snuggly and dangerous.

  4. They say it takes 14 days to create a habit. Who this "they" are and how "they" know this, I have no idea. But you're abosolutely write... er right. The only valid excuses for not writing, according to Candace Havens, are death and coma. ;)

    Great post!

  5. I love Candy's approach - she is more militant than even I am! And that's a good point - it takes time to lay these rituals down, but once you get there, it's SO much easier just to follow them than be bad.

  6. "What they're saying is "everything else I did today was more important to me than writing."

    Harsh, I know. But true, yes?"

    True, yes. When I hear myself say these words - and I do say them - I know even as they leave my mouth that I have let other things be more important than writing. I'd like to say it's because yes, my Viking, my kids, and my means of livelihood do have to come first. But the reality is that I've probably made something else more important than writing - like Twitter, for example. Or even the blog. I love the idea of ritual creating space, and even more the idea of writing as a sacred practice. How beautiful and affirming of a writing practice that is.

  7. Thanks, Kerry. I think it's important to remember all these things are choices. Taking care of children and our families, maintaining our homes, income-earning jobs - they're all things we choose. For good reasons, but still. And yes, then the little time-burners bear looking at...

  8. Exactly. Choices. Thanks for the food for thought. I think that it's easy to feel powerless in life when it comes to time and writing...but it really is about what we choose to do with time.

  9. Right, Laura - and if you're happy with your choices and would make the same ones again, then great! It's those things that you just sort of *do* anyway that bear examining.

  10. Cool, another religious studies major!

    Good thoughts. My own ideas on ritual fall into the idea of separating sacred and profane space. Unfortunately, my desktop computer space is pretty "profane". I have a really hard time working on this computer; I find I do more writing on my laptop away from home, which I use exclusively for that purpose.

    I should focus on doing a cleansing around my home computer, and maybe setting up a home ritual; but it's so hard to separate from all the surfing and time wasting I do on here!

  11. Oh, I hear you, Faith! I love the idea of a devoted, or sacred, writing space, but I'm afraid I'm forever profaning it. Love the idea of a "cleansing" before writing. I might just develop a little ritual for that!

  12. I'm looking around the mud room, in which my writing desk is crammed, and trying to think of a way to make it a little more conducive to writing. Not a lot of room to move things around.

  13. I don't know that you need big space, so much as dedicated space, that isn't profaned, as Faith put so well.

  14. So true. A ritual (or habit) is what will keep you going when you just don't feel like it. And it's amazing what you can produce, even when you started out not feeling like it. :)

  15. Heh. My time is so constrained most days, I don't actually have time to do anything ritualistic. I take my writing time whenever/wherever I can get it and I'm grateful enough for that. Some days it's at the doctor's office. Sometimes it's at lunch break at work. Sometimes's it at midnight.

    Just the way it goes.

  16. That's how it works for me, Linda! Some of my most productive sessions follow the "I don't wannas."

    Allison - it's a miracle you get anything written!