Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Writing Ritual, a Pleasant Place to Work, and Hershey Kisses

Over the years--since I began working as a freelance writer in 1982--I've developed a ritual that gets me ready to write.Maybe you have one too. I think most, if not all, writers will admit to doing this. It's more than habit; it's necessity. There are a set of actions that lead to a successful work session. This protocol for getting to work is not a bad thing. It tells my stubborn, often lazy, brain that something is expected and an important task is about to happen. I've discovered that if I obey the rules of the ritual, I can be more creative and productive.

Usually, I can write anywhere, but my best work comes out of my home office. It's the main part of my writing ritual, the place. It's a wonderful room, even inspiring according to some people. The north wall is dominated by a tier of three windows that overlook a grassy quarter-acre of lawn, a maple tree and, beyond that, a fir and cedar forest with a bird feeding station. From one limb of the maple hangs a comical homemade Tin Man--my amateur handiwork. I wired him together from cast-off items--a coffee can for his head, a funnel for a hat, a bucket for his middle, and legs and arms made from empty vegetable cans. His shoes are empty sardine cans. Various nuts and bolts form his eyes, nose, mouth, and buttons. I was a devoted reader as a child and my favorite story was The Wizard of Oz. The Tin Man reminds me of pleasant childhood afternoons spent reading on the sofa or, in summer, reading on the front porch glider with its faded, striped green cushions.

The west wall of my office has a single window, but the view is incredible. It overlooks the Olympic Mountains, primarily Mt. Constance, Mt. Jupiter, and The Brothers. They rise to elevations of about 6,000-feet and are snow-capped all year. I love to watch them change clothes throughout the seasons--sparsely clad in white wimples in summer and mantled in alabaster snow during the winter months. They change color and texture each day too. At dawn their snowy dresses glow pink, then cantaoupe, and finally gold. Toward noon they are blinding white in the sun or muted if skies are gray. By evening, they take on a taupe hue and wax slowly darker until they capture the meaning of "purple mountain majesty." I sang that lyric from "America the Beautiful" for nearly fifty years before I saw the phenomenon for myself, right out my west office window.

The south wall of my office shares a laundry/mud room wall--no windows. But when the Maytag is running, there's a rockin' rhythm that provides cadence for my work. I've framed the covers of all my books and displayed them on this south wall, a montage of lighthouses and stars and planets. It took many years for me to convince myself it was okay to do this. I saw it in a picture from another author's webpage. It seemed like an ego trip at first, but now I appreciate my accomplishments. That wall of book covers reminds me to be proud of what I do, and to keep working. There are a lot more stories I want to write before I leave Earth for whatever comes next.

The east wall has a large desk and hutch for storage and pretty French doors that open into the great room of the house. Filing cabinets filled with research, largely about lighthouses and astronomy, stand in a corner. (I recently cleaned out all the odd topics--stuff I collected over forty years, thinking I might use it in an article or book. After a time, this sort of pack rat life takes over and runs its own agenda!) An aquarium bubbles softly on top of another filing unit, with a dozen or so captive but happy fish. My lighthouse dollhouse, a brass lighthouse clock, a small lighthouse quilt made for me by my sister-in-law, and various lighthouse ceramics and other trinkets provide addiitonal inspriation and atmosphere. Several houseplants finish the decor.

It's important to have a pleasant space to work. Comfort is important. A place with ambience and appeal, with reminders everywhere of the things I love to research and write, will call me to work and keep me on task.

I've strayed a bit from the main topic--the ritual of sitting down to write. I have a wonderful office with an incredible view and a decor that reflects my work, but there's more...

There's a beverage, always a drink to keep me going. In summer it's iced tea with a large piece of lemon. In winter it's coffee or hot tea. If I forget to bring a drink, I don't get far into a project before I find myself reaching for the coaster beside my computer. And thank goodness for those plastic drink cups with straws and screw-on lids. No frying the keyboard if I knock over the cup.

An under-desk keyboard gets pulled out and has to be arranged "just so." Though I learned to type properly in high school a very long time ago, I now type with just four fingers, one on my left hand and three on my right hand. I'm a 40% typist, I suppose. My husband is amazed at how fast I can type, though. It's not "hunt and peck." I'm actually fast, easily 60 wpm when my fingers are keeping up with my brain. It looks funny, I'm sure, but it works. If I try to invoke all the finger placement rules I learned in high school, well...I get too focused on that and lose focus on the work. I've never developed a very adroit left hand, except for chording a guitar. So the keyboard needs to be turned "just so," so my dominant hand can do its work.

I spend an inordinate amount of time arranging items on my desk before I feel ready to start work. It's a funny behavior, like a dog turning in six circles before it lays itself down. My chair has to be positioned just right, and if it's a cold day I need the afgan over my lap, folded so it doesn't snag on the rollign wheels on the chair. And the cat--I can't forget her. She needs to take her place where she can see me and I can see her. Sometimes she sits in one of the north windows and watches the birds or enjoys the outside air through the window screen. At other times, she curls up on a fleece blanket on my desk and sleeps. If she's feeling mischieveous, she pokes at the cursor on the computer screen.

At the last minute, before I begin work, I might notice a plant that needs water or a few spent leaves removed. Perhaps I'll run out to the bathroom one more time, or grab a snack. Finally, I settle down and get to work. The startup ritual can last a half hour, but when I'm satisfied that I'm ready to work, I'm productive.

Once I start, time seems suspended. I easily lose track of it. The clock ticks softly on the wall without my notice. The sun drops low and shadows change on the walls, and the light turns from white to yellow to gold. The cat sleeps on. My stomach will remind me that time has passed, or the phone might ring. More often, it's the oven timer in the kitchen that returns me to the real world. Nothing is baking. I set the timer to remind myself it's time to quit work and make dinner or go to campus for class, or just to say, "enough for today." Otherwise, I might dwell in the kingdom of verbiage long into the night.

Would that be so bad? Probably. I have other things to do, include sleep. Yet, there is something to be said for burning the midnight oil. I love to write at night. Many writers do. Night is quiet, and the darkness throughout the house and outside my office windows cloaks all distractions. The cat will join me for these late-night sessions. It makes complete sense to her to be up at night attending to business. She gladly takes her place on my desk and assumes a zen-like pose. Far away, a coyote might cry or an owl call.

But even in these solitary, peaceful sessions, I still need my startup ritual and my comforts....the drink, the blanket, time to arrange my desk items, maybe a midnight snack. After dark, with no one looking over my shoulder, the snack is usually Hershey Kisses!

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