on writing

Can’t Write? Maybe You Need A Ritual

fountain penI’ll write anytime and anywhere. I’ve written on legal pads, receipts, in the margins of periodicals, really on whatever scratch paper was handy. I’ve even written on my cellphone in a pinch.

But I have my preferences. I don’t like writing on a keyboard. Something about that process feels disconnected. When I write longhand ideas seem to flow better, perhaps because I have to slow down. My handwriting is terrible and I’m a lefty: If I get too manic, I drag my hand through wet ink. I could use ball point or pencil to address that issue, I suppose, but I prefer a cartridge fountain pen.

I keep my pen and a black notebook in a dedicated messenger bag that I call “the portable WIM kit.” It doesn’t really matter what I call it, but “the portable WIM kit” somehow makes it feel important, like a doctor’s bag or a Halliburton briefcase handcuffed to my wrist. Also enclosed is a magazine or book. When I fill a black notebook, it goes into a cabinet alongside a stack of similar notebooks, sketchbooks, and legal pads.

I prefer to write in noisy diners, but I wear headphones to drown out the noise. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it works for me. Each week includes dedicated days and times for diner writing. I visit the same places, sit in the same booths, and order the same things. When my food arrives I set the black notebook aside and read whatever magazine I stuffed into the portable WIM kit.

A few days later I sit at the table in my library and type up my notebook scribbles, editing as I go. The inefficiency of handwriting first forces me to reread carefully, and thus the mechanical step of transcription doubles as a first edit. From there it’s your standard read/polish/read/polish iterations until either I’m happy or at deadline.

Speaking of deadlines, all of this goes out the window if time is tight. Then, it’s straight to the keyboard. Writing may be a creative endeavor but it’s also a business, and when it comes to making deadline time is money. I’m not going to blow a job because I have to scribble in my black notebook with my fountain pen.

None of this is correct.

None of this will make you a better writer.

There is no magic mojo in a black book, fountain pen, diner, or messenger bag.

But these items, places, and processes combine into a ritual that works for me, and that’s all that matters.

To some extent writing is about inertia. Deep inside our writing hearts rests a flywheel. Getting that beast moving can be miserable, but once it’s spinning keeping it moving is easy: Just keep writing. It doesn’t matter when, where, what, or how.

If a ritual helps to keep your flywheel spinning, embrace it, and if it doesn’t don’t bother. Don’t get suckered into believing that there’s a right way to write. The only correct process is the one that keeps you moving.

photo Charlotte L /Flickr Creative Commons



Categories: on writing

5 replies »

  1. Yay for a fellow longhander!!! The backspace and delete keys are far too tempting for first drafts. There is truly something magical about the way ideas literally flow when you’re writing with pen and paper! And rituals are a must. Great post!


  2. I needed this James. I need to reset and refocus on a project I started a few years ago, and am hoping to get those wheels moving again. I’ve also read somewhere that actual writing triggers the right brain, your creative side. Thank you!


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