Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dumbo's Feather Revisited: Of Rituals and Writers

This is going to be a bit long. I apologize in advance.

I noticed recently that my coffee ritual has become rather sloppy of late. Rather than carefully monitoring the temperature of the water and the exactitude of my scoops of ground coffee, I've been sort of winging it -- phoning it in. Thankfully, the quality of your beans will save you to a point, but only just.

I've essentially perfected the mediocre cup of great coffee.

For those who think I might've sold out with that coffee cup logo, fear not. My favorite cafe has long since closed its doors and faded into local memory.

And whither goes the coffee shop, thither followed my writing ritual...

There just aren't enough writer-friendly coffee shops in the world any more. Speak not to me of the sundrenched sterility of the Starbucks lobby. I seek a dim place of creaky chairs and enthusiastically nerdy conversations. A place of fair-to-middlin' coffee and poor lighting. Lots of places to plug in a laptop are nice, but not required. Sketchy wifi is a plus because I get more done when Facebook's siren song is muted and unreliable.

How did I get so reliant on rituals? When did I teach myself that I can only fly while clutching a feather in my trunk? And why is there a mouse wearing a drum major getup in my hat anyway?

You'll note that this is one of those posts where I laboriously link back to previous posts where I told all of you not to do the very things I'm complaining about. That's because I call out hypocrisy wherever I find it, especially in myself. And I have to remind myself that I should practice as I preach.

And no, for the record, it doesn't help. Not one bit.

Why is my coffee so pathetically mediocre and why am I not writing regularly?

It would be easy to blame my current Big Crazy Project which is quite a bit more physical than my usual projects. I'm supposed to be making neat things and writing about them. I've made a lot of sawdust this year, and even knitted a stocking cap, but not much with knitting together the words. I don't really know why.

Speaking of big crazy, I just built a kitchen full of cabinets from scratch. My home is in a bit of an uproar as only a kitchen remodel can make it. Blame that!

It's not the kitchen's fault. It's not because I can't really get in there to make a decent cuppa; done right, all you really need is a clean sock, a kettle and some patience.

Yes, a sock. Not that I regularly use a sock, but you can. (And many aficionados swear by it.)  But you don't find me at the bathroom sink with my socks in the coffee pot any more than you find me at the computer studiously applying words to pages.

I could blame work.

In January, after a lengthy stint of under-employment, I began working full time at the writing center, taking on additional duties of marketing and graphic design atop my usual stints of database management and other jack-of-all-trades job duties.

It's taken some getting used to, this working full-time thing. But I can't really blame that. I work a solid 40 hours a week and then I'm required by union rules and state law to knock it off. I wrote three novels working 50+ hours a week (at all hours of day or night) for Borders.

The truth is, I just haven't felt like it.  It's a stupid and simple as that.

I haven't been feeling like putting that much effort into perfect coffee or perfect prose. Hell, even mediocre prose has been a bit out of reach of late. It's not writer's block -- as you know, I don't actually believe in writer's block.

So what is it? Depression? Lack of ambition? Stress? Too much sleep? Uninspired?

Sometimes in the dark watches of the night as I lay staring at the ceiling I seriously ask myself: Am I out of ideas?  Then I get up and jot ten or eleven ideas in the notebook I keep next to my bed just to prove to myself that I can and go back to sleep.

At the end of the day, I'm stuck with the uncomfortable truth: I've just gotten sloppy. With my coffee, with my writing process. Sloppy. I allowed myself to become over-reliant on a space and defined period of time set aside to do it. Too reliant on ritual and not enough on the simple steps of getting stories from brain to page.

I've long been an advocate of approaching writing from the standpoint that amateurs wait for inspiration while the professional puts their butt in the chair and puts words on the page.

So I'm flipping my advice on rituals on its head a bit. I'm going to have to accept at some point that there's a certain amount of ritual that I require in my life. It starts with coffee this morning. And from there, I opened this blog and actually typed out a blog post. Something I've been regretfully neglecting this year.

This afternoon, over a cold sandwich, I will update the Renaissance Artisan project on my progress in that project.

Later tonight, (after the counter tops are installed and I've put up a few dozen linear feet of bead board) I will sit down to my novel-in- progress and begin the first-half rewrite. Wifi disabled, I will write until my fingers seize up and I realize it's time for bed.

And let that be my new feather and my new mouse-in-a-silly hat.

I'll let you know how it goes.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).