By Riyad A. Shahjahan
“To be able to face our fears, we must remember how to perform ritual. To remember how to perform ritual, we must slow down” (Malidoma Somé)
Given the everyday distractions of social media, feelings of inadequacy/unworthiness, and/or world wide events, how can I as a scholar/writer write? How can I write in the midst of privilege and oppression? How can I focus on my “work” for today? In my numerous conversations about writing, I suggest to my graduate students, postdocs and colleagues to tackle these challenges with one profound adjustment that has helped me: develop a writing ritual (see Furman & Kinn, 2012)!
What is a writing ritual?
A ritual is a series of actions or activities whereby we symbolize intentionally to ourselves that we are transitioning from our daily life to the act of writing.
For me a daily writing ritual consists of, in the following order:
a) sitting down on a chair at 10 a.m. (whenever possible!)
b) doing a two or five minute guided meditation whereby I focus on my breath and follow it through,
c) journaling for 5 minutes on my writing tasks for the day and/or positive mantras of the day, and
d) putting a timer on for a 30 min block. Then I start writing.
This takes less than 10 minutes and it makes a huge difference particularly when I am unmotivated or distracted by life. Having rituals helps me gear towards this NOW moment. But, why are rituals important for writing? Here are five reasons.
1. Rituals help diffuse pre-writing distractions
Writing is a problem solving activity. To solve problems effectively, we need to bring a beginner’s mind– a mind that is decluttered so that we can give our full attention to the task at hand. Rituals help us develop that focus. It is particularly significant, when we’re distracted by negative narratives or gremlins in our heads that tell us how inadequate we are before or during the writing process. In this case, “how dare you write in the midst of student activism and hunger strikes?” By preparing for writing by enacting a ritual helps provide a transition away from such thoughts. As Robert Boice (2000) reminds us, we need to develop our patience muscles before we write. He stated: “That patience is necessary for slowing and preparing for writing while we rather do other, more immediately comforting things [like checking facebook]…. We need it to work largely in the present moment, to hold back from the hurrying that owes to worries” (p. 116).
2. Rituals help imbue inner meaning and purpose in our writing time
The act of ritual helps me to shift our attention from the external to the internal spirit of writing as we bring attention to the present moment. For instance, I am currently bombarded by gremlins that tell me, “What is the point of writing? Will it help anti-racist efforts in U.S. higher education, or elsewhere? Look how privileged you’re that you can write while students go on hunger strikes?” In short, I’m pounded by messages of inadequacy. In the midst of all this, my writing ritual helps me diffuse from these limiting beliefs. It grounds me in the inner journey of writing, rather than focusing on the external outcomes that I don’t have control over NOW (i.e. tenure, awards, promotion, reception of my work, degree completion, social change, etc). It also helps me get in touch with my inner conversations (i.e. future outcomes, comparing ourselves with others, how my writing will be received, is it good enough, will it make a difference, etc) and bring a compassionate curiosity towards these narratives and smile at them (Rockquemore, 2014).
3. Rituals help us focus on the process of writing rather than the outcome
Writing is a way of knowing. It is a representational act that helps construct meaning, interpret the world, and communicate our meanings (Hall, 1997). A writing ritual helps us build patience with ourselves and the writing process. We begin to respect and trust the process of writing in that we trust things (our ideas, the manuscript) will unfold in their own time (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). A writing ritual helps us mark the process by grounding us in the writing process because it’s enacted in the present moment. In short, a ritual helps me honoring the NOW of writing! It helps me accept things “as is” for NOW!
4. Rituals help bring closure to writing
Rituals are not simply about opening our writing time but also a means to bring closure to our writing process so that we can transition into our other daily chores in life. This could include a nice treat to yourself, or a stretch between writing blocks, and/or a walk outside. All these enactments are meant to symbolize and convey to our embodied selves that we did achieve something and it’s time to move onto another task in life. A closing ritual marks the end of writing and helps us pay respect to the process we just enacted!
5. Rituals help maintain sustainable writing habits
While the hardest thing to do in writing is to start, maintaining a daily writing habit is equally challenging. In order to develop such a habit, we need to punctuate our day with a writing ritual as an indicator that it is time to write. Such rituals are a way to help invite writing in our lives rather than “just doing” or forcing writing. It helps us to prepare and respect our writing time by telling our bodies that we’re about to engage in an important task.
So, I would recommend giving some serious thought to writing rituals. What would a “writing ritual” look like for you?
Writing rituals have helped me tremendously to slow down, “be lazy” with the writing process, and in turn, enjoy writing as a meaningful and fulfilling process. While this post is about writing rituals, these same ideas could apply to other rituals we could incorporate in our daily life to imbue meaning and purpose to our daily tasks (particularly the ones we are resistant towards!) amidst global conflict.
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil Nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam.
Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. London: SAGE.
Furman, R. & Kinn, J. (2012) (2nd ed.). Practical tips for publishing scholarly articles: Writing and publishing in the helping professions. Chicago: Lyceum Books.
Rockquemore, K. (2014). Resistance tracking workshop. Faculty Success program: NCFDD.
Somé, M. (1994). Ritual: Ritual, healing and community. London: Compass.
Dervish Dance photo taken by kT LindSAy