By Jay Butler
The holidays have come and gone, and in their wake comes a new year! With our latest waltz around the sun, now is the time for something new. Sometimes, that means a resolution to pursue throughout the year. Other times, it means a fresh start. However you begin the year, opening rituals are how we prepare ourselves for what is to come.
Rituals are something we engage in every day as writers, whether we think about them or not.
Maybe you find yourself happier with your writing after a good workout, or with a hot drink beside a fireplace while it rains. We all have our writing rituals, and writer Jay Butler is resolved to find out more about the different mindsets and rituals of successful authors.
He’s set about asking authors about their rituals and views on writing. To begin, Jay spoke with the talented Sage Cohen, the author of Fierce on the Page, The Productive Writer, and Writing the Life Poetic, all from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World from Queen of Wands Press. She offers more information and inspiration for poets and writers at sagecohen.com.
This interview about writer rituals has been lightly edited for clarity.
“Why do you write? What first drew you to writing as an artistic mode?”
Writing is my crucible. In words, I alchemize experience to insight. I discover how to inhabit the anguish, the ecstasy, and the ordinary of human experience. I was drawn first to poetry in middle school as a survival strategy. Over the years as I have immersed myself in the craft and practice of numerous genres, writing has become a sacred practice for me. Dedicating myself to the true expression of an image or idea or story feels devotional. As a poet and a writer, I feel I am in service to a dimension so vast that I will spend my life looking up, arms spread, astonished.
“Reading is inherent to writing. How do you read? What do you read?”
Reading is my magic carpet ride through the universalities and specificities of the human experience. I read poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to learn, to wonder… and to immerse myself in the vast possibilities of craft. Since coaching my son’s Oregon Battle of the Books team five years ago, we’ve continued reading novels (of his choosing) in parallel. We like learning more about who we each are as readers and thinkers together.
“Writers frequently get asked about process, is there anything you would like to say about yours?”
My writing life is quite varied. I do creative writing: poems, essays, fiction; instructional/inspirational writing: books, articles, and classes for writers; and I have been writing strategic marketing communications for 25 years. My process is different for each type of writing I do. That said I think my foundational poetry practice informs all my work.
For a good fifteen years or so, I’d start every writing session with 20 minutes of freewriting. This developed my capacity to dive deep under the surface of myself and get to material that was less constrained by my habits of thinking. And it revealed an inner wilderness that I have been cultivating and sourcing since then. I tend to start and finish writing in this uninhibited space, with the more left-brain thinking and crafting and revising happening in the middle.
“…What does revision look like for you?”
I savor the possibilities of the blank page. I listen for where my attention lingers on an image, phrase, or idea and start there. When I’ve exhausted all possibilities that I can see for a piece of writing, I let it rest. I always revise in waves over a period of time, so a piece has time to settle in me. The more distance I get, the easier it is to recognize what is essential and what is weighing the piece down. I always keep a “darlings” file where I save scraps from the cutting floor. This makes it easier to let go of language and ideas I’m attached to that aren’t working.
The most important thing I’ve learned about process is to be flexible and always curious about how to adapt and optimize… When my son was young, for example, I’d sit with him in his room as he fell asleep. This became a power hour of writing for me. Now he is a teenager who sleeps in, and my power hour happens in the morning before our collective day begins.
“Do you approach ‘writing about writing’ differently than writing in more conventional genres fiction/poetry?”
In my writing about writing, I am standing in the role of guide, coach, cheerleader, instructor, and friend. I have a particular audience in mind, and I tell them essayish stories to illuminate whatever concepts I am proposing. I am very personal, because writing is an intimate craft, and I want everyone to feel welcome at the table. Because my own writing process is a mingling of practical, psychological, strategic, and spiritual, I try to cover all this ground in my writing guides. My deepest desire is that my books might seed possibilities that invite writers to find their own, unique way forward.
“…Do you have any particular writer rituals or habits when you set out to write?”
I have been writing a poem a day since April (NaPoWriMo). I like to “meet” my poems out on my balcony where I start and end my days observing the sky and receiving the sounds of the natural world. My dog and cat sit with me. Depending on the time of day, I drink coffee or tea, and I write.
What About You?
We’d love to hear answers to these questions from all writers! Do you have any rituals you practice before you write and If so, what are they? Give us a tweet @wilwrite and share your writing rituals with us, or tell us about it in person at one of our events. You might even find something to inspire new writing habits in the future.
Thank You Jay and Sage!
Willamette Writers would like to thank Jay Butler for helming this writer rituals interview, and Sage Cohen for her responses. We’re very happy to be working with such talented writers, and look forward to reading more from both.
Jay Butler grew up in the foothills of North Carolina and received a BA in History & English with a creative writing concentration from Appalachian State University. Currently enrolled in the MFA program at Portland State University, he is a Genre Editor in poetry for Portland Review. His work has been featured in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Fourteen Hills, Appalachian Heritage, and is forthcoming in other journals and magazines.