Casting spells
Symbol, allegory, and dream: the art of Florence Susan Harrison

The rituals of approach

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In yesterday's post, Susan Cooper touched lightly on the thorny subject of procrastination...and I'm going to go out on a limb here to suggest procrastination is not always bad.

The form of procrastination that Copper describes can, unless it gets out of hand,  be a useful part of the working process, a circling of the water before one plunges in. To push the water metaphor a little further, some of us are divers and some of us inch into a cold pool of water bit by bit -- not because we don't intend to swim, but because that's how we're psychologically built to best handle transitions. The initial shock of a cold plunge invigorates some swimmers, but is uncomfortable, almost painful, to others; and we learn by trial and error which approach works best for us, physically and temperamentally.

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For me, the slow circling of my writing desk in the morning isn't one of avoidance (though it can be, on a bad day, if I'm not careful), it's simply part of my transition from the everyday world into the cold, clear pool of my imagination. Here's how the work day starts for me, after an early walk up Nattadon Hill with Tilly:

I do a quick tidy of the studio (I like a calm, ordered environment), put music on the stereo (something without words: classical, medieval, music for the Celtic harp or Native American flute), settle Tilly on the sofa with her morning treat (a piece of carrot), pluck a book from the shelves and read a few pages (essays, folklore, poetry), pour a cup of coffee from my thermos (if I haven't already finished it off outdoors), write this blog (as a writing warm-up), turn the Internet off (using the Freedom program) and then finally get down to work: generally, like Susan Cooper, by reading over previous pages and notes from the day before, and trying my damnedest to resist editing those pages instead of pushing on into new material. All through this process, I must be wary of the other kind of procrastination, the kind that really is avoidance or distraction: getting overly absorbed in the reading, for example, or hooked by the lures of Internet. That's where discipline comes in: the commitment and professionalism required to keep my transition-into-work process on track.

Anne AndersonI could, of course, simply come into the studio, sit myself down and get right to it -- but I've learned, over all these years, that this is just not the best method for me; I write better, and faster, if I honor the process of transition that suits my creative temperament. My family knows not to disturb me during this process -- even though, to the outside eye, I might not appear to be actually working yet. While I'm not such a fragile flower that I can't get back into my work if an interruption does occur, and of course life is unpredictable, as a general rule I try to sweep unnecessary obstacles from my working day by making my schedule and habits as conducive to the work as possible. Ideally, I want to be challenged by the writing itself, not by the journey it takes to get down to it.

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I'm not advocating this working method for everyone, of course; I'm advocating that we all find out our own best way of working, and implement it to whatever extent our lives make possible. I'm an inch-into-the-water kind of girl; you might be a diver, or something else altogether. But take heart fellow-inchers: ours, too, is a perfectly valid approach, provided we are clear  about the good and bad -- or perhaps, I should say "useful" and "not useful" -- forms of procrastination. For me, for example, reading a book or journal is useful because the quiet intimacy of this kind of reading serves me in my state of transition, easing me into the quiet Lake of Words I seek to enter -- whereas reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions. The myriad attractions on the 'Net are tempting -- oh, so tempting! -- but I've learned to limit my time online, especially in the morning, during the "ritual of approach" into my writing day.

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The useful notion of a "ritual of approach" is borrowed from the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue, who discusses the mythic roots of the term in his wise book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach," he notes. "An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."

This is not to imply that the "divers" among us are "rushed and arrogant";  if they are working well, then their rituals of approach are swift, rather than rushed, and they are blessed to have a creative rhythm in tune with our fast-moving times. Inchers often (not always) move at a slower pace, and while that can be at odds with our production-focused world, neither method is inherently "better" than the other. Divers and inchers, we seek the same goal: immersion into the Lake of Story, whose cold, sweet waters sustain us all.

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But let's speak of the bad side of procrastination for a moment -- for the very same tasks that can be used to inch our way into our work (clearing the desk, clearing the decks, reading, blogging, etc.) can also be used to avoid our work, blocking the "ritual of approach" altogether; and it takes self-knowledge and rigorous self-honesty to know the difference.

If procrastination of the bad sort has become a problem for you...well, you're not alone. Many writers I've worked with over the years, including highly successful ones, have struggled with this; and some are struggling still. The most useful text I know on the subject is Hillary Rettig's very practical book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block. Rettig takes readers step by step through the kinds of fears and toxic belief systems that usually lie at the heart of chronic procrastination, especially targeting the "perfectionist thinking" that seems to derail so many creative folks. 

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"Perfectionism," write Rettig, "is a toxic brew of anti-productive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as 'good perfectionism.' "

These habits, as Rettig defines them, include: "Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures. Grandiosity; or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Shortsightedness, as manifested in a 'now or never' or 'do or die' attitude. Over-identification with the work. Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards."

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"Grandiosity," says Rettig, "is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are under-mentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only 'sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,' and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to 'sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,' are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview: 'The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no pece until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.'

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"Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose," Rettig continues. "I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing -- perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block. I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish -- in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Non-perfectionist and non-grandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said 'Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,' and special kudos go to Jane Yolen for her book Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: 'By God, that’s a messy way of working.' "

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I'll let Jane have the final words today, for she is certainly one of the most prolific writers I know, as well as a Master in the fine and worthy art of living a creative life. In this quote, she offers writing advice that is as practical and down-to-earth as it is wise:

"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."

Succinct and true. And now it's time for me to head on out into the Lake of Story myself....

Nattadon 10Photos above: dawn breaks on Nattadon Hill. (As always, you can click on the pictures to see larger versions.) The illustration is by Anne Anderson (1874-1930).

Related posts: Morning, Rituals of Beginning: Part I, Part II, Part III; and On Beginnings. I also recommend Elizabeth Huergo's lovely short post on perfectionism in the classroom.

Comments

I've only one comment to make for once: if T.H. White is right (hidden caption on last photo) then I'm here for a sodding long time!

What a thoughtful and beautiful discussion of rituals of approach, perfectionism as grandiosity, and a return to common sense. Thank you! Rituals of approach is such a lovely and potent concept. The modern pace often requires us to switch gears through transitions instantaneously. Transitions are neither trivial nor momentous necessarily, though they can be either. But they do deserve to be acknowledged.

I love how you added insight on procrastination and that perspective on the often bombastic characterizations of the writing process. I wonder if the tendency to dramatize the challenge of writing is a defensive mechanism: sitting and making things up seems so effortless from the outside.

In any case, wonderful thoughts and thanks for the reminder to re-read Jane Yolen's delightful book. Warmth on a chilly day.

Yep. Totally.

The proverbial nail has been elegantly, eloquently and yet still quite squarely, hit on the head.

I'm definitely a dive-straight-in-and-keep-swimming-until-I-get-to-the-opposite-shore kind of writer. Although, I get up with the dawn and go for a long walk or run every morning, then drink coffee. But I would do that any way, writer or not.

But yes, that strikes a balance with the idea proposed yesterday that I can definitely roll with.

And, as I'm sure we agree, each to their own.

Peace,

A.

Am honored (and also surprised) to be cited (sighted even) not once but twice here.

In fact, before I'd gotten to pleasuring in my own name, I'd already decided to write the following: There are so many riches here, I think I have the start to at least a half-dozen poems. But having just gotten out of the hospital, will probably not get around to them for a bit.

Parenthetically--am fine, Not to worry. But who knew a lot of Tylenol could shut your liver down! I now feel it my duty to warn...everyone.

Jane

This. Every word of this post, Terri. Thank you.

Oh god, especially about the snippet regarding the (what I, too have found to be self-indulgent) grandiose claims of the difficult writer's life. How many times have I walked into a writing class in college and had the grumpy old professor yell at us, "Writing is the hardest thing you'll EVER do! Writing will gut you, will leech you, so if you're not ready for gutting and leeching, get out of this class now."

I can chuckle at it now, but it's not really funny. Who were they to tell us that? I've never found writing to be gutting and leeching-- difficult, yes, at times, but more often than not, it is fun, energizing, joyous, enchanting, and laced with a deep and profound love of life and the world.

As for the diver vs. incher thing, very helpful as well. I too am an incher-- highly sensitive and so I do inch at most things, by way of protecting my so-easily shaken emotional state. For the deep journey of art, I need my ritual of approach--- oh god I love that phrase-- the ease into the otherworlds with comforts-- warm beverages in colorful mugs, the lighting of hand-dipped vanilla incense, music, yoga, breath... and like you, I believe my work is better for it.

I'm bookmarking this post and will be rereading it this coming few weeks. Thank you so, so, SO much.

oh my goodness Jane!! What horrible news! Am so glad to hear you are okay, do get all the rest you need. Am sending you lots of prayers. <3

:o)

It appears I have two problems: I don't have a defined ritual of approach and I suffer from perfectionism. As I do not write creative works but rather literary criticism, I often feel utterly unworthy to write about someone's work of art (especially if I really like it). As a professor once told me, creative writers are the painters of portraits and landscapes; we are the housepainters. Whenever I sit down to write an article, I feel like I've just shown up to an art gallery opening in dirty housepainters' coveralls. Writing my blog was an attempt to overcome the anxiety I feel about doing justice to the literature I'm studying. But I don't have a schedule or any kind of regularity for writing it - perhaps fixing that will take care of both problems. In any case, I loved this post (and yesterday's!) - thank you, Terri!

Thanks for the image of 'inchers and divers' ... the pair describe my husband and me when we swim. He will stand up to his ankles in water while I would have splashed and back-stroked length after joyful length. Eventually he will slide his long lean frame into the water underground for a long, long time. Surfacing unexpectedly alongside me.

In the process of art-making I believe we might switch roles sometimes; but, mostly we have learned to share the tiny spaces we live in, without crowding (too often, or too much) the waters of creating with the time we do have.

likewise, i have bookmarked this, for when my life settles down and i once more take up the reins of the Ongoing Epic... definitely an incher... and a nocturnal one at that. i could, given half a chance, procrastinate at Olympic level. i will re-read, take heart and breathe in the wisdom and maybe, just maybe, get the words out of my head! Thank you!

This spoke to me very deeply. Thank you for sharing it, and for your beautiful photographs which always transport my heart into a dream of faraway beauty.

I think I am an incher in my way. That said, I know I fritter away a lot of time I could be working, and I'm thinking I might want to take a look at the two books mentioned in the post. Thank you!

Exquisite light in these photos, Terri!! Beautiful. Wonderful post, especially on the heels of yesterday. Love naming the transition the rituals of approach.

Good heavens, Jane, I'm glad you're okay! And will definitely research Tylenol use, as I take it quite a bit when old injuries act up.

You might find Kerry Ann Rockquemores's 5 posts on perfectionism in academic work (published on the Inside Higher Ed site) of interest.

The first post is here:
http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/11/07/start-series-essays-about-dealing-academic-perfectionism

And links to all 5 posts (from November 2012) are here:
http://www.insidehighered.com/users/kerry-ann-rockquemore

Thank you for your very kind words, everyone. And now, back into the water for me!

Have your liver enzymes checked if you use more than the rec dosage for more than a day or two. I had used it for less than two weeks and my enzymes had risen alarmingly. There is a quick fix (though it is rough on the system and requires at least two days in hospital) in which they pump a particular solution through your body which bonds with the Tylenol and gets it out of the liver. But you have to use it before the liver is really damaged irretrievably. I am still pretty weak from the treatment.

Terri I found this a really interesting post.I think I might be a perfectionist or just a lazy procastinator! I try to write but have a terrible fear that what I write may be awful!

But isn't that lovely?

Thank you for this unpleasantly discovered wisdom and so sorry you went through it.
I will avoid Tylenol as it IS sort of a plague. Happy that you are with us and hope you
know how much we love your poems and forthright comments mixed with pixy dust.
Live long and prosper.

Such a wonderful marriage of words and images with this one, Terri. Thank you. I'm certainly a toe-dipper myself, and am all-too-familiar with procrastination.

I think one of the most transformational experiences in my recent life has been the changes I made three years ago to lose weight and become a healthy, fresh-food eater. I took on the task with the goal of making lifestyle changes, of creating rituals that would be meaningful to me and would promote lasting change. And it has worked. I'm now in the process of using that same process to address other areas where I would like to see change and where procrastination has had its way for far too long.

This is all very encouraging. I love the "ritual of approach" idea. Thank you!

Just read this in an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (LOVE her new novel The Signature of All Things, by the by) and it seemed apropos to this discussion. Gilbert says,

"Writing can be a very dramatic pursuit, full of catastrophes and disasters and emotion and attempts that fail. My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned that, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic....You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years. I really worked to create that kind of relationship - so that it’s not a chaotic fight. I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled. I don’t wrestle with the muse. I don’t argue. I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives. I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.

"We have this very German, romantic idea that if you’re not in pain, and if you’re not causing pain by making your art, then you’re not really doing it right. I’ve always questioned that … I mean, listen to the language we use to talk about creative process: 'Open up your vein and bleed.' 'Kill your darlings.' I always want to weep when people speak about a project and say: 'I think I finally broke its back.' That is a really fucked-up relationship you have with your work! You’re trying to crack its spine? No wonder you’re so stressed out! You’ve made this into battlefield! We should know enough about the world to realize that anything that you fight fights you back." - E.G.

----

I love this line: "I try to remain stubborn in my gladness."

That's what I'm going to aim for too.

Thank you for this, Chris. That's a wonderful passage. And I agree with you about Gilbert's new book!

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