Don’t Ask Me About My Writing Ritual

by Madhuri Shekar

(I’ve decided that my LAFPI blogging week will be nothing but clickbait headlines. Tomorrow – This Procrastinating Playwright Opened her Final Draft Document and You Will Never Believe What Happened Next.)

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be on a playwriting panel, alongside extremely esteemed company, highly distinguished writers with established careers (basically, I was way outclassed here.) It was titled “The Playwrights’ Voice.” What was most interesting to me was that it was a very romantic title for what turned out to be a rather unromantic (but wonderfully fascinating, much needed) conversation. What inspires a playwright’s voice? It depends – it changes from play to play, as it should. What impedes a playwright’s voice the most? Lack of time, money and resources. Prosaic details that I was so happy we were talking about, because mere survival is so intrinsically tied into the ability to write.

At the 2015 Victory Gardens Ignition Festival. L to R: Isaac Gomez, A. Zell Williams, Basil Kreimendahl, Madhuri Shekar, Josê Rivera
At the 2015 Victory Gardens Ignition Festival. L to R: Isaac Gomez, A. Zell Williams, Basil Kreimendahl, Madhuri Shekar, Josê Rivera

At the end of this discussion, we ended with a question from a young playwright in the crowd. She asked us if we could share our writing rituals, if there was anything special we did in our process to get us in the mood. What did we need in the room? We were quiet for a second, and then I said, “Deadlines.” There were a few chuckles, then the other writers went on to give lovely, kind, thoughtful answers about the kind of music they listened to, how they liked their room and writing space, whether they wrote in coffee shops, how long each play took. I sat there feeling a little embarrassed for how snotty I’d been – even though it was totally true. The only thing I need to write is a reason to write, and for me, that’s a deadline, a guarantee that my work would be read.

But also, I was feeling a little sensitive because I have a problem with this question. We just love reading about the rituals of writers, about renting a cabin in the woods vs writing in public, about the latest scriptwriting software and internet-blocking tools, the hidden inspirations of working on a typewriter or writing longhand on legal pads, those “this is how I work” posts on Lifehacker, but all of that does not help us in the least. I mean, it helps if you’re looking to procrastinate, but there are better ways to procrastinate. The only thing that matters is what helps you finish a goal ­– whatever helps you finish that damn play. And that’s something everyone figures out on their own. In their own time.

And now, I’m going to cheat and just paste one of my favorite insights into creative writing rituals from the brilliant Seth Godin. This is an excerpt from his interview on Copyblogger (which I highly recommend reading or listening to in its entirety.)

Brian: (Laughs) So give us some insight into where the ideas come from, what’s your editorial process. Do you kind of wing it, or is it more planned out where you want to take people over time?

Seth: Well, I think it’s very important that I don’t answer that question …

Brian: Oh! …

Seth: … and the reason is … I mean, I’m happy to answer it for you when we’re not talking on the air …

Brian: Okay.

Seth: … but the reason I don’t want to answer it in person is, there is this feeling that if you ate the same breakfast cereal as Stephen King, you’d be able to write the way Stephen King writes. And the breakfast cereal has nothing to do with the writing. And the habits that I have developed are extremely idiosyncratic and totally irrelevant.

Everybody who is a fabulous writer, and I’ve met hundreds of them, does it differently. So there’s no correlation between how someone does it and what they make, and what we do is, because of our fear, Steve Pressfield would call it “The Resistance” to confronting the page — sometimes we spend a lot of time making sure we’ve got the same laptop as this guy, and the same writing setup as this guy, and the same process as this guy. And it’s all stalling.

And what I would rather say to the Copyblogger reader is, write. Just write.

And put it in front of people. And if you don’t put it in front of people, it doesn’t count. And if you get in the habit of putting something in front of people every single day, even if it’s only ten people by e-mail, your writing will shift, and you will adopt the voice you’re meant to have.

But everything you do that stands in the way of you writing — you know, going and buying a 12-pack of Black Wing pencils — is foolish, because you’re just stalling.

Lately I feel like I’m on a mission to communicate to the rest of the world that what we do isn’t magical, abstract, ineffable or romantic – not entirely anyway! Not most of the time. It’s a constant process of trial and error, relentless analysis and refinement, and the proactive challenging of one’s own ideas and assumptions, as you try and craft a story that is emotionally authentic, intellectually rigorous and structurally cohesive. More on that tomorrow, as I return with my next clickbaity headline – The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received.

1 thought on “Don’t Ask Me About My Writing Ritual

  1. I LOVE this Madhuri. I always feel so shallow around writers who talk about stuff like their sacred spaces for creation. Huh. I have an office. Which pretty much always needs cleaning…

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