The Domain of Mental Disturbance

by Robert Gregory Browne

Rituals have been around for about as
long as man has walked the earth.  Every culture, every religion,
every government, every sport, every one us us, have our share of rituals, many of
which are functional and some that, let’s face it, are just plain

Writers aren’t immune to such things.
Do a quick Google on "writer’s rituals" and you’ll get over
a million and a half hits.  In fact, one website I found — an
education site — suggested that teachers should encourage their
students to cultivate productive writing rituals.  Which only makes

They can even save your life.

In Misery (or at least in the movie
version — I confess I haven’t read the book.  So sue me.), Stephen
King (or William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay) uses a
ritual in the climax of his story.  Early on, the protagonist, writer
Paul Sheldon, celebrates finishing a book with a glass of champagne
and a cigarette that have been carefully laid out for that moment.
Later, Sheldon uses that very same ritual to help him overcome his
captor, the psychopathic Annie Wilkes.

I, naturally, have rituals of my own.
Whenever I sit down to write, I make sure that I have some sort of
white noise going, most often the recorded sounds of Niagara Falls.
I call it my Back to the Womb method of writing and have found that
it’s extremely difficult for me to start without it.

I even keep the audio file on my laptop
so that I can listen to it while I’m on the road.

Once I’m set with the white noise, I
spend ten to fifteen minutes checking mail, reading favorite websites
and blogs, before I finally shut the browser down and get to work.

Work means going back to the beginning
of the chapter I’m on and reading it aloud, making small changes as I
go.  Then, hopefully, by the time I’ve reached my stopping point,
I’ve come up with something worthwhile to say.

If I’m stuck, it’s back to the browser
to cruise more websites or to look for the answer to some bit of
research that might help get the brain working.

While the ritual itself remains the
same, I find that the starting time changes, depending on how close I
am to deadline.  At the beginning of a book, when I have months of
freedom ahead of me, I usually write whenever the mood strikes me.
Then, as I start feeling just a little crowded, I tend to go to bed
early and wake up about three a.m., when the house is quiet (except
for my waterfall) and there are no distractions.

During crunch time, like now, I find
that I can get more work done if I take a nice long nap around five p.m., get up at about eight, have dinner, then start to work and
keep working into the wee hours.  This doesn’t do much for my social
or family life, but fortunately the kids are out of the house now and
I have one of the most understanding wives in the world.

My ritual is pretty tame.  I know there
are obsessive-compulsives out there who have some pretty odd rituals
like checking the locks three times before they go to bed, or
smoothing the left corner of the hallway throw rug every time they
pass — and I’m sure that many writers have little quirky things they
feel they have to do before they get started.

As John Schumaker said, "Without cultural sanction, most or all of our religious beliefs and rituals would fall into the domain of mental disturbance."

So that’s my question to you today.
What are your writing rituals?  The stranger the better.

Don’t be afraid, we won’t laugh.  At
least not too much.

11 thoughts on “The Domain of Mental Disturbance

  1. pari

    It’s an interesting question, Rob.At home, I pretty much follow your schedule — get up, check emails and go to a couple of sites, play a few computer games that involve words (I pretend it’s getting my mind flexed for the work ahead) and then butt to chair writing.

    But, lately, I’ve been trying to break my dependence (or excuse for not writing because it’s not available) on the computer. So, when I have to pick up the kids for carpool, I go to the school 45 minutes early and sit with a pen/pencil and pad and just write a scene — from anywhere in the book — and prevent any censorship at all.

    I think it’s stretching me. We’ll see . . .

  2. Michael Haskins

    Rob, in the early stages I will re-read from the first chapter; later on, when working on an unfinished chapter, I will go back at least on chapter, sometimes more, before I begin writting.When I am stuck, or have a problem with a chapter, I will grab a few cigars and ride up the Keys toward Islamorada or Florida City and somewhere along the ride, up or back, I find the solution! I am not sure if it’s the cigar or the peaceful and scenic ride, but it works for me. I have even thought of something that would make a finished chapter better, this way.Michael

  3. Louise Ure

    I start the day with two crossword puzzles, done in ink.

    Then I have to enter some kind of online contest or giveaway. The prize doesn’t matter. A dream home. A lifetime supply of AAA batteries. Whatever it is, the entry is a talisman for me. (Not that I ever win.)

    After that, I’m ready to work.

    Wish I could master that “turn off the browser” business though.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am extremely grateful to hear that other authors here do the e mail/website thing first thing in the morning, too. As a screenwriter I always WROTE first thing and recently have been torturing myself wondering if I have totally sold out to internet addiction with this new order of business. But maybe it’s just getting the business stuff over with first thing so the rest of the day can be for writing.

    I don’t have any interesting rituals to report, unless massive injections of coffee counts as a ritual.

    But if I don’t go work out some time during the day, no one will come near me, not even the cats.

  5. Elaine Flinn

    I’d love to offer some comments about my daily rituals, but since I’m in the throes of quitting smoking – all my routines are shot to hell and I find myself doing things ass backwards. 🙂

  6. simon

    I get up, work-out or cycle 20 miles, eat breakfast, do email, put my dog in the seat next to me and go. I use the work-out to think about what it is I’m going to write. It puts me in the right frame of mind…

  7. guyot

    I changed everything up this year, and it has been the most productive of my career… and then I go on strike. Go figure.

    Anyway, I used to let myself gradually (or by osmosis) fall into my work each day. If I were on a show and had a script due, I would use music to get me going. I cannot write ANYTHING without first finding the music.

    But this year I began a much more disciplined routine. For the most part:

    1 – Waking early and working out. I can’t tell you how exercising helps the writing the process. We have such a sedentary vocation, when I finally began to start my work days with exercising, my energy level, and ability to focus for long periods went way up. The train leaves the station when I get up and work out.

    2 – Coming home and immediately showering – not letting anything (including the internet) interrupt the forward progress of the train.

    3 – Dressing like I’m going to work. For me, the whole work-in-my-jammies thing keeps me from doing my best. It makes me too relaxed, it’s too easy not to think of writing as a job. So, I dress as if I’m going to an office. I’m not wearing a suit and tie, but I’m dressed enough to work into anything from a McDonalds to a five-star restaurant. Get dressed for work – I highly recommend it.

    4 – Here’s where my routine varies slightly. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will turn on my Mac and immediately deal with the Internet. Answering emails, passing by the ‘Rati, cruising iTunes, maybe a few hands at FTP, etc. I allow myself one-hour to do this, and one hour flies by. When that hour is up (or if I finish before) I open iTunes, then WORD or MMS2000, and hit it.

    4B – On Tuesdays and Thursday I do not go anywhere near the Internet. It is a time sinkhole. On T,Th, I sit down, open iTunes, go to the playlist for my current project, and go to work. Even if I have to sit there typing nothing for two minutes, five minutes, or twnety minutes. Though, the music is coal for the train’s steam engine, and it rarely takes me more than a minute to get going.

    5 – #4 is usually in gear by 9am. I will write for two hours minimum. If it is slow-going, I stop at 11am, and go eat lunch. I love early lunches – the restaurant is empty, the service better, and I always bring my Mac. I will either keep writing – the fresh location and short break almost always helping me. If it’s a Tues or Thurs, and I’m at a place with wi-fi, I will allow myself the lunch hour to deal with email, etc.

    6 – I return to my original writing place and I will work for another two hours. I don’t let anything disrupt me other than calls from home, if need be. My agents and the studios I work with now know they can’t get me on the phone during Central Time afternoon hours.

    7 – On M,W,F I will hit the Net after my second two hour session. This is when I reward myself with a decent work day, and will usually piddle away the rest of the day on the Net. Like commenting on RGB’s post. (Did I type piddle?)

    On Tues/Thurs, if I feel like stopping after the second two hours, I do – and go play the rest of the day, usually with my kids if they’re around, or golf, fishing, shopping (I’m such a girl), movies, etc.

    Some days I’ll write more – getting in five or even six hours of work. But I never allow myself to work less thasn four.

    It sounds goofy, but sticking to this (ritual?) like it was an actual work schedule has been great for me.

  8. guyot


    #3… where it says: but I’m dressed enough to work into anything from a McDonalds to a five-star restaurant.

    It should read WALK. “WALK into anything from a…”

    The edit button sure is a nice feature on Blogger…

  9. JT Ellison

    Fascinating schedule, G.

    I used to worry that I wasn’t adhering to schedules and disciplining myself the way I ought to. Then I realized that I do have a schedule.

    I get up, do a round of emails and blog reading on my upstairs desktop. Then I head to Starbucks for my coffee. I get settled downstairs and start working on whatever it is I need to get done. The downstairs signals that I’m in creative mode.

    From 12-4, I write.

    Around 4, I head to the gym, or do my new passion, yoga. Then emails, shower, cook dinner, etc.

    When I’m working on a book, 12-4 is sacred. Right now, while I piddle and promote and work on another massive project, I use it for those things. I am getting much better about including the exercise, be it a walk or an hour of yoga every day. That’s helping tremendously with the stress of all of this.

    I don’t HAVE to have something to get me going. Thankfully. I’m OCD enough without turning the laptop on and off three times before I start ; )

  10. toni mcgee causey

    I’m changing routines now–including exercise at the beginning of the day where possible. I’ll do a few Soduku puzzles just to quit thinking about other things and transition, and then start writing. After a while, I’ll take a break and check email or surf, and then back to it.

    My schedule is almost the reverse of yours, Rob. I usually write in the evenings after everyone is asleep, but as the time draws closer to a deadline, will change-up to early mornings, then a long nap, then family/work stuff, and some evenings again.

  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    Not a quirky ritual in sight. What’s up with that? I mean, the closest anyone comes is Guyot — but that’s just because he’s generally quirky anyway.

    Other than that, great responses, folks. You’re all as, uh, normal as I am.

    Ohhh, Mandy….


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