In Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro writes about renowned author Joyce Carol Oates. Over breakfast, Joyce’s husband asked if she’d like him to read aloud from a newspaper review of her newly released novel. She surprised him by answering no. “If it’s a good review it will ruin my writing day, and if it’s a bad review, it will ruin my writing day. Either way, I intend to have my writing day.”
How true! There’s a ritual of daily habits that I go through in preparation to sink into that focused near dreamlike state that allows the story to flow through me. Even when I do everything to the letter—read some nonfiction, journal, make the bed, wash up the dishes, meditate, do a bit of yoga—words can stutter onto the page. So, I stick to my routines (always with an eye to improvement), to increase the odds of consistent creative flow. The slightest distraction, negative or positive, shifts my attention and drains the magic.
You know those movies scenes in which people gather for a séance? And possessed by a spirit, the fortune teller appears illuminated and wide-eyed? Then when the spirit vacates her body, she collapses in utter exhaustion. That’s me at the start and finish of a great writing day.
Before noon, I rarely check emails and almost never venture onto social media. Either one would be tantamount to a deafening record scratch. I’d be catapulted out of the zone and it’s such hard work to get back in. The web of thought I’d been constructing (and just lost) will not return to me with the same electrical current I’d amassed in that initial moment—no matter how many cryptic notes I jotted on index cards in an attempt at recovery. I continue the work, but it’s more effortful.
I’m even careful about auditory stimulation. Our home is silent during writing hours, except for conversations with my husband. Until I’m done working for the day, I don’t listen to music or podcasts. They enrich my life and introduce subject matter that broadens my thinking, but before my pen is laid aside and my laptop is closed, they short circuit my flow. I am a big believer that the unconscious mind continues making connections even when we’re not consciously attending to story situations I’m trying to resolve. Until I’m ready to call it a day, I choose not to interrupt those processes.
If I were in Joyce Carol Oates shoes (or slippers as it were), I would also opt to read the review at the end of the writing day. But how could I not want to read a review? Here’s why. Good or bad, I’ll be completely jazzed and all day long, each word I push out will feel like birthing an elephant.
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