Some thoughts on Writing and Rituals
[as first appeared on From the Mixed Up Files… Of Middle-Grade Authors on March 20, 2023.]
Writers are known to have rituals. Light a candle, sit in your favourite chair, arrange your paperclips at right angles, and only then can/will the the magic at the keyboard begin.
I’m not exactly kidding. Patricia Highsmith apparently started her writing sessions off with a stiff drink; Truman Capote claimed he could only write when horizontal, coffee and a cigarette in hand; Haruki Murakami has said that when he is writing a novel he wakes at 4 am and works for five or six hours straights, runs or swims in the afternoon, and goes to bed by 9 pm.
I do have a Pavlovian response when I hear the opening bars of Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in G, K.301:2. Allegro
As a mother of four kids running a busy home, however, I can’t really afford to get too picky about a lot of that stuff. Mostly I need to do whatever I can to carve out time, and try and use it to the best of my ability. That includes: not peeking at the myriad tabs open as I compare ballet tights, dog food, birthday gifts, name labels on sale, other items on sale; ignoring pinging from any number of WhatsApp groups re: carpools, playdates, football training; not scheduling doctor/dentist/hairdresser appointments; and not checking something else off the endless to-do list. I do have music that I like to listen to when I write. With Honey and Me I basically listened to a Mozart for Morning Coffee CD I had from my kids until eventually technology advanced but I was still slogging away and I switched to Mozart for Study playlists on Spotify. I don’t actually know anything about classical music, but when I hear the opening bars of Sonata for Piano and Violin in G, K.301:2. Allegro my mind jumps to my characters Milla and Honey and their world.
But I can also write in cafes, on airplanes and anywhere there’s white noise rather than the mom-specific noise of someone asking me what’s for dinner or have I seen their shin pads.
There is one ritual I do have though. It’s not exclusive, meaning I can write without it and otherwise go about my day. But it does bring me joy and internal structure—an expectation of what I’m meant to be doing— and there’s something to be said for that.
My ritual is: mugs.
The first thing to know is that I drink tea all day long. Green tea until 2 pm. And then chamomile, and sometimes rooibos or mint. But that’s not really the important part. The important ritualistic part is which mug I am drinking said tea in. I used to have two. One has Elvis Presley on it. It comes from an Elvis-themed truck stop on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It was purchased for me by a taxi driver who took me from Tel Aviv to the cemetery just outside Jerusalem where my friend had buried her son; waited for me during the service, standing on the outskirts with a kippa from his glove compartment; and then took me back to my children waiting for me at a hotel in Tel Aviv before we returned to London later that day. But first he wanted to show me the Elvis truck stop and bought me a cup of tea with the mug as a souvenir.
The Elvis mug
This is the mug I use when it is family time. When I’m using that mug I am not wishing that I could be sitting at my computer. I am counting my blessings for my family and their health— mental and physical. Even when I’m making four different dinners. Even in the depths of lockdown where boundaries in general did not seem to exist. When I take out that mug it’s a choice and a statement that I will try to be in the moment with my family and whatever needs doing for them, and not trying to split my time between my writing and them, giving not enough to either.
The writing mugs (Parts I and II)
My second mug used to be a Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators mug. Purchased by me, for me, at an SCBWI British Isles conference many years ago, this was my work mode mug. When I was using that mug it meant that I did not want to be called by school to come get my sick child. Alas, sometimes that was the case. Because that’s life. But taking out that mug was a choice and a gesture that this writing part of me was important and deserved space.
Unfortunately, a few months ago this mug broke. Don’t ask me how, no one will tell me. My husband glued the handle back on but a chunk was missing. I was going through a Harry Styles thing (I mean, who wasn’t?) and my older daughter, both mortified and milking it for laugh-at-mom value bought me a “You’re So Golden” mug as a replacement work mug. It’s a good one, although it’s a bit more irreverent and less earnest than the SCBWI one. I use it for work, but also sometimes when I need a bit of pep. It should also be said that since my book was published, I have found the definition of work to be different. Rather than just going into my home office to write, I am suddenly running another small business — essentially a marketing and PR firm for my book. It is such different and unexpected work. But perhaps that’s another blog post.
The author mode mug
The point is the lines have been blurred a bit and luckily I now have a THIRD mug which is taking its ritualistic place in my life. Just before Honey and Me was published I got a mystery package in the mail, with handwriting that was extremely familiar but too out of context to place, especially because it had been so long since I’d last seen it. To my shock and utter delight, it was a mug made into the jacket cover of Honey and Me, sent from my oldest best friend Stephanie. I still can’t get over it. It’s hard to say how much this mug means to me. Having the love and support of my friends for one thing. Having a friend who has known me since I was four. Having written a book about friendship and to feel this support from my own friend. Seeing the jacket cover on a mug and feeling OMG this is real, I am about to be a published author. There’s probably more to it that I can’t even harness and pick out the strands of what and how much it means to me, but basically I suspect I have written this whole blog post as an excuse to show off this mug!
So the Honey and Me mug I use when I am in what I think I will call “author mode.” Sometimes I am afraid to take it out lest I drop it and break it. Say what you will about the fragility with which I consider this new mode of being for me: “author.” Other times I sip from it proudly or at least try to own it. The book is published and I am proud of it. I love how people are connecting to it. I love talking to kids who have read it! And it’s been an added surprise and bonus to talk to all the adults who have read it and related to it, no matter their background.
All I know is, I hope my mugs don’t break. I hope that people everywhere love my book. I hope I have more books in me. I hope my family stays safe. Even without my mugs these are my hopes and fears.