To a writer, the blank screen or a blank piece of paper can be exciting or daunting. A blinking cursor can be a beacon to our calling or a signal of danger ahead. Writers create for the masses but do so in isolation.
It’s November. To a fiction writer, November signals the internet-based creative writing project called National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Participants set a goal of writing a 50,000 word manuscript during November. Just a draft — a rough draft. The point is to produce, not polish. Claiming victory is on an honor system.
To gear up for NaNoWriMo, writers might research, outline the plot, create character sketches. They might also stock up on M&Ms, or carrot sticks, or wine. If you want to know more about this annual challenge, go to nanowrimo.org.
Years ago, whenever I started a new writing project, I bought purple pens. I also got a new hairstyle. I didn’t realize I did that until one day I showed my hairdresser a picture of a style I wanted to try and she said, “Oh, you must be starting a new book.” I was.
You might first create a vision board for the plot of your book, or select music to play while you write. My friend Sharon Schulze writes to the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans. You might buy a new candle, or hike a new trail, or make a good-luck-meal of black beans and rice. These various activities all have a common intent: to enable the writer to create a good story.
THE BLACK DEATH AND THE PRINTING PRESS
Writers want to be read. The reading audience would be small if every copy of every book still had to be scrawled by hand on sheepskin or bark, or bone, or banana leaves. Fortunately, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. That was in 1440. The world changed. With books suddenly available to the masses, people were motivated to learn how to read. Knowledge spread in a way it never had before.
Keep in mind that just a hundred years before the printing press was invented, the pandemic known as the Black Death had decimated Europe. That was 1347. At the time, people belonged to one of four classes:
- The nobility — These were the people with titles and money who ruled over everyone else.
- The warriors — These were the people with swords and horses who fought for and were paid by the nobility.
- The church — These were the priests who prayed for the eternal salvation of others, especially the nobility who supported the churches.
- The peasants — These were the people who worked the land, grew the food, and raised all the animals for the nobility, the church, and the warriors. Illiteracy was common among the peasants.
By comparison, the nobility and the church were small groups. They owned books. The peasants made up the largest group. The peasants were strong. To farm the land, they had tools that could be used as weapons. The warriors were also strong but were often far away, fighting to acquire new lands.
Back home, the nobility and the church feared that if the peasants ever rose against them, well, things could go bad. The nobility and the church knew that the best way to control the peasants was to keep them ignorant and in fear of eternal damnation.
But when the Black Death swept across the land, it didn’t spare any class. Nobles and knights fell just as the peasants did. The peasants begged the priests to come to their humble homes and pray for the dying. When the priests refused, the peasants got suspicious. Priests had always proclaimed to be protected by God. They wouldn’t get the plague. So why wouldn’t they help? Why did the priests, like the nobles, flee the cities? What did they know that the peasants didn’t know?
Of course, some priests did come to the homes of the peasants. When those priests got the plague and died, the truth was evident: Priests were humans, ordinary humans, just like the peasants.
That revelation brought about a major cultural change but it didn’t happen overnight. Let me explain. You see, the Black Death didn’t come and go in one season. It lasted for about four years and killed an estimated 200 million people.
Obviously, some people survived. The peasants had an advantage. Their lifestyle included fresh food, fresh air, and physical labor. They were physically strong.
As the plague hung on season after season, the nobles needed their land plowed, their seeds planted, their harvest brought in, and their cattle tended. Many of their own workers were dead. So the nobles reached out to the peasants.
Those peasants who had survived realized they were now in a position to name their own price. The bold ones did. And they got it. When the nobles wanted to sell land to avoid paying taxes on it, the peasants bought small parcels. What else did these peasants do with their increased wages? That’s the best part of the story.
You have to remember that change came a lot slower in the 1400s than it does now. It could take months, even years, for news to reach the masses and for change to catch on in a big way. Today, it takes a tweet. Back then it could take years, decades, sometimes generations, for certain changes to affect society in a lasting way.
By the time of Gutenberg's printing press in 1440, a hundred years after the Black Death, there were still the four classes of people: nobles, priests, warriors, and peasants. But during that span, life had improved for many of the peasants. By 1440, there were also shopkeepers and tavern owners, beekeepers, brewers, blacksmiths and bakers. tanners, tailors, and shoemakers. They owned their own land, their own businesses. They had money to buy books — a suddenly accessible status symbol available of this newly emerged group called the middle class.
One of the first books a middle class family purchased was a Bible. Not only for the content, but because the Bible was a legally accepted record of a family’s births, deaths, and marriages. Other books entertained. Some provided instruction. Some offered new scientific theories.
The survivors of the Black Death and the printing press changed the culture. For the next 200-plus years, Europe experienced a renaissance, with particular interest in the Greek and Roman classics and mythology.
Wealthy patrons supported artists for creations they could display in their homes. Governing bodies commissioned art for public places. This was the period when Michelangelo sculpted his world-famous David. DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus. This was also Shakespeare’s time. Art and literature flourished.
Years ago, I went to England, to Stratford-on-Avon, to Shakespeare’s home. I got to see one of his journals. It was opened and encased in glass. Though I couldn't touch the journal, I could see the paper, the ink, the words, the handwriting. As an actor, he probably did some kind of vocal warmups before taking the stage. I wondered if he had any routines or rituals before writing. Did his muse require a cup of tea, or a glass of wine? Did he have to wear a certain shirt? Sit in a certain chair? We may never know.
Here we are now, almost 600 years after the invention of the printing press. The writers I know all use computers. One of my friends still writes the first draft of each scene in longhand, then types it into the computer. Another friend decorates the cover of a plain journal with images from the book she’s writing. Another pulls a tarot card. Another packs a notebook, a fountain pen, and heads to a coffee shop to write.
Before I sit down to write, I diffuse a blend of essential oils: frankincense, rose, jasmine, and palo santo. The fragrance is beautiful, but that’s not why I use that combination.
In his book, A Compendium of Herbal Magick, author Paul Beyerl says that frankincense “assists the conscious mind in maintaining focus.” He talks about how rose is used in rituals of union. I think of writing as a union with my muse. Beyerl notes that jasmine promotes creativity, and that the sweet, woodsy scent of palo santo, like frankincense, is used for protection. Diffusing those particular oils is not just a routine. My intent is to unite with my muse, maintain focus, banish all doubt and distraction, and create. Intent makes it a ritual.
When I started writing my first book, I made a cover flat from a piece of cardboard. I wrote the title (Band of Gold) in swirly letters and my name in big letters. I found a picture of a wedding ring in a magazine and glued it in the middle. Then I taped the cover right next to my computer. Looking at that piece of cardboard before I turned on the computer was a routine. My intent was for that cover to inspire me to write. Intent makes it a ritual.
Years ago, my daughter gave me a pen on a chain. The pen looked like gold. It sparkled. She said anything I wrote with that pen would be magical. That pen sits on the altar next to my desk. With the pen is a miniature typewriter and a wooden alphabet block with a Z on one side. When I dust, I hold those items for a few seconds. I’m reminded of Mercury, the god of communication and Venus, goddess of beauty and art. I’m also reminded of Johannes Guttenberg and how his printing press changed the world and made books available to everyone. My intent is to focus my energy on what I want, which is to write another book.
RITUALS FOR WRITERS
If you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo, or you’re working on your own timeline to write a book, here are several rituals you might find helpful.
My Magic Pen
The purpose of this ritual is for you to associate a specific pen with your creativity. You can purchase a special pen like the one my daughter gave me. Or, you can take a pen you have and tie a piece of ribbon around it. You can use nail enamel and paint a flower or a spiral on the pen, or glue on a small crystal. When you sit down to work on your manuscript, pick up the pen, write “I am Zita. I create.” If you like to write in longhand first, continue to use your magic pen. Otherwise, set it in a safe place and fire up your computer.
My Animal Muse
In the metaphysical world, animals are thought to represent certain qualities. Here are four of my favorites, along with an affirmation:
- Lions are fearless and so am I.
- Ants see the details and so do I.
- Cardinals get projects started and so do I.
- Whales communicate with confidence and so do I.
Go to any of the royalty-free photo sites. I like Unsplash. Find images of one or all four of those animals. Print them out and keep them where you can see them. Or, save them on your desktop. Before you start writing, look at the animal whose quality you need most at that moment.
If you need the fearless quality of the lion, say the affirmation Lions are fearless and so am I. Say it out loud and then roar. Really ROAR!
Earlier this week, I was talking with my daughter while she was driving to work. She was going to be interviewed by a television station that morning and she was nervous. Her sun sign is Leo. I reminded her that people aren’t born with the fully formed qualities of their sun sign. We develop those qualities over time.
I also reminded her that Leos lead with confidence. I told her to roar. Just then, she pulled into the parking lot. I said, “Honey, I’m serious. You need to roar.” To which she said, “Mom, I’m in a car and I’m wearing a mask. No problem.” And she let out a roar that honored all Leos everywhere. In case you’re wondering, her interview was a success. She combined the action of roaring with the intent to feel brave. She did a ritual.
If you need the attention to detail that ants symbolize, get a piece of paper and on it write the letter “i” in lower case. Omit the dot. Just make the little stem. Write at least ten lower case i’s (no dots). You can connect them in one string, or write each one separately.
Then say the affirmation about ants. Ants see the details and so do I. Say it out loud. As you do, dot each of those little i’s. Dot them with precision, close to the stem, the way a lower-case i appears on the computer.
Years ago, I maintained a certification as a handwriting analyst. A person who dots her eyes with that kind of precision pays attention to details. When you combine the action of dotting all those little i’s with the intention of paying attention to details, you have a ritual.
Of all the rituals I’m sharing here, this is the one most likely to make you uncomfortable.
If you want to start a project, or a chapter, or a scene and you feel stuck, call on the energy of the cardinal.
The word cardinal comes from the Latin cardo, a noun meaning a hinge. Look at a door. A hinge makes it possible for the door to open. The word evolved to mean “something on which a development turns, or pivots” — like following an idea, getting stuck, and then turning a corner, opening a door to a new path.
If you’re like me, you have several blank journals in a drawer. Pick one. Not just any one. Pick the one you’ve been saving to use for something special. You know, the leather-bound journal, or the one with the handmade paper. Open it.
Pick up a pen. Say the affirmation out loud: Cardinals get projects started and so do I. Make a big, bold, straight, downward stroke right in the middle of the first page.
Did you cringe? I get it. Part of you thinks you spoiled the page. You didn’t.
Again from my former world as a handwriting analyst, that big, bold, straight, downward stroke moved energy from the realm of thought to the realm of action. When you do this, you are combining the action of a singular, bold stroke with the intent to initiate some new aspect of your writing. You have a ritual.
At the end of the day, make a journal entry right over that bold stroke. Fill the whole journal with that ritual.
Whales are mammals that live in the water. In the metaphysical world, water is the realm of feelings. If you need to write confidently about something emotional, fill up the bathroom sink with water. Say the affirmation: Whales communicate with confidence and so do I. Say it out loud.
As you do, immerse your hands in the water. Move your hands gently as though they were whales communicating with each other. When you do this, you are combining the action of moving your hands in water with the intent to communicate effectively in the world of emotions. You have a ritual.
What is a ritual?
There are many ways to define ritual. To me, ritual is a visible act performed with invisible intent. Once you see the pattern, you can create all kinds of rituals for yourself.
Writer – Written in Stone
I created this ritual for a group of writers. I’ll tell you about it in case you’re a member of a writers’ group. I’ll also tell you how you can modify the ritual to do for yourself.
In the summer of 2012, I led the closing ritual for the week-long conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild. That year, the conference was held at Yale, an ivy league university that opened its doors in the early 1700s.
I remember walking into the dining hall for the first time. Seeing the cavernous room with endless, heavy, dark wood paneling, I thought for sure I’d been transported to Hogwarts. Yale was the perfect location for this particular ritual. Everything spoke of legacy.
At registration, I had a large basket filled with black river stones and covered with black tulle. Each woman reached under the tulle and claimed a stone. Near the basket were a dozen silver Sharpies and instructions to mark her stone with the word, “Writer,” carry the stone with her to class all week, and bring it to the closing ceremony on Friday night.
When Friday night arrived, everyone gathered in an auditorium. I had set up an altar with two long tables, candles, and flowers. As each woman entered, she was told to place her stone, face down, on the altar.
There were more than 100 women that year. They came from all over the world. Most were unpublished. Many had never shown their work to anyone. Over the course of the week, that had changed. A hallmark of the conference was the support women received and how they were encouraged to read their work out loud. For some, that meant sharing with a partner in class. For others, it meant standing at a lectern, reading out loud to the whole group.
There were several components to the ceremony that night. The final element was a YouTube video about women who had made their mark in history. The Guild had recently gone through a life-altering transition, from leadership to location. Just before the video started, here’s what I said to the women:
“This past year has been one of reinvention. We mapped new routes and developed new routines. We deleted the old version of our identity and wrote a new draft. As women, as writers, and as the Guild, we honor the legacy that brought us to this point. And we aren’t afraid to revise and move forward. Because what hasn’t changed is our commitment to a community of women for whom writing is essential to life.
“Writing. It’s the juice of our today and the legacy of our tomorrow. Writing. We do it on laptops and tablets, in spiral-bound notebooks and on index cards. We use pens, pencils, our fingers, our voice. Today, we have more tools than a hammer and chisel. And yet, the idea of having our words written in stone still conveys the definitive, the powerful.
“When you registered on campus, you received a stone and the instructions to mark it with a single word: WRITER. Did that simple act remove a hobbling doubt? Did it affirm an already strong conviction? Will seeing such a stone on your desk at home recall how it felt to pen the letters W..R..I..T..E..R?
“In a moment, I’ll invite you to come forward and take one of these stones as a reminder of the identity you brought with you, or perhaps found here. Ah, you say, but what if I don’t get the stone on which I wrote? You won’t. That’s the idea. What you will get is a tangible reminder that you are connected to one of us, and to all of us, because you write. It can be a novel of 100,000 words or a haiku of 8 or anything in between. Regardless of the form, our words and our commitment to them are part of a legacy, part of this Guild’s legacy.
“We may not realize we’re leaving a legacy, not right away. Some of the women in the video we’re about to watch didn’t either.”
We all watched the video. Women applauded. Women cried. When the video ended, everyone went to the altar and took a stone. For the rest of the night and the next day as we all said our good-byes, women showed each other their stone. From comments women shared with me, having the word “Writer” written in the handwriting of someone else who had shared the week-long experience was more meaningful than I had anticipated.
On the stone I chose, the letters were thin, light, and shaky. As a handwriting analyst, I recognized the writing of someone who didn’t have a lot of physical energy. So I took the stone home, placed it on my altar, and visualized the writer feeling strong and healthy, sharing her writing with confidence. Of course, I have no idea whose stone I had. What matters is that I sent positive energy to that woman, whoever she was. It made me feel good.
You can adapt this ritual by putting the word “Writer” on several stones. Decorate each one. Add a few stars, a flower, a spiral, a bird, a crescent moon, the glyph for your astrological sign. Keep one of the stones near your computer. Place the others in different places around your home, places where you’ll see the stones often. Every time you pick up one of the stones, say “I am a writer.” Then move the stone to a new spot. Let your home affirm your identity as a writer. Your home will feel good. So will you.
Just remember these words from the late fantasy writer Ursula LeGuin who said: “There have been civilizations that did not use the wheel. But here have been no civilizations that did not tell stories.”
I love that quote. To me, it speaks to the importance of the stories we tell. So find your story. Find a way to tell it.