The Importance of Ritual

I post this in the midst of Passover (happy Passover!), on the runup to Easter (happy Easter!), and probably at the confluence of some other holiday traditions that I’m not aware of or only vaguely comprehend (Bun and Cheese!). It’s also the day after my father’s 65th birthday, which we celebrated by me making his favorite dish for dinner. He’s not really a sweets guy, so this was his “cake”:

Dad's birthday duck

(Yeah, the candle wax got on the duck. He ate it anyway. Such a great dad.)

Anyway, this of course got me thinking about rituals. Now, I’m not a particularly religious person, as I kind of mentioned before, so I’m not referring specifically to religious practices when I use this term. I tend to think of religion, or even its purposeful absence as in atheism or humanism, as a framing device for human life. Rituals help us transition from one stage of life to another. They can provide closure after a trauma, or build one’s strength for upcoming events. They can bring strangers into a community, and encourage bonding and support for those already within it — which is why every community has them, regardless of creed or culture.

This includes the writing community. I’ve picked up a lot of rituals from friends and colleagues during my life as a writer, some of them actual longstanding traditions, most of them made up out of whole cloth. (Hey, we’re creative folks.) I’m only now beginning to realize how absolutely crucial those rituals have been to my progress thus far. For example, one writer friend celebrates milestone rejections (e.g., the 100th rejection letter = a party with lots of beer). I shamelessly stole this idea from her — and because of that, I didn’t get depressed when I got my 100th rejection. Instead I thought, “Hey, cool! Party time!”

(OK, I got a little depressed. But the party made it allllll better.)

And more importantly, I felt like I had progressed to a new stage in my larval writer life-cycle. I felt like a “real writer” because I’d reached that rejection milestone, even though at the time I had no book deal, no awards, one very rejected novel in the trunk, and only a handful of published stories — not one of them in a SFWA-qualifying market. In addition to gleefully anticipating the party, I felt recharged by that 100th rejection. I gained the strength to keep going towards my goals.

(Hmm. Time to tot up my rejections again. I should be coming up on 150 sometime soon… I think that merits a wine bar this time around, don’t you?)

Another example: when I finished Viable Paradise a few years back, I and my classmates were duly administered the Viable Paradise Oath, which made us official graduates of the workshop. (I can’t tell you the oath, sorry. The first rule of the VP Oath is, you do not talk about the VP Oath.) And let me tell you, I walked out of that night’s gathering feeling different. Special. Ready, to go forth and take the writing world by storm. I’d spent that whole week gradually feeling transformed, renewed, fired-up, whatever, but that night crystallized the changes I’d experienced up to that point.

I’ve developed a few rituals of my own in addition to stealing the rituals of others. Because, unlike Dad, I am a monster for sweets, I allow myself one slice of cake from my favorite coffee shop when I complete some major milestone in my writing. (Had a slice tonight [Wed.] because I finally finished the outline of Book 3, after multiple attempts.) When I finish a novel, it’s red velvet cake from this place, which I swear will make you eat your tongue. When I kill off a character I care about or write some powerful tragic scene? I console myself with a Big Blue bath. (Generally with cucumber slices on my eyes, because I tend to cry while I’m writing and that makes my eyelids go all puffy.) Also, when I first got my agent I used to keep a small bottle of really good champagne on hand at all times, with a sticky note on it that read: To Be Opened in Case of Book Deal. Alas, because my first novel didn’t sell and several years passed, I ended up giving that bottle to a fellow author when she got her book published; I felt like someone should enjoy it, since (I thought, despairingly) it didn’t look like I was ever going to. Lo and behold, not six months later, I sold a book. I was at work the day I found out, so I couldn’t have had the champagne anyway — but later that week Alaya gave me a bottle of champagne in return, so I consider the ritual properly fulfilled.

Still trying to decide on a ritual to celebrate the publication of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, when that day comes. I’m planning a small launch party, to which I think I want to wear a slinky dress of some kind. Something off-the-shoulder; thinking of getting a tattoo.

So help me out, here. Those of you reading this who are writers: what are your rituals? Please share; I’ve got a party to plan, after all!


4 Responses to “The Importance of Ritual”

  1. 1 mlronald
    April 9, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    That there is one tasty-looking duck. (Although I’ll admit my first thought was “Hey, candles, ergo cake! What a weird color icing for a cake…and it’s kind of slumped over…wait…”)

    Well, there are the small rituals for everyday work — the cup of something warm to drink, the starting up of Serious Work Music, etc. But I’m not sure I have ones for intermediate steps, and I wonder if that might help with making the first draft seem like less of a slog.

    To celebrate milestones — first sale, first check from a sale, signing with an agent — I usually take the resident organist out for dinner somewhere. And to celebrate the sale of Spiral Hunt, I got a tattoo. It hurt a lot less than I thought it would, but man did it itch when healing.

  2. 2 rachel aaron
    April 10, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    I was at work and I still had champagne! It’s not like work was going to get done after that anyway.

    The only ritual I’ve been able to stick to through my writing is writing every morning. If I don’t write at least something in the morning now, even if it’s a “day off” or “vacation,” I get really cranky. Hell, I woke up at 7 am in Las Vegas to write because I couldn’t enjoy myself if I didn’t.

    Everything else just sort of happens as it happens, but morning writing time is sacred, and woe to anyone who calls/talks/etc. to me while I’m going.

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