As the story goes, writer Ernest Hemingway always started his day’s work by meticulously and thoughtfully sharpening seven No. 2 pencils.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp says that she can unfailingly assure a productive day by waking at 5:30 am, putting on her workout clothes, and hailing a cab to the gym. Once she does that, all is well.
A friend tells me that she starts by serenely grinding her Japanese calligraphy ink. It’s a fifteen minute process that quiets her mind and warms her hand for the work to come. When the ink is ready, so is she.
Writer Steven Pressfield puts on his lucky hoodie sweatshirt, takes the little souvenir cannon on his desk and aims it toward his work, then recites an invocation from Homer.
I love the idea of creative rituals like these.
I have always longed for some preparatory rite that would settle me in for the day’s work. Some practiced habit that would silence the chattering in my head, fire up the right circuits, and then ping the Muses to let them know I’m on the job.
This may sound like so much lofty talk of the precious artiste. But it’s really about producing. You and me, we get paid for finishing work. Delivering the goods. Working through the pages, turning out the designs. Getting it done.
Anything that puts our mind to task and hands to work is simply good business.
Especially if your problem — like mine — involves futzing and doodling and meandering and being utterly distracted for far too many hours every day. (Until 4pm, when you can tell yourself, “Too late to start anything now. Let’s hit it fresh first thing in the morning.”)
But me, I never found a ritual that actually worked. Or a habit that sounded clever enough to talk about if I were ever interviewed for one of those ‘Secrets of the Elite’ articles.
Someone once suggested boiling an egg. You place an egg in a pot, add water, and turn on the heat. Stand there and focus entirely on the egg as it simmers. Just watch the egg, clear the head. Notice nothing but the egg. Eleven minutes and you are focused, free of distraction. And you have a hard-cooked egg for later.
Sounds nice and zen-like. I actually tried that silliness. For like two days.
James Altucher says he preps himself each day by reading the works of great writers for a short time, to steep his brain in brilliant prose.
When I tried that, I ended up reading brilliant prose till about 11:30. And then despairing, because after that, everything I wrote sounded like ham-fisted crap. So no more reading good writers.
But I realized I had already learned a perfectly good ritual. It was back when I worked with a 69-year-old house painter one summer.
Early in the morning, you lay the canvas dropcloths on the front steps, and over the railing. Get the ladder up.
In the shade, you set down the cans of paint. You pry one open. You wipe a flat stick on the thigh of your pants, then dip into the can, stirring in lazy figure-eights.
Meanwhile, light a smoke (which I miss) and look up at the house, planning the swaths you’ll take across the front.
Then, simply, you take the bucket and brush, and clamber up the ladder.
Start moving the brush over the wood.
Which is all it ever takes. Ever. It’s not clever or ingenious or mysterious.
First thing, start typing. Throw out the first five pages if you have to.
But start typing.
Nothing happens till you start typing.