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On Summoning the Gods

Think it’s easy staring at a blank screen in a lonely room while waiting for the muse to move you? No wonder we need our rituals to coax out the words.

by Adrian O’Hanlon III

What civilians might consider unorthodox or bizarre or flat out superstitious makes perfect sense to narrative writers. From Balzac, who was known to consume up to 50 cups of coffee a day, to Maya Angelou, who wrote anonymously in hotel rooms, to John Cheever, who composed mostly in his underwear, writers engage daily in a wild assortment of compulsive behaviors to access their muse, to get right with their creativity, and — dare we say it — to break through their writer’s block.

We surveyed Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speakers past and present — as well as other members, friends and family of the “tribe” — about their rituals, routines and regimens. These quirks might run the categorical gamut: environmental (a remote, hopefully tropical writer’s cave), timing (midnight mania), behavioral (pre-game rituals such as meditating, exercising or howling at the moon) — even in-game habits such as writing while standing or drinking copious amounts of Mountain Dew.

Not wishing to encourage the weak willed or faint of heart, we excluded risky behaviors such as stock car racing, crowd surfing and cock fighting. After collecting the responses and locking them away with a first edition of The Elements of Style autographed by both Strunk and White (don’t we have a right to our own rituals?), we tabulated the results and present them for your edification with the idea that you might incorporate them into your own rituals, as needed.


Linda Tirado

Street Cred: Former night cook, overnight Internet sensation for her essay, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or poverty thoughts,” whose virability led to a book deal: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America; 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speaker.

Ritual: “Wake up, determined to write, get tea. Get distracted by the news, write something genius on Twitter. Remember I was supposed to respond to an email. Edit whatever I wrote yesterday down to five salvageable paragraphs. Decide not in a good spot to write just now, drink more tea. Decide a beer might help. Make dinner. Switch to whiskey. Wait for kids to go to bed, read news again. Give up as a bad day. Try to sleep. Struck with inspiration. Get up and write frantically for five hours. Declare self a genius. Pass out in comfy chair in front of keyboard.”

Please note: any writer wishing to replicate Linda’s ritual must “take their tea with milk and sugar,” she says, “eat cheese fries for snacks and drink Jameson Irish Whiskey at any time.” Pre-game warm-up entails “curating playlists, then listening to jazz when writing about emotion—or Bad Religion and Anti-Flag when writing about the economy.”


James McGrath Morris

Street Cred: Acclaimed biographer, journalist and high school teacher who has spent a decade as each. Writes a column exploring the changing world of publishing, hosts a monthly radio show; past president of Biographers International Organization; 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speaker.

Ritual: James offers a simple solution to getting unstuck: move on to something else.

“If I suffer a writer’s block, I simply start working on another part of the project.” For different stages in his writing process, he picks different kinds of music: For note taking, organizing and filing, he wants music with words; for crafting sentences and structuring story it’s music without words.”


Caleb Hannan

Street Cred: Former editor of the Seattle Weekly, award-winning Denver-based freelance journalist, 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speaker addressing the breach of ethics he is accused of committing in a story that still haunts him: Grantland’s “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.”

Ritual: Not every writer feels the need to remain open to the universe. Caleb’s writing regimen is much duller than the heated controversies his writing generates. No interesting obsessions, superstitions or fetishes. He will cop to one vice shared by many writers— “stress eating.” His drug of choice: Tostitos Hint of Lime Flavored Tortilla Chips.


Bill Marvel

Street Cred: Journalist with more than 45 years of experience; former senior staff writer with The Dallas Morning News specializing in long-form narrative; collaborator on Island of the Damned, published by Penguin in 2010; “friend” to the University of North Texas’ Mayborn School of Journalism and frequent lecturer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Ritual: Says he writes best working in extreme solitude—no phone, no Internet, no windows, no interruptions. “A sealed lead box at the bottom of the ocean would be ideal.” His remedy for writer’s block: pushing himself away from his desk and walking around. Upon his return, he needs to refuel the muse: a bag of jelly beans or candy corn will suffice. What works for him may not work for others: “Even if writers manage to avoid any distractions while working,” Bill says, “they eventually come to a point in their process where they start to spin their wheels in the mud, stuck on an idea or a transition to the next one. Frustration may build until a writer flings pages of rewrites across the room and buries his face in his hands. Or the writer may down the last of her beer and mumble to herself as she pours a shot of whisky.” See Linda Tirado.


Skip Hollandsworth

Street Cred: Texas Monthly Executive Editor; award-winning journalist, recognized for his true crime in Best American Crime Writing; three TM articles turned into TV movies, a fourth became a feature film: the 2011 black comedy Bernie, which he co-wrote with director Richard Linklater; frequent lecturer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and the University of North Texas’ Mayborn School of Journalism.

Ritual: When the political yammering of MSNBC’s Morning Joe doesn’t jump start his muse, Skip grabs his laptop, hops in his car and guzzles his own morning Joe at his favorite Starbucks in North Dallas. Between the noisy grinders and the distraction of friends, he manages to pound out the pages. “To misquote Pascal, the hardest thing for a writer to do is to sit quietly in his own empty, TV-less room and get something accomplished. It is my lifelong challenge.”


Amy Silverman

Street Cred: Phoenix New Times Managing Editor; two-time Arizona Press Association Journalist of the Year; memoirist, blogger, playwright and adjunct professor teaching magazine writing at Arizona State University; contributor to publications such as Child, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, salon.com and Playboy; 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speaker.

Ritual: If God is in the details, the divine is certainly present during Amy’s writing ritual. She does most of her writing in the front room of Lux, a Phoenix coffee shop, often in her favorite chair, always after ordering an unsweetened hibiscus iced tea, always with a pink straw. Lux does offer orange, green and yellow straws — but if there has been a run on pink straws, “I get very upset.” Even after settling into her Lux front-room chair, with pink straw a-slurpin’, she must write in Times New Roman font and 14-point type. Always.


Ken Wells

Street Cred: Bloomberg News Editor-at-Large; former Wall Street Journal reporter and Page One editor; Pulitzer Prize finalist; author of five works of fiction, two works of nonfiction and the editor of two journalism anthologies; frequent lecturer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Ritual: If ritual stories were ever anthologized in say, the Best American Ritual Writing, Ken’s ritual story would certainly be included: Despite a brilliant career as a journalist, Ken wanted to write novels, spending 12 years in pursuit of one and only getting halfway done. Then he became an editor for the Wall Street Journal in Manhattan, making the daily commute from Hoboken, New Jersey, a 45-minute train ride each way. Rather than read the paper, he decided to spend the time working on his novel. He bought an expensive laptop, and immediately suffered buyer’s remorse, thinking “a crowded commuter car would never be a viable office.” Although he made progress on his novel, he decided to shelve it and began a second, coming up with a first draft in 20 days — all aboard the train. “Surprisingly, I actually started writing, head down, every day, and found I liked the rhythm of the train as I typed,” he says. “And unsurprisingly, when you start typing on a schedule, the pages begin piling up.” He composed four more novels, and would return to the first one and finish it. All of them would be published, and all of them written, save the revisions, while commuting.

Think it’s easy staring at a blank screen in a lonely room while waiting for the muse to move you? No wonder we need our rituals to coax out the words.
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