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Emma Straub: On Ritual

Emma Straub: On Ritual

photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

“I write lying down. Not reclining all the way, but with my back supported behind me, and my legs stretched out in front. I cross my ankles one way, then I cross them the other. My laptop sits on my thighs, supported by either a pillow or a hideous lap-desk-cushion-thing I bought at an office supply store. I haven’t written a single word sitting at a desk in almost six years.

“It started as a necessity—when I moved in with my husband, then my boyfriend, we lived in a studio apartment. There was only room for one real desk, and due to several factors (the size of my husband’s computer, the fact that he makes actual money as a graphic designer, etc.), I downsized to a sewing table that I never once used. For a few days, I tried to write at the kitchen table. No dice. Every day, without fail, I would wind up back in bed, a few pillows shoved behind me, with my computer on my lap. The only drawback was that the bed faced my husband’s desk, which meant that while I was writing, I was also often not writing, but instead looking over his shoulder and at whatever he was doing. I would offer my helpful comments throughout the day, until he put his headphones on to drown me out.

“A year later, we moved to Wisconsin. My husband had a room of his own, with a door and everything. This meant that the bedroom was mine. I would often not leave the room for days except for meals. The first house we rented in Madison was pitch black almost all day, and I would often forget to turn on the lights, and find myself sitting in the darkness. I didn’t nap nearly as often as you might imagine, though I won’t lie to you and tell you it never happened.

“We moved back to New York a little over a year ago, and through a combination of luck, alchemy, and distance from a neighborhood anyone has ever heard of, were able to buy a house. For the very first time, I have my own office with a door. It is the smallest room in the house, no more than fifty square feet, a tiny rectangle. I painted the walls a color Benjamin Moore calls Malibu Peach, and filled the shelves with my reference books. My sewing-table desk and chair sit, dusty and ignored, against one wall. And at the far end of the room, beside the window overlooking the garden, I write while reclining on my chaise lounge, legs outstretched. Some may call it decadent, but I’m in good company here—Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust both wrote in bed, too, and one can’t feel too fancy on an itchy piece of Ikea furniture. Unless you sleep on a bunk bed, perilously close to the ceiling, or on a tatami mat with no cushion for your tailbone, I urge you to try it. You will thank me later, in an email you’ll send while wearing pajamas, or nothing at all, from the comfort of your bed.”



On Ritual at Big Other

Is it true, dear writer? Do people in all walks of life find that “starting off with a simple, ordered routine establishes a mindset which helps get any job done”? Questia claims it’s so (August 2009). I remain on a mission to prove or debunk the notion.

Help me. Jot down your writing ritual (or not). We’ll discover–and let readers know, finally and forever–if rituals really do pay off.

  • 300 word limit.
  • Rolling deadline.
  • Recommend others.
  • Reply with a pic of you–in your workspace or in outer space.
  • Replies, questions or comments: stacymus@gmail.com

Previously ritualized: Marcy DermanskyNicolle ElizabethGabriel OrgreaseMichael Leong

*Some responses may be eligible for posting at American Short Fiction blog, where I began the On Ritual series.

14 thoughts on “Emma Straub: On Ritual

  1. I love this. I’m insanely nosy when it comes to writing rituals. Plus I’m getting Emma Straub’s Fly-Over State soon and I’m pretty excited. Looks fabulous. Nice to know it was written in bed. I don’t have the same luxury because I use a desktop. I’m madly in love with my desktop though, so it’s working out fine.

  2. i can’t stand rituals. i don’t know how to follow them. i break in an out of routines and rituals. i don’t think, i just do.

    i usually can’t write on a desk. i also write laying down. sometimes i write sitting on steps on a stoop or inside, if there are stoops. sometimes i write in a garden, recently inside a cathedral.

    although i am not particular about how–as in which position i write—i am very cognizant of the energy i require (energy in a spot in the apartment, someone’s house, on a street, inside a cafe, outside) to write. i can’t write if i am not still and snapped out of and disconnected almost.

    this was great.



  3. In a cathedral.


    Another one who wrote leany-loungy on a chaise: William Wordsworth. He once said, it may be in his diary, “The desk is a torture device.” Emma Straub, you do keep good comp’ny.

  4. I also often write lying down with a lap desk! I like to think it’s so I can still think of writing as recreation. I know some people need to treat it as work, as a job, and maybe I will someday. Since I often write after a full day of office work, though; I need to think of writing as non-work. And I need to put my feet up.

  5. I’m a very anti-routine person, throughout the writing of Rosie, my novel (to be published Jan ’11), I went through phases of different positions, settings and everything in between.
    During the first draft, I used to sit on my bed, my back supported by the biggest and puffiest pillow we have, my knees up, supporting my netbook and the fan on the fastest speed (that’s during summer, during winter, the fan was replaced by the heaviest covers we have).
    But when I started the oh-so-famous revisions and re-writings, I moved to the couch, crossed my legs, supported my netbook with a pillow and typed like crazy.
    I like working in noisy settings, believe it or not – as long as the noise isn’t directed at me. I can switch off the background, while reading *and* writing, so it won’t distract me. Many times did my mother tell me she tried to talk to me but I wouldn’t respond; even though I was a few feet away, her voice never made its way to my mind as being directed at me – it was just…noise. And noise is kind of inspirational; it gets me out of the dullness of quietness – the dullness that can make my story sound so stiff.
    That’s it. Now, my WIP is still forming its own writing rituals – let’s see how it turns out!

  6. Although I can really write anywhere (crowded train? Check. Bus-stop? Check. Niece’s Christening? Check) I DO have a routine and if I follow it, generally it works.

    Here it is:

    Up at 6:45. Check emails. Take dog for very long tramp over fields. Eat breakfast. Take laptop into office @ 9:00 sharp with large cup of tea or coffee, put iPod in player. Write.

    Stop @ around 12:30. Save work. Eat lunch. Take dog for long tramp over fields. Sometimes, if morning has been difficult, nap for half an hour. Back into office by 14:30 at latest. Write.

    Stop @ around 17:30-18:00. Save work. Take dog for long tramp over fields. Eat dinner.

    The tramping over fields bit is probably the most vital – sitting in a chair for long periods of time makes me stiff, sleepy and cross and that’s not a great mood for writing. I have a 2000 word a day target six days a week, and I hit it probably five days out of the six. But I have the luxury of being full-time, which I think really does help with the putting together of good rituals and sticking to them.

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