Yesterday: Bill Cotter On Ritual. Today: Annie La Ganga On Ritual.

Annie La Ganga: On Ritual

Writer Annie La Ganga (right) with writer Bill Cotter

“I used to hate writing. It was just so hard to sit still. Now that I’m fatter, I like it. It’s one of the things I can do that doesn’t make me winded. It’s easier than climbing stairs or taking a shower. I can do it lying down. I’ve learned to just do it. I’m like a Nike ad, only out of shape and tired. I trust myself now. I think that’s what I’m really trying to say. I don’t have to fight a war with my subconscious every time I lie down to write. I no longer feel like I have to prove something to my shaming critical mother complex just to send a fucking email. For me, the battle of writing has never had anything to do with being out of ideas or things to say, or having to work sixteen hours a day and raise small children on a budget or anything even remotely heroic or reality-based. The battle has always been about trying to beat down doubt and anxiety and self-loathing long enough to squeeze a few lines out before I drop into a major depressive episode. Occasionally, I would enjoy a seizure of writing when whole pages popped out earnest and angry and good but usually, on a day to day trying to amass a coherent body of work over a decade kind of way, I failed to produce anything but whining about not being able to write anything that wasn’t about not being able to write. The reason it’s not like that anymore is because I kept writing and I kept going to therapy and finally I got a career coach who made me do collages and use an egg timer to meditate for ten minutes and write with my non-dominant hand and do all that kind of crap. She was awesome. I did everything she said to do because she terrified me. After working together for about a year, she made me pick a deadline to have a completed manuscript. There was something about the deadline with her that mattered to me. I felt that I had truly reached a bottom, I had to pay a stranger to make me finish a book and if that didn’t work I would really be fucked. I finished the book. It got published. Nothing significant changed in my life except that I got fatter and now it’s no big deal to write.”
Yesterday: Bill Cotter On Ritual. (Annie calls Bill Cotter “Billy.”)
Right now: books for sale. Bill’s and Annie’s.
All this year: Happy 2011, ever’body! Hope yours is like a Nike ad, only out of shape and tired. Just like Annie says.


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:

Previously ritualized: Bill CotterMary HamiltonEmma StraubMarcy DermanskyNicolle ElizabethGabriel OrgreaseMichael Leong

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


Today: Bill Cotter On Ritual. Tomorrow: Annie La Ganga On Ritual.

Bill Cotter: On Ritual

Writer Bill Cotter (left) with writer Annie La Ganga

“I wish I could start this piece with something like ‘An ordinary, workaday writing session for me begins with an hour of meditative levitation followed by guttural sounding and a pint of warmed duckling bouillon paired with a cruller, and then I sit on my brambles and dip a bamboo quill into some homemade oak gall ink and pen away on ivory calfskin vellum until I’ve produced a substantive, holistic, polished, and, if possible, already-sold piece of writing etc. etc.,’ but I can’t, because my writing process is neither workaday nor interesting. For me, a typical writing session will begin in the evening (the daylight hours being spent putting off the session till the last practicable instant), and continue for three hours. I write on a laptop. I’ve been doing so for so long now that writing out the rent check every month is the only act of penmanship I can perform without cramping and blistering, the point of the pen wandering off midword when I suddenly forget how to draw a letterform.
“The last couple of years I’ve been working in an old leather chair, a relic from the den of a childhood home. The chair’s seat cushion is torn, exposing a crumbly, noisome foam that will transfer its odor to its sitter if the sitter is not protected with Tyvek or some such. Apart from that, the chair is adequate, and set at a profitable angle of repose–too steep for napping; just shallow enough to maintain a level of discomfort suitable to the writing of fiction. The room in which the chair is located is also my day-job workshop (book restoration), so in order to block out the many distractions, I keep the room dark, and the arm-sweep around my chair bare except for a big ice coffee. It is from this dark, smelly, uncomfortable leather hole that my tedious, unsalable, self-conscious, derivative, and unrewarding fictional worlds spring.”
Tomorrow: Annie La Ganga On Ritual.
Right now: books for sale. Bill’s and Annie’s.
All this year: Happy 2011, ever’body! Hope yours is shiny and bright.

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Mary Hamilton: On Ritual

Mary Hamilton: On Ritual
“I try to not to get too connected to any one physical space or object when it comes to writing. I’ve made that mistake before. I’ve grown attached to coffee shops that went out of business and kitchen nooks in apartments where I just couldn’t live anymore.
“I write when I’m staring out the window on the bus. I’ve been a user of public transit for most of my adult life (the only exception being the five months I lived in LA when I was 20) and it’s the closest I can think to an office. I prefer to sit in a seat by the window. I prefer not to talk to strangers, which may seem like a strange thing to say, but on the buses in Chicago, strangers love talking.


“Sometimes I write using a pen, but I try not to get attached to any one pen. I’ve done that before. The pen was discontinued and I bought the last 24 pens in stock and I horded them away in my sock drawer for 10 years. That’s just not right.

“The other day, I got on the bus, and was pretty excited to find a seat by the window. As I was about to sit down a woman says, ‘You don’t want to do that,’ so I go and stand by the rear doors thinking maybe someone had peed on that seat or something. Maybe thrown up on the floor. A couple of blocks later we pull over and the driver makes everyone get off the bus. Apparently some guy was sitting in that spot by the window before I got on and he was covered in ants or lice or bed bugs and it took a few blocks for the bus driver to think, ‘Well, that’s just not right.’

“I like my time daydreaming on the bus, but I’m not so connected to that process that I would pass up an opportunity to drive a car or stay home and sleep. No matter the space, time, medium, or vehicle, the story will get written eventually.”

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.”

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Marcy Dermansky: On Ritual

Marcy Dermansky: On Ritual

“I am a morning person. I wake up early. I drink coffee. I feel pretty good. I have often speculated: If I could wake up and start my day writing, what could I really do? Get done? I could do wonders.

“This decade — the 2000s — I have written and published two novels: first Twins and now Bad Marie. This decade — the 2000s — I have also had a part time job, in the morning, picking news stories for a corporate website, working from home. It’s a job I have lived with like a second skin. I have gone on many vacations  (and even surreptitiously, one writing residency) where I wake up, drink my coffee, and pick the news. I could go nowhere that did not have a reliable Internet connection.

“Writing, my writing, wouldn’t happen until the late afternoon. Writing came after the paying job was done. It also came after the laundry, eating lunch, buying groceries, and the film reviews (another one of my other paying jobs). Basically, after everything else. Somehow, I needed to get all that mental clutter out of the way before I could get to work.

“In this decade, living in New York City, living on limited income, I have never established a proper writing ritual. I have never had a beautiful room, or a perfect desk, a gorgeous view. I don’t even have the best laptop computer. But I have written. I have made it a point to write. And with both novels, when I was in the thick of the actual writing, when I knew what needed to be done, going fast, the best choice was always to write like a compulsive fool. Work late into the night. Not go out, not see friends. Not eat a proper dinner with Jürgen.

“The funny thing is, as of very recently, I don’t have that morning job anymore. You would think, then, that I could get up and get straight to writing. That I have finally arrived. Instead, I have a baby. I wake up. Or she wakes up. We wake up. Nina smiles at me. I smile at her. I say something silly, I give Nina a bottle, change her diaper, and the day begins. I make the coffee. The writing, it still comes later.

“I often think about Max Fischer in Rushmore, insisting, repeatedly, ‘I wrote a hit play.’ That’s a little how I feel, now, after the publication of Bad Marie. I wrote a hit play. Time Magazine called my book ‘irresistible.’ Shouldn’t I have time to write? Where is my shiny new laptop computer? Where is my room with a view? I wrote a hit play. Okay. Deep breath. It’s never to late to start a ritual.”

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Michael Leong: On Ritual

Michael Leong: On Ritual

“Before sitting down to write, I methodically lay out my instruments as a good dentist always does before a nervous patient. Side by side, I place:  a toilet scrubber, a left-handed Allen wrench (my muse stubbornly insists on the term ‘zeta key’), a ridiculously sharp record needle, and a small collection of novelty pencil tops in good to excellent condition. I religiously avoid dairy products. I always make sure to polish my periscope. Sometimes, I prepare an elaborate hand of solitaire for somebody else, an honored guest who — nevertheless — never comes. I gargle a shot of bootleg holy water and throw everything off of my desk in a fit of demonic possession. I rip up the storyboards. I reverse engineer illegible alphabets. I practice a range of awkward bird calls that were specifically designed for the Cretaceous period. In my mind, I choose ideas as if I were skeet shooting at zero gravity. And when it seems the appropriate time (which depends upon the wind’s flavor, the inclination of the moon’s invisible sun), I release into polluted waters a fleet of a thousand black rice-paper submarines. They descend slowly, fueled as they are by their own inky dissolution.”

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Gabriel Orgrease: On Ritual

My ritual as a writer is to seek dissociation from my consciousness. I look for opportunities that take me out of myself, that challenge me not so much in the craft as writer but that question my existence as an individual and within a social context of family and extended community. As a writer I look for ways in which to see the text that I have created from the outside.

“As the afterglow of a night spent after he ingested a bit too much LSD. Small white pills and he was drunk and stoned and did not realize until a while later that he had ingested everyone’s score. An odd night, it was the day afterward of a stark dissociation, lost here and now, that had the profound long-range impact. It was

of infinitude in a Blakean sense of perpetual epiphany. Though it was a curious place to visit it was not one in which he desired to take up a full-time residence.”

I came across these words stored on my computer and as I read them became more and more irritated, and jealous, that someone had written something that appeared to me lucid and I did not know who it was… until I realized that it was me.

It is not a question of lighting smelly candles, though I may do that, or playing gong music that sounds like pots and pans struck by a baboon, though I may also do that, but it is always a ritual to seek a way to meet myself in life and work as if I am my own stranger. Continue reading