The Rituals of Writing

By PJ Parrish

This one is going to be shorter than my usual Michener-esque meanderings, because two things have happened this week:

  1. We finished the book
  2. Rewrites are needed — bad.

So I thought maybe, for a change, we could talk about something that doesn’t cause us writers angst — the positive little rituals that help get us through our days.  I thought about this today because whenever my sister Kelly and I finish a first draft, we have a special ritual.  First I type a word

THE

Then she types a word

END

Then we crack open an unshabby bottle of wine, preferably champagne, hug each other and get smashed. We started this ritual way back in 2000 after we finished our second book Dead of Winter.  It came about because back then, as we were nearing the finish line, Kelly would routinely come down to visit me in Fort Lauderdale and we would work together in my office, back-to-back on our computers.  Sort of like Ferrante and Teicher, except that Kelly’s two-finger hunt-and-peck key pounding tended to sound more like Keith Moon.

We kept to our ritual for a couple years, but then life started to intrude. Kelly’s life became peripatetic and hectic.  She couldn’t easily get down to Florida.  So we had to resort to ritual-by-email.  I would type THE on the Word Perfect doc and then send it to her.  She would type END and send it back. We’d then get on the phone and toast each other from our respective corners of the world.  It wasn’t as much fun.

Then around book six or nine — I forget — Skype came into being. Now, this was a god-send for our partnership because I could call up a chapter on my screen, share, and she could see it on her screen thousands of miles away while we talked about it. And we were able, when we were finished, at least see each other as we raised our glasses.

This is also how we opened Christmas presents. Better, but it still wasn’t the same.

A couple years ago, Kelly finally made it back to our home state of Michigan, settling finally, after a couple false starts, in beautiful Traverse City.  I was secretly envious because I really didn’t like living in South Florida, but I had put down deep roots. Then last year, my husband Daniel gave me the best gift he’s ever given me — he agreed to leave the place where he had lived for 40 years so I could be happier. We sold our Fort Lauderdale condo and bought a little house in Tallahassee, where we are very content. But then, came the icing on the cake.  Because of the move to Tally, we had enough left over to buy a small condo in Traverse City.  So I’m officially a snowbird.  A very happy one. So’s the husband.  He told me the other day, “Thank you for making me do this. I needed a kick in the ass.”

So for the first time in ten years, Kelly and I were in one place when we finished the book.  We bought a bottle of SEX pink champagne from Mawby vineyards here in TC, typed out THE END, hugged and uncorked.  The wine is only $15 a bottle but tasted like Veuve Clicquot Brut Rose.

I love rituals, especially when they involve family. Like opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of morning.  Deviled eggs for Thanksgiving dinner. Celebrating our sixth-month anniversary every year with my husband because we never thought we’d make it that far.  Rituals are important.  They are the bonds, born of our memories, that keep us from spinning away into the lonely void.

Most of my writer friends have rituals, some silly, some serious. One of my favorite scenes from the movie Misery is the opening, where Paul Sheldon types THE END and then indulges in his own writer-ritual — gently tucking his finished manuscript to bed in his old briefcase, setting out one cigarette, one match and a bottle of Dom. Here’s the scene if you want to watch:

I can relate. Can you? Rituals help us establish a sense of continuity in a business that can make us feel ungrounded and unguarded. And if you think your rituals are weird…

Roald Dahl, when he wants to write, gets into a sleeping bag, pulls it up to his waist and settles into a faded wing-backed armchair. He puts his feet up on a battered traveling case full of logs. This is roped to the legs of the armchair so it’s always at a perfect distance.

Joan Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally. When she’s close to finishing one, she’ll sleep beside it in the same room. “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it,” she said in a 1968 interview with The Paris Review.

The great Greek statesman Demosthenes, to get himself in the writing groove, would shave one side of his head so he wouldn’t be tempted to leave the house until he was finished.

John Steinbeck, who wrote his drafts in pencil, always kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He wore them down to nubs. His editor started sending him round pencils instead of normal hexagonal ones, because Steinbeck had developed such bad callouses.

So…whatever your ritual, wallow in it. It makes you special. It is part of your style, and I hope that something of that uniqueness, that weirdness, shows up on the page every day.

Gotta go. Rewrites await. I’m considering that if I don’t get serious about them pretty quickly here, I might have to go shave half my hair off.  But that might be just the Sex talking.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

15 thoughts on “The Rituals of Writing

  1. Congratulations, Kris and Kelly, for finishing another book…except for rewrites 🙂

    I love hearing about your partnership and how you work together, even sharing your triumphant “The End.”

    Years ago, I wrote magazine articles with a partner. We took road trips to interesting places and interviewed people we would never have encountered except for writing about them.

    We always joked, “Half the money, twice the fun.”

    • Ah, yes…the money issue. We do have to split everything, even the $3.99 royalty checks for audios. 🙂 Or there was that one check from India once for $32.

  2. I can’t say I have a ‘ritual’ but there’s always some kind of celebratory something or other. Hubster reads my chapters as they come off the printer, so he’s aware of “the end” and there’s usually some wine, sparkling or otherwise. Sometimes flowers. Sometimes we’ll use ‘the end’ as an excuse to go out. When I finished my first draft of my first attempt at a book, I was home alone, so I took a bubble bath and had a glass of wine, but that didn’t turn into a ritual.

    • A bubblebath is good, flowers and bubbly even better! I think doing something to celebrate finishing a first draft is a small kindness you can do for yourself. Do something, anything, but mark the occasion.

  3. Congrats on finishing your book! I’m green here, just starting in Act 1…seriously thinking about the shaving half the head thingy. Have a friend who shaved her head twice, and she isn’t even a writer. Both times it was because of a bad color job.

    • Thanks Patricia. I, too, am at an Act I because we’ve already started a new book. We started it as a sequel to the last one but then realized we had a Louis story in us that had to be born first so we switched gears). I am looking forward to returning to the other story soon, probably after we head back to Tallahassee in 10 days. It seems like a good time to switch.

    • Nice! You know, I should do that as well, take the husband first reader out. Plus he’s very good at kicking me in the butt when I don’t want to write.

  4. Love your ritual. It’s so nice that you two continued the ritual even when you lived miles apart. Congratulations on completing another book!

    After I type “The End” my husband takes me out to dinner, and then embarrasses me by telling everyone within earshot why we’re celebrating. I usually want to dive under the table. At the same time I’m grateful to have a spouse who supports my craziness while I’m “in the zone,” never mind the long hours and his participation in some of my more creative research stunts. It can’t be easy living with a writer, yet he never complains, even when the Ribeye morphs into a dust pile on the grill because I’ve delved back into my fictional world. Who knew steaks could do that?

    • I can relate, Sue. The husband is very good at hunting and gathering when I am in the zone. This usually involves bad Chinese takeout, but who’s complaining?

  5. I don’t have a ritual yet since I’m working on my first novel. I do like the idea of toasting to it and a nice dinner. I always welcome food and wine. Chocolate is always welcome and so is ice cream and chocolate ice cream. Well, you get the drift! 🙂 Congratulations on the completion of another book. You are awesome!

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