If art is about creativity, then why is ritual so important to artists?
Is ritual necessary to the making of art? I hear arguments on both sides. While I have recently heard several writers I respect more or less say that for them writing rituals are anathema, the truth is that artists throughout history have settled themselves into the necessary frame of mind and physical space by marking the time set aside for the practice of their craft with some type of highly personal ritual. And it appears as though the having of a ritual is more the norm than not having one, at least that is one thing I gathered from exploring Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Curry.
One of Curry’s goals with the book is to “show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.” In essence, it is these small, often seemingly insignificant, routines and rituals that box off the incremental bits of time necessary to make art, that in fact create the space between daily life and artistic practice which allow an artist to set aside not only the time, but her very self, to become an instrument in service to her unique gift.
The word routine suggests the idea of merely going through the motions or even a lack of engagement with the task at hand. But Curry makes the point that daily routines or rituals surrounding one’s creative practice are also choices and that “in the right hands, [these choices] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.” In other words the routine or ritual signifies the settling down to the task at hand, it initiates the habitual practice which will allow the work to commence, proceed and ultimately finish. It is a signal to the body and the mind that “it is time.” Thus, for certain artists, rituals can be an essential component in their creative processes. And these rituals or routines are as widely diverse as the artists who practice them and Curry’s book is an enjoyable wealth of examples of the diverse ways in which all sorts of artists approach the time designated to engage their work.
I confess to having a simple ritual for accomplishing my writing, and while it is assuredly less colorful than some others, it is no less effective in enabling me to achieve an openness of body, mind, and spirit in which I can create.
My ritual begins with an obnoxious alarm, which does a pretty decent job of dragging me out of bed at 5 a.m. on most mornings. After a valiant effort at my morning meditation, it’s a solitary coffee and breakfast during which I spend about 30 minutes reading — this nutritional caffeinated interlude is essential to promote blood flow to my still somnambulent brain – at the end of which I am ready to pay a visit to my novel.
The room where I write is dark. I light a fragrant candle, bless myself, and say a prayer for guidance in my work. The candle and prayer are essential reminders that I am beholden for the gift of my art and that whatever I manage to craft must bear light within it.
Then it’s time for poetry, which at the moment happens to be a moment’s rest reading selections from Averno, by Louise Gluck. I read somewhere that a writer should read a poem a day to keep her use of language supple and facile and I think this is wise advice. Prefacing my writing time in the company of a brilliant word-artist is the mental equivalent to stretching before lifting weights. Words used with precision fire strong images and sensations in my mind, speeding access to the as yet undiscovered store of words, ideas, and pictures waiting to be chosen to bring the world I am creating to life.