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Tips for Priming the Writing Pump

Having trouble getting started with a piece of writing? Listen to the pump-priming ideas of some of today's hottest writers, as told to Anne Collette.

Humans are creatures who cling to ritual. As a species we hope that rituals enlighten us. We hope that rituals help us make the journey from one point to another easier somehow. We hope that rituals help us keep connected—to what has come before and what may come in the future. Too, there's reassurance to be found in ritual, in repetition.

Writers know this. Every single author I talked to had an answer when I questioned them about their particular writing rituals. Each has some sort of talismanic behavior that gets them to where the words flow.

Maybe it's that we need to sneak up on writing: Why not adopt a ritual that allows you to limber up your mind before plunging in? You don't have to beat a drum, howl at the moon or channel your spirit guide; your ritual may be as simple as checking your e-mail or cleaning the kitchen sink. Or, like many of the authors here, it may be as simple as having a cup of coffee.

So pour yourself a cup and come along as we discover how some of today's best authors attempt to demystify the creative process... through ritual.

Over the years, I've made peace with procrastination. I know that the sink has to be cleaned and toenails have to be clipped so I don't beat myself up or suffer any guilt; instead, each day, I jump fully into that day's procrastination. —Pagan Kennedy, The Exes (Simon & Schuster)

What works best for me is to roll out of bed and down to my desk in the morning without quite waking up, to go from a night-dreaming state to a day-dreaming state without any interruption. Too much consciousness gets in the way. The other thing that helps is iced coffee. It has to be iced, it has to be decaf, and it has to be hazelnut, or else the world just doesn't work right. —Scott Campbell, Touched (Bantam)

I'm an everyday writer, a cafe-and-restaurant writer. I need food and coffee and conversation in the background and a street and people to look at. If things are too quiet, I can't concentrate. —Delia Sherman, The Porcelain Dove (Plume)

I have to check my e-mail and then getting writing by 10 am. If I don't get focused by then, I won't have a good day. Even if I start by 10:30, it screws me up. Somehow the number 10 has taken on a magical significance for me. —Arthur S. Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha (Knopf)

I rent a little office that's approximately the size of a small bathroom. The office is in a building of all shrinks, so I go there in the morning, press my ear against the wall and listen to some stories, then try and write my own characters. —Stephen McCauley, The Man of the House (Simon & Schuster)

I have to send the kids out to daycare then drink a pot of coffee and play my guitar until I get so disgusted with myself that I have to write. —Tom Perotta, Election (Putnam)

When I'm home, my bed is nearby, tempting me to nap. If my writing needs a jog forward, a change of venue frequently helps; the Amtrak Metroliner from Boston down to New York is both scenic and they have cafe service. A complete change in my environment like that usually helps. —Audrey Schulman, Swimming With Jonah (Avon)

I write in bed, in longhand. To get myself going, I read my drafts in whisper to my cat, who curls up in my lap in the deepest sleep. The combination of my whisper and his loud, rich purr makes even my most unpromising prose sound somehow sexy and intriguing. Before bouts of serious first-drafting, I fortify myself by eating Grape-Nuts, the best cereal for creative contemplation since it shuts out the world with its deafening crunch. I also find inspiration by raking leaves, taking showers and rocking in place while staring fixedly at nothing. In their latter stages, my writing projects, like romances, always take on "a song." This I listen to incessantly as I rev myself up to work and rework my final drafts. For my first novel, A Four-Sided Bed, I needed a whole album, k.d. lang's "Torch and Twang." —Elizabeth Searle, A Four-Sided Bed (Graywolf Press)

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