✍️ Something More We Can Learn from Stephen King’s Morning “Prep”
Or, what the heck is the difference between rituals, routines, and habits anyway?
In my last post, Mightier Than the Sword, I talked about writing rituals, and I quickly realized that there was some confusion about the difference between rituals and habits (and, for that matter, routines). I was a little confused myself. I vaguely knew the differences. Or, at the very least, I had loose definitions of each that worked for me.
Further, I was already convinced that the differences are important. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what those differences were. I only knew this:
Rituals ≠ Routines ≠ Habits
…even though they are closely linked.
So, I decided to do some research. I quickly found out that I was not alone in my lack of clarity. Toni Morrison admitted to not really classifying her own habits and/or rituals as such. In a 1993 Paris Review interview, Morrison talked about getting into the habit of writing before dawn for a very practical reason: she had small children when she started writing, and before dawn was the only time she could write. Later, when the children were grown, she stayed in that habit. But she added a ritual – making coffee in the dark and drinking that coffee as dawn broke. Morrison only saw it as a ritual in hindsight though after talking to another writer about her rituals.
So what to make of this?
I thought back to Stephen King and his writing ritual, which we talked about in the last post, Mightier Than the Sword:
“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places…The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
Except that after doing this research, I wonder now if this is actually more of a routine than a ritual – or perhaps even a habit. And, in King’s case, does that distinction even matter anymore?
The Definitive Guide to Rituals, Routines, and Habits
Before we get to the King example, let’s start at the very beginning and get some clear definitions for rituals, routines, and habits – at least as they apply to writers and writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Doing a certain set of tasks in a certain order every time to get into the writing mindset. These tasks are mindful and intentional with the specific purpose of inviting the Muses in.
Doing a certain set of tasks in a certain order every time, but only as a matter of course. For example, every morning you might get up in the morning, make some coffee, do some yoga, and sit down at your desk to write. But these actions are not intentional or mindful in themselves – just things you do to get ready for the day ahead. Note though: this routine may still have the same effect a ritual! And that is the root of the conundrum I encountered with King’s quote, above. But more on that in a second…
Something you do absolutely automatically and without thinking. For example, you may get up and absently pet the cat who’s come to greet you. It’s something you do every day, even though you don’t even think about it. At this point, King probably doesn’t think much about sitting down to write either – he’s done it so many thousands of days in a row that it’s like petting the cat.
So the differences then between these three is the intent – or lack thereof – behind the actions.
A ritual is a purposeful behaviour with specific intention (e.g., inviting in the Muses).
A routine is a purposeful behaviour with non-specific intention (e.g., consciously doing a set of tasks, but essentially just getting ready for your day).
A habit is an automatic behaviour we do without thinking at all.
So What? Who Cares?
Yeah. I hear you. It wouldn’t be the first time someone has called me pedantic. But this isn’t just an academic exercise or a game of Balderdash. I truly believe that the differences between these three things are important for writers to understand to help them get motivated to do their own writing.
Why Rituals, Routines, and Habits Matter
Here’s why I think these differences matter. I’ll go back once again to King – ritual, routine, or habit? I believe it’s all three in a way. Or, perhaps three ascending levels to “enlightenment”, if you are happy with the Nirvana metaphor (the philosophical concept, not the band).
The first level is ritual. This is where we first introduce a number of tasks to get us into the writing mindset. It’s done with intent and purpose. But once we find a ritual that works for us and we keep repeating it, slowly it evolves to…
The second level: routine. By this point, we don’t really need to invite the Muses in as much as we used to because, well, once you’ve been writing for a while, you just do it. There’s less need to “trick” your mind into it. One way to look at it is that the Muses too have gotten used to their own routine. We’ve set up an agreement with them: I do this and this and this, and you magically appear. There is struggle on both sides at first during the ritual level, but soon enough the agreement solidifies into a routine. Until one day it becomes…
The third level: habit. I believe we can describe King getting ready in the morning as likely starting off as a ritual of sorts, quickly becoming a routine, and then becoming a habit. He doesn’t have to invite the Muses in anymore, because he’s Stephen King, dammit! There is still a respect there, of course. I don’t think King takes the Muses lightly. But he’s now done the routine the same way over so many years that now it’s habit.
That quote of his above is interesting because he says the “…cumulative purpose… seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.” (Emphasis mine.) That “seems to be” is key – I don’t think King thinks about it too much anymore, but in talking about it, he recognizes that really what the cumulative effect is of his ritual/routine/habit is to get him into the writing mindset. In this case, it’s the destination and not the journey that’s important.
This, of course, is all a simplification. Many writers, even experienced ones, struggle to get words down on the paper at one time or another. And, as I’ve said before, we are all susceptible to the same fears that can stop us from writing. But on balance, experienced writers like Stephen King tend to have fewer problems sitting down to write every day because they’ve gone through ritual to routine to the habit of writing. They sit down to the desk, and for the most part, the creative process starts immediately.
Key Takeaway: Although rituals, routines, and habits are different, the result is (hopefully) the same: to motivate yourself to sit down to write. Develop your ritual first, and tweak as need be. Then, forget about it. Let the routine and the habit take hold when they are ready.
What do you think? Does this progression make sense to you? If not, what do you think Stephen King’s morning prep is, ritual, routine, or habit? Let me know in the comments below!
In the meantime, scroll down for a video compiling 10 Writing Tips from Stephen King – including his thoughts on a routine as a form of self-hypnosis.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!