Wednesday, October 26, 2016

This Little Light of Mine

by Holly West

Writers often talk about their rituals--those things they do to prep their minds for a writing session. For some, it's a writing playlist, for others it's a cup of good coffee, or a designated time of day for writing. For many, it's a combination of things, all set up to put one in the "right" frame of mind for getting the job done.

Some rituals seem stranger than others. For example, Victor Hugo reportedly wrote Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame while naked, reasoning he couldn't leave the house without clothes on. Gives a new meaning to the phrase "keep your butt in the chair," doesn't it? A lot of my writer friends like to joke about not wearing pants (and I personally believe that pajamas and/or yoga pants count as actual pants) but I think we can all agree this takes things to a whole different level. Still, the man achieved lasting fame with two of the most iconic pieces of literature ever written. Maybe he was on to something.

While I have a variety of writing rituals, most of which are better described as work avoidance, there's one that I've kept to for over a year and I find that it puts me in the mood for writing better than any other thing.

I light a candle.

Why is this ritual so effective for me? First, the act of lighting a candle is, to me at least, particularly ritualistic. I was raised Catholic and candle lighting is an act of prayer and reflection in this religion. While I've long since put aside adherence to religious doctrine of any kind, the scent of burning candles in a Catholic church is still a source of comfort to me. And oddly, I still light candles for friends and family when I travel. These days, visiting famous cathedrals is pretty much the only time I ever set foot in a church and lighting candles for those I love provides powerful moments of reflection.

Beyond the spiritual aspects of candle lighting, there are more tangible benefits. Scent is very evocative for me (I know I'm not alone in this) and the right scent immediately puts me in the writing frame of mind. Writing, like reading, is a cozy pursuit, the kind of thing I like to do when it's cold and dreary outside, while drinking hot buttered rum next to a roaring fire. Accordingly, I tend to choose cozy scents, like wood fire, cinnamon, patchouli, coffee and spice to write by. My choices are very much seasonal though, and Fall is the best season. At this very moment I've got a candle called "Bonfire Nights" burning. Bonus points because the wicks are made of wood, which provides a crackly fire sound as it burns.

Incidentally, fellow author Neliza Drew makes a wonderful line of soy candles called Neptune and Nutmeg. My go-to candle is Dirty Hippie, which mostly smells like Nag Champa incense. It's a great accompaniment to the novel I'm revising, which takes place in Venice Beach. The only scents that manage to edge out the smell of incense there are weed, burning sage and occasionally, urine. Other favorites from Nepune and Nutmeg include Very Noir, Big Bookstore and Fresh Coffee.

The flame itself is also helpful. One of the issues I have when writing is that I'm easily distracted when I end a train of thought. For me, writing is comprised of two parts--part one is when I'm merrily cruising along, writing my little heart out without having to think about it. Part two is when I have to stop and think about what or how I want to say something. This is danger territory for me, since the second I can't figure out what to write I'm tempted to check my email or facebook or pinterest or the blog that I already checked twice. This can easily lead to two hours of oblivion. Maybe it's the pyromaniac in me, but gazing at the flame helps me re-focus my energy so I'm less likely to start clicking through bullshit.

Speaking of bullshit, I'm gonna go on record and say that's not a scent I'd favor in a candle.

So there's my number one ritual. I shared mine, now you share yours. It's only fair.


Art Taylor said...

Nice post here. For me, it's always music in the background (jazz, no words)—somehow helps to focus. I've even tried trick I learned from another writer (a historian, actually) who said she used the same piece of music every day for the length of the book she was writing--that hearing the same notes served to trigger her that it was time for work. And it works!

Holly West said...

I haven't had luck with music but I also haven't tried jazz. Maybe that's the next trick I'll incorporate.

Renee Asher Pickup said...

Ah this is great. I'm going to try it. I just picked up an amazing vanilla & tobacco candle and this seems like a good way to put it to use.

Holly West said...

YES! That is the perfect scent for a writing candle.