Is Superstition or Ritual Part of Your Creative Process?

While ESPN may have titillated with its report that the Olympic Village in London is one big bacchanal, many of the world’s top athletes have arrived there toting more than just condoms. Wall Street investment banker turned Olympic cyclist Evelyn Stevens brought her lucky blue sports bra that she has worn when competing since 2009 (yes, she washes it). Track star Sanya Richards Ross will be wearing her necklace with a bullet attached to it, a gift from her mother when she was in seventh grade that symbolized her speed.

Superstition and top athletic performance seem inexorably intertwined. There is the fixation on objects, most annoyingly seen in baseball players wearing titanium necklaces believed to enhance performance without steroids. Then there is the ritualistic behavior, most annoyingly from tennis player Novak Djokovic, who bounces the ball as many as 25 times before each serve.

I view both objects and rituals as part of the mind games we play in order to draw out the best of ourselves, regardless of how we may actually feel at the time. Logic dictates that we can’t always perform at our peak, yet we constantly call upon ourselves to do that anyway.

I know from my time spent with artists that creatives often have superstitious tendencies, obsessing over both objects and rituals. I discovered last winter that my fondness for a certain pen I would use to hand-edit my creative writing had turned into an obsession. It is a nice pen–a Waterman roller ball given to me by my Board of Directors when I retired from my non-profit–and I like the way it moves so smoothly across the page. I believe that the lack of resistance allows the rewrite to flow through me faster. It also likely is significant that I received it just as I began my renewed dedication to creative writing and living an art-committed life.

But when I left that pen behind at the Vermont College of Fine Arts library at my winter MFA residency last January, I went into a panic. Hours later, one of my advisors found it and returned it to me, restoring my sanity as well. Seven months later, I still use that pen for all of my hand revisions, but I am much more careful about keeping it close.

Scientific studies have shown we can trick our minds into better performance through objects and rituals. I don’t need those studies. All I had to do was watch Djokovic tear his way through the professional tennis circuit last year. I watched as many of his matches as I could, marveling at how much he had elevated his game. I also learned how to avoid annoyance by his ball-bouncing ritual; if I recorded the match in advance, I could hit my TiVo’s 30-second skip button and fly right through those bounces to the next serve.

What are your creative superstitions? Do you have an object or ritual that helps you engage with your muse?

23 thoughts on “Is Superstition or Ritual Part of Your Creative Process?

  1. I have rituals, (coffee in a certain cup, chair at a certain angle so I can see canary wharf whenever I look up) as well as a special pen. I think they evolve as a way of shortcutting your way to the right frame of mind, the way you instill a bedtime routine into a child (bath, story, sleep). We’re creatures, and creatures operate on instinctive levels as well as cognitive levels.

    I once lost my pen. It was a nightmare, especially since I bought it in Japan. I ought to have it on my person at all times really.


    1. “I think they evolve as a way of shortcutting your way to the right frame of mind, the way you instill a bedtime routine into a child (bath, story, sleep).” That makes a lot of sense. It explains obsessive bouncing of tennis balls, but also an attachment to a pen. The comparison to the comfort of childhood routine is a good one.

      I feel your pain regarding the pen!


  2. Great question, Patrick. I don’t have a special pen or object per se, but I do have an obsession with things feeling right. I have to use pens that feel good as they flow across the page, and the paper I write on is important, too. Giving details of what feels right is elusive, but I know it when it happens. And these conditions must be met for me to write.


  3. I was thinking about this very thing the other day. I write in Open Office and the save button greys out if the document hasn’t been changed. When it’s blue, I click it as soon as my fingers are finished on the keys. Yes, that’s partly because Open Office has a tendancy to crash, but it’s also a bit of a tick of mine. It can be as much as every sentence on a slow day.

    I also have to use a specific font for each project. Once I find the font I can write, but not until then!


    1. Your clicking of the button reminds me of my need to cross things off lists, including the flow chart I create for each MFA writing packet. But the need to find the right font for each project? Wow! Very cool. Does the font just come to you, or do you experiment?


  4. Not really, but I am finding that I work far better and am more productive with a routine schedule. This is something that was pointed out to me by my fiancee (thanks, Alex!) and seems to be very helpful. When I’m out of synch with said schedule (like right now . . . stayed up really late helping him with a work project) – I do not function nearly as well. So I’m working hard to not be distracted by other projects or pretty colors (*Squirrel! I swear I need a tshirt that says “I am Dug” [from the movie “Up!”]*) but as Alex says, right now, I suck at it. *grin*

    That’s the closest I can get!


  5. Cardigans. I wear one when writing. Big, ancient, disreputable. Not something to be worn anywhere else.
    Very Granny-like, I know, can’t help it. Not a chilly mortal, but like to be cosy when I write.

    Not sure if this is superstition, ritual or fetish.


    1. Hi Pat,
      I, too, have a cardigan I wear to write in the winter. It was hand knit in Ireland. But mainly I wear it because I turn down the heat to save money. 🙂


    2. “Not sure if this is superstition, ritual or fetish.” No reason it can’t be all three! It also strikes me as a uniform. The reason so many professions have dress codes and in many cases detailed uniforms is not just uniformity, but a means to condition the mind to what task it should be on. You don’t wear the sweatshirt anywhere else, so when you wear it, your mind knows it’s time to write.


  6. I strongly believe in the importance of ritual. When my kids were growing up I tried to form lots of family rituals, especially for times of stress or pain because I found that rituals from my childhood helped me feel safe and calm at times when bad things happened that were beyond my control. Feeling calm allows a person make better decisions in a crisis.

    As for writing, when I first began to write fiction and had no daily deadline as I had when working in TV news…I quickly developed a ritual of needing to have my mocha espresso with me at the computer before I could begin. I COULD NOT write without it. I believe that I developed this ritual subconsciously because I had a lot of fear about being able produce with out a boss, without a deadline and without any guaranteeing my words would ever b published. That was a huge amount of fear to face alone. My ritual cup of coffee gave me something outside my self that I could pretend was helping me.


    1. Yes to calmness. One of my two children really seizes on rituals; I don’t have to create them, he establishes something done twice as one that must be repeated. It definitely seems to provide him comfort and security.

      Boy, do I know what it’s like to not have a daily deadline, at least one externally imposed. Fascinating how you used coffee as a substitute for the deadline from a boss. Of course, you got some caffeine out of it as well!


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  8. The one ritual I have is journal-writing each night. I feel … off .. unless I write in a trusty spiral notebook before turning out the light. It’s just a mental download. Nothing “literary.” I’ve done it since the mid 80s and, despite throwing some away years ago, I still have a couple of stacks in the garage. Oddly enough, with my essay/poetry/fiction, I can’t hand-write it … it just doesn’t come to me that way. I’m a fast typist (business college before art school), and only a keyboard can keep up with my thoughts. I wonder, too, if my brain has (after so many years of journaling) linked a pen with mental-downoad-writing, as opposed to writing for a potential reader?


    1. You know, Terri, as someone who is writing a memoir (and never anticipated he would) I am very envious of those who have kept journals. And yes, I think you likely have trained an association with pen and writing for yourself, vs. a potential reader. But, of course, your journal work could always be repurposed for a reader (via keyboard).


  9. This is a fascinating topic! Thanks for the great thoughts and reading the comments has been great fun 🙂

    My patterns have changed over the years. There was a time I could *only* write in coffee shops. Then, there were times I could only write at home. Now, I’m more flexible with the where, but the things that have stayed the same? I do my most honest writing with pen and paper, and I go through phases of pen use. But it has to be a pen that feels good in my hand and moves smoothly across the page. I really don’t like when pens skip. Blegh!

    I think the only thing that’s stayed constant in the years I’ve been writing (which has been nearly 3/4 of my life) is that I need something to sip on while I write. Usually tea or coffee, but sometimes just water. But, I do need something there.


    1. Ah, I too have experienced the difficulty of shifting routine, which life makes happen sometimes. Good you were able to transition. And yes, I’m with you on having a beverage. Frankly, for me I think it’s a way to give myself permission to take a hand off of the keyboard for a moment, which can allow for reflection. And lately, as I’m forced to write even earlier in the morning to accommodate more professional work, it’s a way to get extra caffeine!

      Glad you’re enjoying the discussion here, Stephanie!


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  11. I’m glad you got your special pen back! I don’t have one in particular that I treasure, but I can totally relate to the feeling of wanting a pen that flows. I’m fussy even about cheap ballpoints.

    My rituals are not very original – coffee, journaling, a preference for the peace and quiet of my office with no music or lawnmowers, a view of greenery from my window – but I have grown fond of a certain journal with a beautiful cover. I’m on my fifth volume of it and it feels like an old friend now. A cherished ritual way to start my day, no matter what other kind of writing I end up doing that day.


    1. I do admire your journaling, Milli, it’s a great discipline for any writer. And I certainly would consider coffee part of my ritual. How great to have a view of greenery from your window as well. I’m always fascinated to learn what others’ writing spaces are like!


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