Don't Call It A "Routine"
It happened nearly a year ago now and seemed innocuous enough. It was April. I had just heard National Book Award nominee Min Jin Lee kick off Boston's "Muse & the Marketplace" conference with an incredibly moving keynote address and decided I had to attend the more intimate Q&A session that followed.
By the time I made the short walk from the main hall to the small conference room for the Q&A, the chairs were all taken, so I sat on the floor, my back pressed against the wall. Which was fine by me. I didn't have any questions in particular. I just wanted to hear more of whatever this woman had to say. She had such a gentle yet powerful presence.
The first few questions centered around her book, Pachinko, but quickly became more general. "What," someone called out, "is your writing routine?" It's a question I had heard asked and answered a hundred times before, but I was taken aback by Lee's initial response.
"You mean what is my ritual?" she said, pausing afterwards so the asker could clarify.
"Um," the person hesitated, "Yes."
"Okay," Lee said, before launching into what, to me, sounded exactly like a routine — a series of actions performed in a certain order. So why had she not referred to it as such? Why had she made the distinction? And why was it important to her that she do so?
Before I could wrap my head around it, Lee was finished with that question, and a dozen more hands shot up, hoping to ask the next one. And ultimately, the session was over and it was lunch and I forgot all about it. That is, until the other morning, when I was in the midst of my own writing routine — brewing my coffee, lighting my candle (Yankee Candle's Clean Cotton) — and again, I found myself asking, "Why did Lee make that distinction?"
Immediately, my mind went to Elizabeth Gilbert, particularly to this TED Talk she gave way back in 2010 about creativity. While I may have stopped reading Eat, Pray, Love before Gilbert even got off the plane in Italy, I've watched her talk from beginning to end multiple times. In it, she compares the modern view of the creative genius (a creator in anguish, trying to excavate ideas from some remote part of their brain) with the ancient Roman view of the creative genius (an outside spirit who visits the creator and gifts them an idea). She argues that the ancient Roman view — and the psychological distance it puts between us and our work — is much healthier than our modern view because forces us to surrender to something outside ourselves, something illogical and magical. It also takes the pressure off of us and allows for each project to not be a one-upping of what came before, but its own, unique endeavor.
I like this idea (perhaps because it lets me off the hook a little bit), and I think the notion of it may be what Min Jin Lee was alluding to when she distinguished between a "routine" and a "ritual." Because while a routine and a ritual may involve the same actions, the attitude behind those actions is very different.
The word "routine" feels cold, rote, clinical. To say you are performing a routine is to say you are doing something almost out of obligation. "Ritual", on the other hand, feels a bit magical, celebratory. Rituals are a way to heighten an experience and foster deeper connections, while routines are merely tools that allow you to white-knuckle or auto-pilot your way through something.
Initially, sitting in that room, I thought Lee was just arguing semantics. But as a writer, I should have known then the power words — even a single word — can have, how they can change your entire frame of mind. By referring to her practice as a ritual, I think Lee was giving it deeper meaning and greater respect, and perhaps, like Gilbert, making the creative process just a little less lonely, a little less anxiety-producing by providing an undercurrent of spirituality.
So ten months later, and I think I finally cracked the code. And I have to say, I'm a convert. I'm trading my routine for a whole new (yet entirely the same) ritual.