the shriver effect

photo by Henry Browne

Writers, more than any other species of humans, need rituals.  I have none, aside from writing when my kids are asleep or when the boss isn’t looking. That’s why I was so fascinated to read about Lionel Shriver’s writing (and running) routine.  Like her, I love to run at night. When no one is looking and when the distance I have to cover is hidden in darkness. I’ve always been jealous of anyone who can follow a routine. When I read stories about people like this, I try to imagine what it would be like to do the same thing. Would it bring me any closer to the writer I want to become? As if by copying someone else, I can make their success my own. I admit it’s tantalizing. And although my wife might not appreciate it, if I were to adopt Ms. Shriver’s plan I would soon find myself:

1. Waking late and drinking nothing but black coffee until dinnertime.

2. Running nine miles every other evening, no matter the weather, at exactly 9pm.

3. Doing a punishing assortment of calisthenics.

4. Drinking wine, eating popcorn, and yelling at the evening news.

All this sounds great to me. Oh, and there would be some writing as well. A monkish existence. And a daily ritual that impels one to get the work done, whether it’s a few words or ten pages. My problem is that my sense of self is non-existent. Yes, there is the Henry that you see, the part-time blogger who walks and talks and posts too much on Facebook and occasionally writes angry letters to the paper and wears squarish glasses and sometimes goes skinny-dipping when and where he shouldn’t. I confess that I don’t think any of us really have an eternal, immutable self that remains constant throughout our lives. In fact, most if not all of the world’s problems are caused by human beings taking themselves way too seriously. But the only way we can express our “self” in the material world is by action. In my case, that action has always been through words. I may not have made a dime from my writing yet, but I am a writer. Learning what other writers and artists do on a daily basis will hopefully give me some frame on which to hang my own writerly self. My early exposure to Buddhism in college, my eventual acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, my intermittent lifelong Zen practice, the taking of vows at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center a few years ago; all this is an expression of my belief that the self is an illusion. Following a routine assumes that one has a self to attach it to. Since I was a child, and perhaps due to my Catholic upbringing, I’ve been waiting for an angel (or James Joyce) to appear floating above my bed at night and tell me what I must definitely, without-a-doubt do with my life. This hasn’t happened, and at (almost) age forty-six, I doubt it ever will. Maybe if I just start running at night, and taking Dear Sugar’s advice to write like a motherfucker, I’ll finally find that evasive self and nail him to my desk. Maybe self is born of routine, not the other way round.


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