Struggling with productivity, Ingrid Rojas Contreras created a morning writing ritual. Inspired by the 18th-century German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, Contreras designed “a choreography of visuals and touch” to put herself into a writing trance. This ritual included putting on clothes of a particular shade of blue. Thanks to this ritual, Contreras completed her novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Thirteen years later, she’s still using a trance to write. Draped in ultramarine fabric, Contreras puts herself under “the spell of chromatic conditioning” and enters a profound state of flow. Though Gay Talese’s stated reasons are a little different, I suspect he wears a suit to write for the same fundamental reason. You could argue that all our little rituals are a form of Contreras’s “self-mesmerism.”
Starting a writing session is an act of brutality. Lifting up the cognitive load of a piece of work—Where was I again? Where was I going? What is all this?—demands aggression. It’s like jumping into a cold-plunge pool. You have to really want it. Many writers, including myself, don’t carry that kind of aggression all day. However, without bloodthirst, without the “will to battle,” all the cognitive muscles in the world won’t get you under that metaphorically stretched bar.
There’s a relevant moment in the new Mike Tyson documentary. At the nadir of his boxing career, Tyson has an insight: “I’m just finished with this,” he says after a humiliating loss to Kevin McBride, “I’m no good anymore. I don’t think I have the stomach for this anymore. I don’t have anything to fight for anymore.” Tyson acknowledges he can still do the work in the gym. He’s in shape for a fight. But that isn’t what matters. He lacks the fire inside. “It’s difficult to fight when your heart just isn’t in it,” Tyson admits. Heart, gut, stomach—we use every word but head. Tyson’s head knows what it’s supposed to be doing. As any Roman haruspex could tell you, however, the future is written in the entrails, not the brain.
The me who doesn’t want to write feels very different from the me who sits and starts. Most of the day, I’m the former. When the latter guy shows his face, for whatever mysterious, mesmeric reasons, I’m always a little surprised. It’s like, oh, hey, there you are. But I don’t let myself react too strongly, because I don’t want to jinx it and scare him off when I need him. Instead, I take my hands off the wheel, slowly, keeping my hands where he can see them, and then I let him drive the bus for a while. For Contreras and Talese, the right outfit helps this transformation along. I don’t have a color-coded get-up—yet—but I do use a Nada Chair to keep myself from slumping at my desk, and it has unintentionally come to play a similar role. When I couldn’t find it yesterday morning, I tore the place apart before realizing it had just gotten squished down a bit in my chair. Crisis averted. That said, all of yesterday’s writing sessions felt funkier than usual. I’m very sensitive to mesmerism, I suppose.
As writers, we are two people. Jekyll and Hyde. Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk. Come to think of it, maybe there’s a reason the Hulk is green beyond Stan Lee’s color problems at the printer. Perhaps Bruce Banner’s dilemma has more to do with chromatic conditioning than gamma radiation. Maybe, deep down, Banner knew he wanted to smash bad guys for a living. As a man of the mind, however, he simply couldn’t access the necessary aggression to lift tanks and throw buildings on demand. So he figured out how to turn himself green before a fight, and that’s what really made the difference. The muscles are just a byproduct.