Tonia Writes: Taking the Habit

Taking the Habit

When I was sixteen, my mom declared that one of her daughters should become a nun. I was terrified. Boo, the oldest, was already showing signs of being a little too free-spirited. Cinda was impossible to manipulate. The babies–as we called the little ones–were too young to inculcate effectively and that meant the entire force of my mom’s ample persuasion fell on me.

For weeks, I did what any sensible Catholic schoolgirl would do…and I turned to fortune telling using my Magic 8 Ball from Mattel. Whenever I wasn’t at school, I carried it with me, asking it over and over again, “Will mom make me become a nun?” in escalating cycles of OCD, only to receive its vague replies which intensified my worry. Being a nun, “taking the habit,” was the last thing I ever wanted to do. Even the word “habit” reminded me of that repression, I who hated rules, who wouldn’t wear slippers, who never had a raincoat, who was always late with homework and compelled to work my ass off to the stun the teacher into leniency. As most of you know, rather than creating more good Catholics, repression, dourness and unattended Skin Hunger[1] create wildness in the young. I wanted to rage on through years of nights, punk music blaring, and crash on Jim Morrison’s grave, poetry book in hand, such was the fervor of my youth.

Throughout my life, the making and breaking of habits has been a special area of interest, and I’ve read widely on this subject, often while snapping a rubber band on my wrist. My favorite approach is Intermittent Reinforcement, i.e., an unpredictable cycle by which you don’t hit yourself with the stick everyday, just some days. It’s very efficient in the creation of a bad habit and takes less time to maintain than a daily cycle of deliberate abuse and allows you to use the random number generator in an Excel spreadsheet through which you can create unique reinforcement schedules. Its time economy is also marvelous. Intermittent Reinforcement is just as effective in creating good habits, can provide untold hours of family fun, and is best applied when the family does NOT know that it is the experimental subject. Welcome to my lab. 

Some habits, though, such as the writing habit, are best formed through other means. I’d tried intermittent reinforcement and received intermittent results when I wrote intermittently. Being too busy languishing on my chaise emoting all over the place, I lacked the structure to sit down to the steady business of chair time and fingers on the keyboard. I have learned from this approach that writing has much more to do with, um, writing, than being a miserable person of high sensitivities and hipster clothing. Now, I don’t go the right places, drink the right coffee or wear the right things and have been told my look is decidedly “semi-almost-granola (but not quite) California tomboy–confident, but not always.” Bottom line: I am free to move about the cabin.

 To take this habit, this writing habit, I had to follow a different path, and it all started when I received an invitation.

A friend[2] suggested I could enrich my writing experience by attending an event. I asked what I needed and was told nothing. I said, “What should I wear” and she said, “It doesn’t matter.”[3] I planned to go, but it took me two full weeks to arrive. When I walked in, the party was in full swing, my friend was nowhere in sight and there were hundreds of people. I was TERRIFIED.  I did what any self-respecting introvert would do and promptly located the nearest wall where I clung by my prehensile tail high up in a shadowy corner where the mildew grows. From there, I proceeded to open my eyes just a little from that safe hiding place.

What I saw as I watched you slowly swim by was all types of people, good people, creative, smart, engaged, spiritual and loving and for the first time ever, I felt at ease at a party and made tracks to talk to you. I came here looking for a little inspiration and found a vibrant community of creatives[4].  Your fellowship, your willingness to read my stuff, has been so amazingly touching to me, and my care of you has grown as rapidly as I’ve grown the writing habit. My willingness to accept this 500 Word surrender discipline, as rendered by a kinder hand, has allowed me to love my chair time and cherish your blogs and comments and our deepening relationship to words and world.  I come to my computer several times a day excited to see what you plan to share with me. So, while I never intended to “take the habit” with all its connotations of drudgery, repression and misery, I am claiming “this” habit, mashing it up with my joy, imbuing it with magical realism and serving it as a casserole I hope you will enjoy.


[1] See Kat Campbell-Davies’s excellent piece titled “Skin Hunger” for more on this important subject.

[2] Thanks, Roslynn Pryor

[3] Christine Royse Niles, please take note. A Bathrobe at 5:15 p.m. is fine as long as your word count is elevated.

[4] Thanks Sandi Ackerman

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Tonia Writes: Taking the Habit

  1. “as a casserole I hope you will enjoy” — I always do, Tonia, I always do. This may be my favorite piece of your writing yet.

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