October 30, 2013

Writers and Superstitions


When I was a child, I was convinced that when a dog howled, death was near. Because I grew up in the suburbs where every two people had 1.5 dogs, death must have taken up residence in the corner house to cut back on the commute, especially during squirrel season. I was also told to hold my breath when passing cemeteries lest I be next, but as Chicago ones are exceptionally large and my lungs exceptionally poor, I have been next many times over.

Superstitions make sense in their own odd ways: do X and Y will occur. Most of them seemed to be rooted in avoiding a magical misfortune. It should come as no surprise that writers are a superstitious bunch: there’s a lot of belief in luck, timing, and fairy god-agents. Not in the typical way, mind: there isn’t a fear of walking under ladders or stepping on cracks. We break our mirrors, because all of us are sick to death of hearing the latest on who is the fairest in the land.  When we see a black cat we immediately adopt it and add it to our growing harem of felines.

Many common superstitions for writers seem to involve the number of cats within residence. Considering how many writers owned cats this is obviously less a belief and more a scientific fact. I happen to have two cats, and one is always interested in the things I have to write about.

1391431_10151914919804806_299871212_n He isn’t fat, he has a medical problem.

A quick poll of people I know on Facebook (I’m relatively sure this is how the scientific community gathers data. I got a B in oceanography so I know what I’m talking about) ranges from a clean room (very popular) to a pen behind the ear (excellent fashion statement). Other writers use excessive parenthesis (less popular) when they can’t figure out what the next sentence is going to be.

There is also the worship of the sacred object: certain pens, certain typewriters or computers, certain writing programs. Presumably, success while holding said object once over,  was what lead to the acceptance, or that particularly good sentence. Isabelle Allende, for example, began writing her first novel The House of the Spirits on January 8th, which is now the date that she begins all her novels. If this move catches on, I suspect November first is going to be the new lucky day for writers.

Edith Sitwell, professional badass poet, had a habit of sitting for a span or two in a coffin to settle her mind before she began the day’s writing. I like to imagine she was a fan of the Phantom of the Opera and also kept a slew of pretty young ingenues on call to walk in and scream hysterically at the sight.

Flaubert would write in bed, which makes sense. So many wonderful things are born in beds, specifically sleep, which writers, as a class of people, never get enough of. Flaubert’s mother, whose name was Anne, would also bring him a glass of warm milk. Quiet, Freud, no one cares what you think about this whole scenario.

John Cheever was both a mimic and a revolutionary in the war against pants: Every morning he would wake up, dress in his finest suit and march off with the other men in his building who were making the commute to their office jobs. Instead of getting off at the bottom floor, Cheever went down to the basement of his building and stripped off his pants to write.

Charles Baxter is afraid of spilled salt, but a fan of the odor his body gives off: the more odious, the better the writing. If this worked for me, this post would resemble War and Peace by now.

Some authors refuse to end their novels on chapter thirteen, much like hotels refuse to acknowledge that floor fourteen is actually thirteen and anyone with basic counting skills will see through the deception. Or a refusal to title a piece until it’s absolutely finished. Others have a very intense candle-ceremony, which kind of explains how Yankee Candle is still in business. Some of us just sob hysterically into a pint until the magic happens, but as far as a summons of beautiful words, we can honestly say it doesn’t work too well until those fingers start typing.

So what are your writing superstitions, and what happens when you break them?

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

3 Responses to Writers and Superstitions

  1. Holly says:

    I really enjoyed this post–thank you for writing it!

    I don’t know that I have superstitions for every day so much as fall-backs when the writing becomes difficult: when I am stuck in a scene, I walk away from my computer, take up completely blank (preferably loose leaf) notebook paper and a fountain pen, and write while lying on the floor. I have two pens and two inks I prefer for this, and it feels a bit ritualistic, but it is, at heart, practical because lying on the floor (away from my computer) and fully blank, fresh paper remove distraction. I’m not usually properly stuck; I’m just not giving my work my full attention. Of course, I do have two mugs that I turn to exclusively when doing important things (writing pivotal scenes or what I hope are final revisions) or intimidating things (like submitting work or queries)–a mug full of Beowulf quotes (for bravery) and a very large Marauders Map mug (for its sheer volume and Sirius Black pluck). I used to include my favorite soccer team’s mug, but they’ve been on an awful losing jag for three years now and I don’t want their bad luck all over my desk at those times.

    All right, that last part is definitely superstitious.

    • Alison Balaskovits says:

      I totally want your Beowulf mug. I’ve got a Shakespeare insult mug, but it mostly just encourages me to drop “Your mother was a canker blossom” in every story.

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