Thursday, February 8, 2018

Writers and Their Superstitions

Today I'm posting a short article that first appeared in How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own Words, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay (Writers Digest Books, 2007).

The Rule of Twelve: Writers and Their Superstitions

I am not a superstitious person. I don’t keep a rotten apple in my desk drawer like the poet Schiller, to inspire me to put words to paper, nor do I sharpen a certain number of pencils each morning like Ernest Hemingway, lining them up like a stockade fence falling to the earth before the perfectly crafted sentence. If I need to have my desk tidy and clear of clutter before I turn on my iBook and face the blinking cursor, that is simply a normal tic in the life of a writer. The tic for Don DeLillo is a manual typewriter, and for May Sarton it’s eighteenth-century music. Malcolm Gladwell needs a busy, noisy place, reminiscent of his newspaper days, to create the right kind of environment for his work. Gladwell’s setting is positively serene compared to Hart Crane’s need for raucous parties and loud Latin music.
But the Rule of Twelve is not a superstition; it is based on empirical evidence. 
            I learned about the Rule of Twelve in the second writing group I attended, in the 1980s, while I was struggling to publish my first stories since college. A fellow writer, more published than I (her experience supplied the first piece of evidence), explained the rule: a story sent out to twelve journals, or sent out twelve times sequentially, will be published by one of them. Was I skeptical? Yes, but testing this was hardly as threatening as getting a new desk, which I did recently. Deciding that the Holy Grail for me was a desk with drawers rather than the six-foot long trestle dining table I’d been using for years almost sent me into therapy. But, as I said, I’m not superstitious. Unlike George Sand, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, and Winston Churchill, I don’t believe the only way to write is standing up. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain lay down to write. I use a chair.
            There are those who believe that before you can be published you have to write out the first million words at the end of your pen (or your fingers) before you get to the really good stuff, the stuff that will make your agent swoon and editors call you on Sunday evening begging for your manuscript.  I considered my options: a million words versus twelve submissions.  As a rational person, I chose to test the Rule of Twelve. I polished one particular story and sent it out to twelve journals. And then I waited.
            The notion that writers are superstitious gains credibility at every author signing and talk. The first question is often, How do you write? People ask this question as though the answer held the key to a finished novel, a prize-winning story. The answer in fact might, but not for the person asking it.  Bruce Chatwin buys a box of Moleskine notebooks at a certain stationery shop in Paris, numbers the pages, and writes his name and address on the inside. This is a superstition—they can be used just as well for a travel journal, without numbered pages, which is how I choose to use them.
            After what seemed an unreasonable length of time, in the twelfth month of the year, the story was accepted. I don’t know what happened to the other submissions—they seem to have disappeared into the mail. Unlike Jack London, I did not obsess about the mail—stamps, letters, modes of delivery, postal system workers. I accepted the editor’s reply as empirical evidence. The Rule of Twelve works.
            I think it is important to keep in mind that writers live in fantasy worlds and therefore it is all the more important to keep superstitions at bay. Umberto Eco explains this nicely when he points out that certain projects call for a pen, others call for a felt-tipped pen, and still others call for a computer. Alexandre Dumas pere used different colored paper for different genres, an orderly rational approach to his work. Sensible and practical, I cleared a shelf in my bookcase for all my future publications.
            The next time I noticed the effect of the Rule of Twelve was in 1992. By now I had an agent and a mystery novel, which she sent out to more editors than I can remember. She sent the manuscript to Scribner’s, where it sank into oblivion. Despite calls to the editor, repeated letters demanding the return of the manuscript if it wasn’t going to be accepted, we heard nothing. But I am a rational person. Unlike Gail Goodwin, who keeps talismans from the graves of writers she admires—a beechnut from Isak Dinesen’s grave in Denmark and a piece of rock from D. H. Lawrence’s in New Mexico—I cleared my desk and went to work on another novel. I don’t need a window overlooking the water in Venice, like Henry James, waiting for a ship to bring into view a needed detail for the story. The sidewalk outside my window works just fine.
            On a cold Sunday evening in February, the telephone rang. It was Susanne Kirk. She wanted my mystery novel. It was a full twelve months since my agent had sent it to her. My bookshelf was filling up with more empirical evidence.
            By now you should be convinced that superstitions have no place in the writing life. Empirical evidence is the only way to go. The Rule of Twelve works. Use it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What We Give Up to Be Writers

Every now and then it occurs to me how much of my upbringing I've had to abandon in order to be a writer. This may sound like the beginning of a long tale about walking away from a cushy life to live in a crummy studio apartment paid for by a soul-killing job behind a store counter in order to have time to write. I have no such story.

When I say I had to give up parts of my "upbringing" I'm thinking about all the good manners my mother struggled to instill in me. I made it through childhood and adolescence by giving lip service to the basic rules--don't stare, don't eavesdrop, don't ask impertinent questions, don't give your unvarnished opinion even if asked. But as soon as the parent's back was turned, I followed my own rules.

The subway is a great place to pick up ideas for characters. Of course, this means sometimes getting a good look at strangers, even staring and following them out of the subway car. If I hear an unusual voice, I might try to engage the person in conversation, just to hear more of it.

Some of my best stories come from eavesdropping on other people's conversations. I used to work at a social service agency where I spent hours chatting with people who had lived through all sorts of extremes that had never come near to what I had experienced. I once listened to a man and a woman, seated outside my office door, talk about how differently discharges were handled at a man's prison and a woman's prison. (The men got a bus ride back into town, to the spot where they'd been first picked up; the women were given a bus or train ticket back to the city nearest to where they lived, and after that had to make their own way home.)

On another occasion I got to listen to a man explain to his caseworker why he couldn't avoid getting arrested repeatedly because the best corner for selling drugs was only one block from the elementary school. What was he supposed to do? Where else was he to go to conduct his business?

I once shared a table with a teenage girl and her mother, who was explaining precisely how she should behave in certain circumstances, advice certain to erase any sense of her daughter's individual identity. Restaurants are among the best places to pick up accents, fragments of conversation, and distinctive voices.

These moments, which violate good manners and proper behavior, bring us (or me at least) the first pulse of a story. I hear the voices and the attitudes, imagine the years of life not moving in the hoped-for direction, and the character I've been looking for steps onto the page, and I'm off and typing.

I do make one concession to my upbringing. I try not to be obvious about eavesdropping. I do try to let people have their privacy, even though I'm hanging on every word. After all, I wouldn't want to make them so uncomfortable that they'd stop talking. The loss, for me, would be incalculable.

To find the results of this improper behavior, go here: