Friday, February 23, 2018


One of the pleasures in life is going into a quiet cafe and relaxing with a book. Perhaps I have lunch, or just sip my coffee. My small city offers lots of choices, with and without students from the local arts college, which means with and without a racket of noise. My favorite place for a quiet moment is a small French bakery where few people go. The storefront is really meant to draw customers in for special orders for weddings and other events.

The glass-enclosed case of baked goods is limited to croissants, breakfast pastries, and cookies. No bread, no sandwiches, no dinner rolls. This is really a sweets bakery, with a case of specialty desserts and another of cakes. I rarely pay attention to the sweets, heading instead for the croissants. But the last time I was there the baker had put on display some of his handiwork to promote his wares. And they were stunning. Yes, those are real cakes decorated with real sugar, including the two vases with flowers.

There’s no chance I’m going to take up baking any time soon (or ever), but I was drawn to the detail and perfection of craftsmanship in these sample cakes. Everything is real except for the cake inside, which has been replaced with a clay that won’t deteriorate. I studied the flowers and decorative flourishes with amazement, thinking about the sheer physical discipline required to get each little piece made and then in place.

Craftsmanship is something I admire, and wherever I come across a demonstration of skill and quality, I stop to look and learn. I notice the color choices, the design overall, the delicacy of the sugar pieces. It’s easy to admire a painting hanging in a museum or art gallery. We’ve been taught to accept as great art certain works, and to admire them when we encounter them in the appropriate spaces. But there is art everywhere, and most of it isn’t admired or even recognized as such.

I pass a number of nineteenth-century cast-iron mailboxes every few days, delight in their sinuous vines, and then I walk on. We’ve replaced things like this with a single steel box hanging on the house, or, at most, a painted steel box set on a post. We buy new clothes every season, and think nothing about it. But I found an old dress my mother had remade from an older one, and the nap on the fabric meant that the wool would last for eighty years or more.

Craftsmanship is taking the time to care about our work, and to understand what makes something better. I recently read a novel that was written by a woman who normally wrote poetry. I could see the attention she lavished on each word choice and each sentence. The writing wasn’t fancy, full of figures of speech and platitudes that sounded wiser than they were. She didn’t try to impress with vocabulary or literary allusions. It was a simple story made rich by the care of the author in building clarity and depth into the characters.

We can’t all write great books, make sumptuous jewelry, or craft a stair railing that will win an award. But I still look for examples of work made by those who cared to take time, to get it right, to want to add beauty to the world.

The cake in the bakery was gorgeous, and if the baker’s cakes are anything like his pastries, the eating of it would be just as wonderful.

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.