Friday, February 24, 2012

Tricking the Universe: Writers and Their Superstitions

A professor once told me, People with a lot of rituals in their lives get more out of life. I didn’t agree with him then because I was young, a graduate student, and longing for spontaneity. But I’m older now (much older) and I’m more receptive to his comment.

Writers have lots of rituals. We tend to be a superstitious bunch and we call our superstitions rituals or ways of organizing time, but, really, these are superstitions. Most writers know about the rabbit’s foot Hemingway carried in his pocket, or John Cheever’s daily ritual of dressing in a suit and going to the office with the other businessmen. But I only recently learned that Jack Kerouac lit a candle every day. A.S. Byatt writes surrounded by her special collections of paper weights, snail shells, and other things; and Isabel Allende begins each book on the same day, January 8, because that’s when she began her incredibly successful first novel The House of Spirits. Edith Sitwell began her writing day by lying in a coffin, and Carson McCullers donned her lucky sweater whenever she wrote. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Alexander Dumas pere used different colored paper depending on the genre—blue for fiction, pink for nonfiction, and yellow for poetry. (I don’t know about the yellow, but I think he’s right about the colors for fiction and nonfiction, and I know there’s scientific backup for this—somewhere.)

I am not immune to this need to trick the Universe into being the wind at my back. I like to clear my desk before I begin a new work of fiction or nonfiction—tidy things up, file papers, finish lingering correspondence, pay all the bills I can find. I rearrange (by half an inch or so) the artifacts from India I keep on shelves nearby.

Part of this is procrastination, part is liking to see a clear path ahead for at least a few days, and part is trying to convince the universe that I’m here and I’m ready. At the end of a project I like to do a general cleaning of desk and drawers and files, even if they have nothing to do with the writing project. (You’d think my little home would be tidy and excessively neat, but you’d be wrong.) I think this is a way of getting rid of those dark spirits that hang around a story just waiting to see it go off a cliff. Add to this the need to write with only certain kinds of pens, the need to use only certain notebooks when I’m traveling and taking notes, and the need to structure time for other tasks in certain ways and you begin to wonder how I or any other writer can ever get anything done.

Do you have tools that seem to make your work flow better? Are there rituals or practices you rely on to get your words on paper? Let me know and I’ll add them to my growing list of what writers need to do their work.


  1. How fun to read about all those writers and their habits. I certainly don't lie in a coffin before I start writing, but I do turn off the radio and the Internet. If I need to research something on the web or in the library, I type [CHECK THIS] and keep on writing. I like a clear desk, too, but it doesn't always stay clear.

  2. Edith, I have yet to meet a writer who wants the desk messy before beginning but I'm sure there is at least one out there. We want no distractions when we decide to go off and live in another world.

  3. I absolutely must check my e-mail before starting any other projects. If I try to skip that step, I can't focus on other work.