Men become superstitious, not because they have too much imagination, but because they are not aware that they have any – George Santayana
I want to talk about my current work in progress but I don’t want to say too much in case I jinx it so I probably will say very little. I’ve never been very good about sharing. Sure I’ll share a bar of chocolate or a can of juice (Scottish euphemism for soda) and I’d give you the shirt off my back if you needed it but don’t ask me to talk about what I’m writing.
I drafted two poems last night while watching the telly. I keep notepads all over the place even though I am never more than a few feet from a computer. I’ve been putting the final touches to my forthcoming collection This is Not About What You Think but I keep getting new ideas for poems to fill in some of the gaps in the narrative-that’s-not-actually-a-narrative. Anyway, I jotted down my notes while we were watching a biopic about Georgia O’Keefe not that what I was writing was inspired by or had even been triggered by the film but the words come when they come.
I noticed my wife watching me write. But she never asked me what I was writing. Even when I’d put the pad aside she still never made any inquiry. This doesn’t mean she’s not interested but she’s learned that I don’t like discussing my work in case I jinx it.
I’m not going to talk about the poems now either. They’re not finished. I went to get my pad a few minutes ago to have a look at them in the cold light of day and then I got this idea and since in my mind I’m behind on my blogs (despite having a stockpile of seventeen of the buggers) I decided to go with this; the poems won’t go off.
I’m quite happy to talk about the writing process after the event. I wish more authors would share. One of the biggest gripes I had when I was young and trying to find my way creatively was that writers kept their work close to their chests, at least that’s how it felt at the time. In reality I just didn’t know where to look. The Paris Review with its wonderful interviews would have been a start but I never even knew the journal existed until fairly recently.
From the start though, I also kept what I was working on to myself. I would only present polished pieces to the world whether they were poems, musical compositions or works of art. Did I think someone was going to steal my idea? Nah. There was no one around me who was remotely interested in the creative arts. Most of the time they only showed an interest in what I was doing to be supportive or at the very least polite.
When I was working on my first play when I was nineteen I actually took the manuscript with me to the loo, not so I could work on it while in there but so no one would try to take a peek at it before it was finished. I wasn’t so much bothered by then that I was going to be ripped off; I was more concerned that they might see it before it was ready and judge me based on something that wasn’t right.
This doesn’t mean that I’ve never shared. I have. And I’ve found that to be like giving my creativity a lethal injection; I lose interest in finishing whatever it is. So nowadays I never share. There is also the thought that if I take advice from someone that the work has been diluted; it may improve the piece but it’s no longer my piece. Is that a big thing? Yeah, I’ll say it is. I’ve always believed that an artist should do all the work himself. Can you imagine a runner taking a break for a lap or two while someone else fills in? No, if my name is going to go on the cover then I want what’s inside to be mine: good, bad or indifferent, I want it to be mine.
Of course not every idea I come up with is mine. I pinch ideas from people, from books, from the TV, from the back of cereal boxes left, right and centre; no one is safe. But the people behind those ideas have no direct creative input. They’re providing ideas blind. It’s not like they’re looking over my shoulder and suggesting I make the daughter older or younger or move the action from here to there. No, all of that’s me. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me. Me.
So, I’d like to talk about my current work in progress but I’m not going to. It’s a novel, that’s no big secret, and I’ve been writing/not writing it for over three years which may seem a while but I’ve never pretended to be a fast writer. What I can say is that I’ve come up with a fresh angle on the piece and although I’ve not scrapped everything that’s gone before this, in truth the 23,000 words that currently exist have just been turned into working notes.
What I am willing to say is that this is the hardest book I’ve ever tried to write. I have already scrapped one version, written a second (in the third person) which I then rewrote (in the first person) and am now rewriting addressing a single individual rather than everyone and anyone. It’s all part of the game. If this were my first book I’d be despairing now but I know I can finish it. I just don’t know what it’ll be like when it is finished. I’m certainly not writing the book now I began writing.
But that’s all I’m going to say in case I jinx it.
It’s an interesting expression, ‘in case I jinx it’, isn’t it?
I'm currently back in the past again, 1819 to be exact, but this book is soooo close to my heart U don't want to say too much in case I jinx it! – Catherine Johnson, writer
I am working on a new book, about Oxford, about friendship and love and – I find - about the strangeness of Christianity if you happen to be looking at it from the standpoint of being Jewish. But I don't want to say a lot about it in case I jinx it. – Naomi Alderman, writer
Saying nothing more right now in case I jinx it, but I’m on chapter two and I’m just beginning to enjoy myself. – Erastes, writer
Title: No idea whatsoever. I have a terrible habit of saving my novels as "Book", "Book3", "Newbook" and things like that, and I usually only think of a title right at the end. So the title is to be confirmed. Blurb: Too superstitious to share, in case I jinx it! – Andrea Eames, writer
I found those four in about ten minutes.
The thing is I’m not superstitious in the slightest. I tend not to walk under ladders because something might fall on you. That has nothing to do with luck, merely probability. I don’t chuck salt over my shoulder if I spill any and I have no idea if a black cat crossing your path is a good thing or a bad thing except that a cat is something to pet and I love petting things no matter what colour they are.
Supposedly writers are generally notoriously superstitious creatures. Cormac McCarthy bought a typewriter, a portable Olivetti manual, in 1963 in a Knoxville, Tennessee pawnshop for $50 and has only recently parted company with it after writing nearly all his novels and screenplays on it. So why would anyone want a fifty-year-old machine? The rare-book dealer who is handling the auction, Glen Horowitz, has his thoughts on the subject:
When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife. – The Times, 5 Dec 2009
I have no idea if McCarthy believed that. It may have simply been that he was comfortable with the machine, the old ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mindset. In the same article in The Times author Erica Wagner found one author though who definitely believed in his machine:
Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for more than four decades on an Underwood portable. For him, his machine was a kind of first editor. “If this typewriter doesn’t like a story, it refuses to work,” he said. “I don’t get a man to correct it since I know if I get a good idea the machine will make peace with me again. I don’t believe my own words saying this, but I’ve had the experience so many times that I’m really astonished. But the typewriter is 42 years old. It should have some literary experience; it should have a mind of its own.”
To a certain extent I get the typewriter thing. It used to be pens. And I love pens even though I virtually never use one anymore. I spend hours and hours every day with my hands on this keyboard. It’s intimate. I treat it with respect. I don’t hammer away at the keys. My fingers flit over them. My wife bought me a new laptop a few months ago but I’m not comfortable with the keys yet. The ‘Delete’, ‘Home’, ‘Page Up’, ‘Page Down’ and ‘End’ keys are in a vertical column on the right hand side of the keyboard and I keep hitting the wrong ones. It’s not a big deal but my hands knew where the other keys were; I didn’t have to look and now I do. I imagine I’ll whinge about my next keyboard too. I don’t believe that this lump of plastic and metal contributes in any way to my skills as a writer other than making the experience of writing a reasonably comfortable one. That’s it.
I’m not sure who the award for the most superstitious writer of all time would go to but I suspect that Truman Capote would be a contender:
I suppose my superstitiousness could be termed a quirk. I have to add up all numbers: there are some people I never telephone because their number adds up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses—which is sad because they’re my favourite flower. I can’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won’t travel on a plane with two nuns. Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts. – ‘The Art of Fiction No.17: Truman Capote’, The Paris Review.
In In Cold Blood Capote points out how superstitious Perry was:
The compulsively superstitious person is also very often a serious believer in fate; that was the case with Perry. He was here, and embarked on the present errand, not because he wished to be but because fate had arranged the matter; he could prove it-...
I don’t believe in Fate. I do believe in free will . . . up to a point:
What are lies but truths gone rotten
and secrets lie in that no man's land
between the two.
Guilt is the aftermath,
the mushroom cloud descending
falling irresistibly toward us.
No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.
7 April, 1996
What do I mean by that last stanza? I mean that I am a writer and I will inevitably write. I may or may not finish my current work in progress – that is not inevitable – but unless “time and unforeseen circumstance” step in I will write some time in the future. Probably in about ten seconds after finishing this sentence. Or less.
Why writing though? Why not composing or painting. I might have even been happier being one of those. I wasn’t destined to write but I was born with a predisposition towards artistic creativity. I don’t care whether or not there are more powerful beings in the universe. I certainly can’t believe that what I’ve written up until now could have been part of any grand plan but I guess it would be a pretty inefficient plan if I was self-aware. What I certainly don’t have are any typewriter gods.
“Typewriter gods?” you ask incredulously. Yes, typewriter gods.
When Betsy Lerner was in Junior High she took pottery. Her teacher sounds like a bit of an oddball I have to say because he instructed all his kids to make little clay finger puppets, kiln gods, to “protect and bless” their firings. To show what she thought of the project she produced a little man giving the finger. And you would think that would be the end of it. But no:
Since then, I have had a series of typewriter gods, little effigies that do absolutely nothing but protect and bless my keyboard. Among my totems: the smallest, peanut-sized Matryoshka doll, a white Porsche, a brass penguin, a polished stone, a pair of smiling strawberry salt & pepper shakers, and a purloined monkey covering his ears, from a set of three each the size of a walnut: see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. – ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’, The Forest for the Trees
These sound like the households gods used by the ancient Romans, gods that supposedly channel creative energy. Now I’m all for having things around me that make writing comfortable but that’s it. I have three soft toys draped over the monitor in my office – a dog, a frog and a hippo – the dog was a present from my daughter, the frog my mother-in-law and the hippo from my wife. Seeing them pleases me but that’s the length and breadth of it. And I have a few other knickknacks around the room that make me feel comfortable, my die cast model of Supercar, my Daleks, Death and his dog (from Family Guy), my Alien3 figure. But it’s not as if I can’t write unless my Cyberman is looking due north.
In his article, How Superstitious Writer Habits Get Started, software developer, David Michael opens with this wee list:
- The first time, it’s a happy accident. A serendipitous “A ha!“
- The second time might not be even recognisable as the second time.
- The third time you do it on purpose.
- The fourth time … well … even if it sneaks up on you have to admit you were waiting for it, even as you kept busy with something else and/or some other approach.
- And when you get to the fifth time … Just learn to live with it.
And that really is it, isn’t it. But the bottom line is that you are attributing some of your creativity to some lucky charm. That charm can be a thing or it can be a person, a muse. Between 23 March 1989 and 19 October 1989 I dedicated fourteen poems “For B.” but that was only because I didn’t want to make it too obvious that I was besotted with her. Once the relationship came to an end so did my words:
FOREVER IS JUST ANOTHER WORD
I don't know where all the words have gone.
Perhaps they've all been used on someone else.
Perhaps there's nothing left but me
to hold you in the dark.
But we don't need them anymore.
We only thought we did but we never knew.
There is so much time.
20 May 1990
Seriously there is nothing more damaging to a writer’s craft than being in love or at least thinking that he’s in love. First the quality went and (I would refer you to the previous poem) then the words themselves. I didn’t have a fresh idea until 5 June 1994. In 1991 I did dig into my notebooks and scrabbled together a few old ideas but they weren’t very fresh. For the record, it was another woman who got me out of that mess and, yes, another muse. Me and my women!
Power can be wrested from us. It can be given up freely. Once it’s been handed over it is very hard to get back and you never get it back intact. I wrote every single word in this post, every one that I haven’t credited to someone else. It’s important to me that I can say that. In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I couldn’t remember who gave me which of the three stuffed animals; I thought two came from my daughter but even then I couldn’t remember which two and had to check with my wife. But that’s just research. Research is okay.
I pride myself that I can write anywhere, with a pen or pencil – last night’s poems were written in pencil – or on a keyboard, manual, electric or electronic. I still accept that the process of writing is a delicate one that can be disrupted easily enough. And there are loads of things that get in my road. I noticed that my office desk is a bit dusty the other day. I’ll tell you here and now I won’t be able to write there until I’ve cleaned it. I don’t think it’s unlucky to work on a dusty desk, it just annoys me. If I wake up in the night and need to get something down I’d write in the dust if that was all that’s available to me. (It’d have to be a short idea because there’s not that much dust but you get the idea.)
So, now’s the time to fess up: which of you out there are superstitious writers and which of you aren’t?
P.S. I just mentioned to my wife that I’ve written a 3000 word blog and the first thing she said was, “Was that what you were scribbling on the couch last night?”