Do writers need these? Do they work? Are they important? Why do they matter? What’s the difference between them? How can they do harm?
Superstition is when one believes–without proof or a clear connection–that a certain object or behavior will bring either good or bad luck. For example, a tennis player who always wears a particular shirt when competing in important matches.
I used to avoid writing a dedication to any manuscript I was selling on spec. Once I sold the book to a publisher, then I would add the dedication or acknowledgment page during production. I developed this superstition early in my career because one or two manuscripts with dedications never found a publisher. It was silly, of course, and this superstition went away once I began to land book contracts on the basis of proposals instead of submitting complete manuscripts. In other words, I outgrew that superstition.
As long as a superstition is harmless, it can remain private or become an anecdote at parties. But if a writer allows superstition to interfere with writing production, marketing, or professionalism, it becomes another matter, one that requires investigation and possibly eradication.
Let’s say a writer develops an aversion to writing on cloudy days–and happens to live in an area of heavy rainfall. I’d say something psychological is going on. Is the writer in question just procrastinating?
One of the most charming superstitions I’ve encountered is a man who liked to write his book outline on index cards, and his wife would give him a new fountain pen at the start of each project, saying “Your next bestseller is inside this pen.”
Ritual is habitual behavior organized around a specific purpose. We’re told that–besides a supportive and comfortable mattress–achieving a good night’s sleep involves a regular bedtime, shutting down TV and all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, dimming the lights, bathing, reading, etc.
In much the same way, rituals help writers to focus their thoughts as they prepare for their day’s writing session. Whether it’s brewing a cup of coffee, lighting a scented candle, going for a walk, putting on favorite music, or rereading yesterday’s work, a simple activity repeated each day becomes a habit and trains us to set aside distractions and commence.
For example, Balzac is said to have oriented his desk in a certain direction. Other authors–in the days before computers and word processing–used rituals such as cleaning their typewriters, sharpening pencils, filling fountain pens with ink, and changing their blotter paper. Such mundane tasks required little attention, allowing the imagination to wander back to whatever scene was in progress.
Today, some of my rituals include waiting for my ancient, wheezing computer to grind, thump, and growl itself to readiness–along with what seems to be an unnecessary amount of beeping and clacking from the printer–switching off my cell phone so some random text message doesn’t blow apart the perfect line of dialogue I’m about to write for my protagonist, switching on the lamps in my home office for optimal task and ambient lighting, and making sure my dogs have had their chance to visit the backyard.
What I don’t want to do is check my emails or text messages. That activity doesn’t work for me when I’m preparing to write. It provides a distraction, not a focus. It shifts my mind from creativity to responsivity. I can look at messages after I’ve written, when I need a break and want to think about something other than my characters or setting. Other writers, however, may need to check their messages first simply to get them out of the way. But for me, just as I don’t want to scroll through Facebook or work email before I go to bed, neither do I want to deliberately distract my thoughts before I write.
You no doubt know already what works best for you versus what gives you an excuse to dodge that knotty plot problem you can’t seem to solve.
Productive rituals, good habits, self-honesty, and harmless superstitions equal a happy, working writer.