Voodoo Poems and Magic Prose

(c) Angus Woodward

I don't have to tell you how uncertain our profession can be.  Whether a writer has been heaped with praise or buried by rejection, we all know that our luck-- good or bad-- can change abruptly.  We listen attentively to the stories of writers who toil in obscurity for years before lightning strikes; we also remember the names of writers who we thought had achieved fame, even canonization, but who are no longer read or even mentioned.  We hear legends of great books being abandoned by publishers on the eve of publication, and tales of obscure small press titles achieving classic status through word-of-mouth.  On a smaller scale, we watch literary magazines sprout and fade like dandelions.  In my case, three separate magazines have accepted my stories, only to fold before my work reached print.  In some ways we are like athletes, who with one lucky bounce or fortuitous gust can become legends, and who with one misstep can lose their careers to injury.  But do writers react to such uncertainty the way many athletes have, with bizarre superstitious rituals, eating only fried chicken before writing, wearing lucky sweaters, wielding lucky pens?
Others have noticed, I am sure, that writers have a reputation for superstitiousness.  It seems that every interviewer asks his or her subject about superstition or ritual-- often enough that any question about a writer's work habits sounds like a fishing trip.  Perhaps it has something to do with the well-known tales of Hemingway insisting on writing standing up, with twenty sharpened pencils at the ready.  George Plimpton reported in the late fifties that "Hemingway finds it difficult to talk about writing . . . he feels so strongly that such ideas should remain unexpressed, that to be asked questions on them `spooks' him."  Plimpton also wrote that near the space where Hemingway worked there was "an odd assortment of mementos: a giraffe made of wood beads, a little cast iron turtle, tiny models of a locomotive, two jeeps and a Venetian gondola . . ." and that these were "tokens" which "[had] their value."  Plimpton referred to these talismans again when he concluded that "Hemingway may admit superstitions of this sort, but he prefers not to talk about them, feeling that whatever value they may have can be talked away."  In other words, Papa was superstitious about his superstitions.  The image of Hemingway standing at the bureau, fingering fetishes and widening his eyes at the thought of discussing the writing process has lingered, influencing the public's perception of writers.
While Hemingway's oft-cited interview has done much to perpetuate writers' reputations for superstitiousness, many profiles and interviews of recent years have kept the myth alive.  Dana Huebler, in a profile of Philippine writer Cecilia Manguerra Brainard for Poets and Writers, stated that "Having just completed the first draft of her second novel, Brainard is superstitious about discussing the details of the book, fearing it may `kill' the work."  Without a verbatim quote from Brainard, it is difficult to know whether the writer sees herself as superstitious, but in any case Huebler touches on an issue that seems to be a litmus test of a writer's superstitiousness: commenting on work-in-progress.  We are at our most uncertain when the work is incomplete and unproven, and questions about unfinished products bring writers' "spookiness" to light. Cynthia Ozick's response to a question about a novel in progress has a ring of superstition to it, for example: "I'd better say no more, or the Muse will wipe it out ... I have lost stories and many starts of novels before.  Not always as punishment for `telling,' but more often as a result of something having gone cold and dead because of a hiatus."  John Edgar Wideman  refused to identify favorites among his books for his interviewer, saying "It's sort of like kids; even if you did have favorites, you wouldn't say that aloud because you might hurt the others' feelings."  I've heard that fishermen's wives in traditional fishing communities are careful not to let the ocean hear them bid their husbands good-bye, for fear that it will take them away for good.  Brainard, Ozick and Wideman are similarly reluctant to offend the spirits of inanimate objects, confirming their interrogators' suspicions.
But it is not only interviewers and profilers who perpetuate the notion that writers are superstitious.  Many writers have admitted to being devoted to particular writing rituals, and ritual is closely associated with superstition.  Even in the religious sense, ritual relies on repetition, as do superstitions: knocking wood every time a rosy prophecy is made, throwing a ball to the first baseman at the end of each inning.  Maya Angelou told George Plimpton that she every time she writes, she lies "on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a Roget's Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible," in hotel rooms whose walls have been stripped bare of any decoration.  Joan Didion was asked, "Do you have any writing rituals?"  and responded by saying, "The most important is that I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day . . . Another thing I do, when I'm near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it."  Derek Walcott, speaking for himself and all writers, associated ritual with religion (which some equate with superstition), when he said, "I don't know how many writers are willing to confess to their private preparatory rituals before they get down to putting something on paper.  But I imagine that all artists and all writers in that moment before they begin their working day or working night have that area between beginning and preparation, and however brief it is, there is something about it votive and in a sense ritualistic."  
Some writers explicitly deny their own superstitiousness, but reveal an assumption that other writers are superstitious.  Elie Wiesel has said, "I am disciplined, hardworking.  I have no superstitions," but added, ". . . Some writers need all kinds of idiosyncrasies.  One took a wet cloth to the forehead; another had to get drunk; a third had to take drugs.  Hemingway stood, another was sitting, another was lying."  Robert Stone seems to know what the interviewer is fishing for-- and to have other writers in mind-- when he says, "There are no particular rituals connected with [the working environment] for me, like having a special cup of coffee or sharpening six pencils."
Other writers have commented publicly on their reluctance to discuss work in progress, but attribute their reticence to more practical concerns than those of Brainard, Ozick and Wideman.  E.L. Doctorow was asked if he'd ever lost a story by discussing it before it was written, and replied, "Yes.  When you're talking about a story you're writing it.  You're sending it out into the air, it's finished, it's gone."  I asked fiction and non-fiction writer Dinty W. Moore to comment on such practices.  "To me, it is an explainable phenomenon," he wrote.  "If you discuss the ending of a story with a friend, some of the urgency of finishing it on the page can be lost."  Poet William Trowbridge is similarly pragmatic: "I'm reluctant to discuss a work in progress but only because I want to concentrate all my energy on writing rather than talking about it." 
Doctorow, Moore and Trowbridge come across as more practical than superstitious, but it is as easy to associate their policies with superstition.  There are as many superstitions involving "never" as there are involving "always," so that never discussing work-in-progress, whatever the reason, can be perceived as "just like" never walking under a ladder.  People tend to associate any writing habit or rule with ritual, and to associate ritual with superstition.  It is easy to forget or ignore the fact that some rituals are not superstitious, and that some habits are not rituals.
Virtually any writer, when asked by interviewers, emphasizes the importance of some aspect of the creative process, which adds fuel to the fire of superstitious reputation.  Bernard Malamud put it very succinctly: "If [a writer] is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help."  One's discipline may include six sharpened pencils, black fine-point Pilot pens, or a reluctance to "offend" one's books.  While a writer may not perceive his or her attachment to such habits as irrational voodoo, others may. 
It is perhaps more accurate to say that writers are attached to their tools, beliefs, rituals and methods in the same way that a horn player is dedicated to a particular trumpet, or a wood carver to certain familiar tools.  Unaccustomed tools, instruments, surroundings or processes come between the writer and the poem or story, interfering with the symbiosis between the player and the music, the carver and the object, simply by being noticeable.  Familiarity allows us to forget about the objects in our hands, so that we can get closer to the character, the music, the image.  John Hersey has pointed out that "Disturbing the rituals surrounding writing may be very confusing, very difficult."  It is reasonable to assume that Maya Angelou insists on bare walls to reduce distraction.  William Trowbridge is certainly concerned with the elimination of distraction: "Because I started writing poems on legal paper, I continue to do so in order to keep the physical medium familiar and therefore non-distracting."  Dinty Moore confesses that "I still can only write using an ancient version of a DOS-based software . . . the crude software with which I first began serious writing."  This attachment to "what worked before" may seem irrational to others, and may seem to come out of fear that the "magic" will be lost.  Irrationality and fear being components of superstition, it is no wonder that writers strike others-- and sometimes themselves-- as superstitious. 
Although the superstitiousness of writers seems to be exaggerated, the result of misinterpretations of writers' comments on idiosyncratic processes, writers have good reason to be superstitious, due to the high level of uncertainty that plagues the profession.  Charles Baxter could almost as easily have been talking about athletes as writers in saying, "So much good writing depends on talent and good luck that writers probably fear that their talent and their good luck will run out.  Writers don't necessarily get better as they get older.  Frequently they get worse.  Superstition is the natural result of all this, as it would be in any occupation where the injury rate increases with age."  Superstition often arises in response to doubt, whether it is the superstitions of a primitive tribe or of fishermen's wives.  In our chaotic world, we gather some comfort from the idea that throwing salt over our shoulders may avert disaster, which we know may arrive quite suddenly.  Poet Rodger Kamenetz theorizes that "Writers probably are superstitious because how their work is valued does not depend entirely on their efforts. . . Every writer is a speculator by definition-- most of us work on spec and every writer is a gambler and every gambler I know of is superstitious."  Poet David Starkey seconds the notion when he laments that, "Even after ten years of sending things out, it still seems like such a crap shoot . . . ." 
Many writers have been superstitious, which simply means that they view their dedication to certain work habits as superstitious, while others may explain their own rituals more rationally.  Some are "spooked" by the idea of discussing work in progress; others simply refrain.  It comes down to the fact that when we write, we face the uncertainty alone, with only our black ballpoints, our cast iron turtles, or our DOS-based software for company.  Facing the blank page is strictly a solitary pursuit, and Samuel Johnson cautioned us to "Remember that the solitary mortal is certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad."  Time will tell whether my decision to forsake Pilot and try my luck with 7mm Zebras was mad.
Works Cited
Huebler, Dana. "An Interview with Cecilia Manguerra Brainard." Poets and Writers.   March/April 1997: 96-105.
Oleander, Renee.  "An Interview with John Edgar Wideman." AWP Chronicle 29:3   (December 1996): 1-8.
Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews.  2nd Series.    New York: Viking, 1963. [Hemingway]
----------. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews.  5th Series.  New York: Viking, 1981. [Didion]
----------.  Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews.  6th Series.  New York:   Viking, 1984. [Malamud]
----------.  Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews.  8th Series.  New York:   Viking, 1988.[Doctorow, Hersey, Ozick, Stone, Walcott, Wiesel]
----------.  Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews.  9th Series.  New York:   Penguin, 1992. [Angelou]