Lost Among Words: Writers & Their Superstitions
Lost Among Words is a new inReads column that looks inside the life of a young writer. It’s a first person account of the stresses faced by newcomers to the profession in our ever-changing world of reading and writing, along with the risks and rewards of such a career.
And now, the journey continues:
Writers tend to be superstitious: Hemingway, who tried to avoid not proofreading his work too closely, lest he damage it in the process; Kerouac, who made a ritual of lighting a candle and writing only by its light; and Emerson, who himself was superstitious about superstitions.
As for me, I’m still looking. I’m mostly superstitious about manuscript formatting—nothing so glamorous as channeled spirits, arcane practices, or occult routines. Still, I’ve got my rituals. If I’m writing poetry, I write in Garamond. For prose, I use Georgia or Didot. (1.5 line spacing in either case.) Any deviation from this, and I feel strongly—beyond reason—that my piece will suffer. Success, I am sure, relies in an adherence to certain, lofty codes which I am currently too young to access.
Of course, superstitions mitigate the rigorous and often torturous severity of a writerly career. By establishing a sort of spiritual system, it becomes easier for us to believe that the act of writing is the single artist’s heroic negotiation between massive, unknowable forces. We call to Muses, to the Universal Unconscious. These invocations encourage the glamorousness essential to good literature. We must believe in preternatural—or at least mysterious—protection; that with each proper stroke of the pen or key, we’re guarded from eternal punishment. With the right precautions—proper font, a clean, well-lighted room—an appeal to the Gods of Prose & Poem becomes slightly easier, or at least more bearable.
I want some cool superstitions. Whenever anyone asks me, “So what’s your secret?” I want to be able to answer: “I drink two cups of lemon juice with lunch,” or “I channel the ancient godess Sekhmet over cereal,” or “I burn half of anything I write with incense.” At least that way, if measures prove fruitless, I’ll at least have confused a generation of authors.
This week, the last week of summer before I start my senior year of college, has been colored by the specialness of a fleeting moment. Everything became, inescapably, “The Last.” This is The Last Sleep in my room. This is The Last Dinner with my family. This is The Last Poem I’ll write in my favorite chair, etc. I’m not going to war, though. It’s just school, from which I’ll return in half a year. Even so, Time’s unreasonable progress always induces in me a poetic fervor, from which I act a bit silly.
The Last Night at home, I took a walk. Of all exercises, I believe walking is undoubtedly the most conducive to health. A walk is not as exhausting as more intensive physical activity, and yet not so relaxing that one does not feel just a bit better about the doughnuts one ate earlier in the morning. While walking, there is time to imagine poetries, admire the beauties of local nature, and even criticize neighbors’ ugly landscaping. For this Last Night’s walk, I chose a route that led me to the neighborhood convenience store, where a childhood friend and I used to sneak in the odd hours of sour early morning light. I’m not sure if we ever bought anything at this store, but it provided an escape for which all children are so desperate. Along empty roads, under an overcast sky—practically reciting Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night”—I began to believe that this particular walk had for me an important significance. The night whispered to me poems of childhood, poems of time, and poems of loss. This was it! The inspiration of superstition! I had given myself to the shadowed world of ritual and belief, and had profited for it. I turned around immediately, this delicate inspiration fresh in mind.
Back home, in front of my computer, my mind suddenly emptied. I wrote a few lines—in Garamond—about the convenience store and light and memory, and then I realized it’d all been written before, and much more aptly. How had I lost that wealth of poetry? Well, probably because I never really had access to it. Superstition, I realized finally, is a great hoax.
The responsibility of creating wonderful, artful literature cannot ultimately be attributed to the constant appeasement of mysterious forces. It is neither the light of a candle, nor the size of a font, nor the shadows of a lonely night that necessarily evoke fine writing. The responsibility of writing lies solely on the writer—a single, minute individual adrift in tides of so much uncertainty. No fanciful enterprise will change reality: It is the writer, and nobody grander, who is responsible for his success.
As a (bright-eyed) youngster enthralled with writers’ idiosyncrasies, I can’t learn this lesson quickly enough. While in the field of literature, writers become larger-than-life legends of surprising means—Rimbaud, Hemingway, Ginsberg, Thompson. I must remember to keep my feet firmly planted in the Practical. I can’t get carried away in ritual suspicion. Rather, I’ll write to the best of my ability, read what I can, and write more. I must swallow my pride, accept rejection, and not blame my failures on the wayward gods of art.
Mindful of this, I’ve been writing some short, unassuming prose. I wrote a piece about a bird that died, and its resonances. I wrote something else about a library, á la Borges. I haven’t written much poetry. Either the ambitious aim of verse has briefly scared me away, or I’m simply worrying about my MFA applications. I’ve got three months to write eighty sterling pages of short fiction. No matter to whom I pray, that fact won’t change.
Not to worry: In spite of my newfound writerly sobriety, I’ve kept the prevailing superstitions, the ones of which I’m most fond. For example, I write at dawn and dusk, but hardly ever during the day. I may start meditating, in order to commune with the depths of my soul. Most importantly, I wrote this with the Georgia font. Boy, do I feel relieved.
MOVED BY WHAT YOU READ?
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Elsewhere in inReads: Imagine accommodating the idiosyncrasies of thirty-six authors for the creation of one novel.