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Magic Cloaks, Lucky Charms, and Other Writerly Superstitious Habits

Flickr Creative Commons: Mohammed Alnasar

I visited Lucy Maud Montgomery’s bedroom on Prince Edward Island to research my forthcoming novel Marilla of Green Gables.  [1]Standing before Maud’s vanity mirror, I tried to see the world through her reflection: single bed, gabled ceiling, flower wallpaper, writing desk, lamp, chair, and window looking out to the Lake of Shining Waters. The morning light twinkled golden peach over everything in the room, and I understood why she protected her hours in it.

Montgomery wrote in the mornings, so the myth goes, and she always began with her journal. On February 11, 1910 she wrote, “… the worst as well as the best must be written out.” She had to first write herself out before she could begin the day’s fiction.

Was this a decisive routine to clear the deck for her characters? An unconscious habit born of her youth? Or a writing spell that she feared breaking? I can’t say for certain, but it got me thinking about the superstitious patterns of our writer tribe. Some we admit. Many we keep secret. But Writer Unboxed is a safe space of honesty and acceptance, so I’ll crack open my nut first…

In Montgomery’s room

I wear a cape when I write. Technically, it’s a red tartan robe that my mother gave me. My husband refers to it as the “get-off-my-lawn” old man robe. But he’s of a medical mind and doesn’t comprehend the magical realms of our craft. It’s a cape, endowed with super powers. I have a hard time concentrating when it isn’t on. I’ve tried to supplement with a sweatshirt or shawl, but I spend the whole time yearning for it without a single word produced. Also, when I’m not robed, it usually means that I’m in public attire. I.e. The public (my husband, mailman, dentist, doctor, friends and neighbors) feels within its right to interrupt me. My cape protects me from this—a kind of warm, invisible cloak allowing me to slip into the imaginary without distraction. Sure, one of the pockets ripped off and hangs to the side; the cuffs are permanently ink stained; the sash was knotted some time ago and with subsequent washings has become untie-able. It’s a homely thing. I’m a realist in that regard. But I’ve worn it every writing day of my last two books, and it has made the impossible happen many times. I fully intend to wear it until the seams come undone and the hem tatters.

I am not alone in my wardrobe particulars. Caroline Leavitt says she writes better when wearing a specific set of red earrings. Carson McCullers has a lucky sweater, and Francine Prose wears her husband’s red and black checked flannel pajamas. Then we have John Cheever who preferred nothing at all and wrote best in his underwear. Garments aside, there are many other superstitions to be claimed.

Isabelle Allende begins all her novels on the same day: January 8th. Truman Capote, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton insisted on writing lying down. Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, and Hemingway had to be standing up. While A.J. Jacobs walks on a treadmill and Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure his writer’s block. Poet Edith Sitwell gets inside a coffin to focus her mind, and Friedrich Schiller said he couldn’t write without a rotten apple smelling up the room. Someone could pen a treatise on the varied and extensive list of author superstitions.

Curious, I posed the question to a forum of contemporary writers: 60 percent said they do not have superstitious writing habits and 40 percent said they do. Here are a few willing to share their charms. Who knows, maybe they’ll work for you, too. At the very least, they prove that the writing community is a methodically creative bunch.

Lisa Barr: Every day after writing, I send my daily literary toil to myself, my spare AOL email address, and to my husband.

Rebecca Anne Renner: If I tell someone about an amazing opportunity I’m getting, I’m afraid it’ll go away. Like if I talk about it, the universe will snatch it back.

M.J. Rose: I have to play Gregorian chants when I write each draft of the book. I have to buy one [lucky charm] for each book. 18 books – 18 lucky charms.  I have to sleep with the ARC under my pillow one night.

Cass MorrisI came here without writing superstitions, but now I’m gonna try M.J. Rose’s ARC thing.

Sue Silverman: I need total quiet and privacy or I fear whatever I’m writing will fly out of my head.

HW Peterson: I won’t tell anyone what I’m writing about until I’ve finished the first draft.

Lorie Boris: I need total silence to write. With the door closed.

Becca Dobias: I keep almost every email that has to do with my writing, even rejections…

Lisa Roe: I design a book cover and put it in the front of a 3-ring binder. As a reward for finishing a chapter, I get to print it out, punch holes in it and put in in the binder—very satisfying! Every time I start a new book I get a new phone case that reflects something in the book.

Claire Amy Handscombe: I usually hand write fiction, and always use the same brand of pen when I do. I like them to be new pens so the ink is brightest blue.

Tracy Alifanz: I thought of the perfect titles for both my books taking the same highway exit heading into town. So that’s my lucky exit.

Amy Doan: I don’t convert from Scrivener to Word until I have 80K words and an ending I love. If I’m stuck I burn a blood orange 3-wick candle. It has to be a certain brand.

Misty Urban: Even though I write scenes on the computer, I have to have a Pilot G2 black .5mm pen and a college ruled spiral-bound notebook for sketches and free writes. I carry a dozen pens with me at any given time for fear I will run out of ink.

Julie Clark: I have to write longhand in sharpie (ultra fine tip, multicolored). I cannot put words into a doc if I haven’t at least gotten started on the page.

Elizabeth Bell: I like to burn a scented candle appropriate to the scene I’m writing. On a beach? Ocean-scented candle. In a rose garden? Rose-scented candle, etc.  I also like to wear something my characters are wearing, such as a Victorian-style chemise or a saint’s medal.

Share with us: Do you have a writing superstition?

About Sarah McCoy [2]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [3]; The Baker’s Daughter [4], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [5]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [6]. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [7] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [8] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [9], Goodreads [10], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [11].