A conversation with an author friend got Becke Martin Davis thinking about writing rituals and lucky charms – lucky pennies, lucky pencils, even lucky chairs. Who hasn’t heard of athletes wearing lucky socks or even lucky underwear (eww!) to help them win? Would writers be prone to such flights of fancy? Since “flights of fancy” are kind of a writer’s stock-in-trade, it seemed likely at least a writer or two would put their trust in rituals or believe certain object could bring them luck.
Good luck, bad luck – how does the song go? “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” It’s a good thing RU only posts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, because the 13th falls on a Thursday this month. There are all kinds of superstitions, but one of the most consistently repeated is the unluckiness of the number 13. Whether it’s a date, a floor of a building, a room number or the number of guests at a dinner party, thirteen is definitely a number to avoid.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines superstition as: “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” When it comes to writing rituals and superstitions, I would say the most accurate definition is one of the latter two options. I’m hesitant to accept the “false conception of causation” because who’s to say if it’s false? Many people who buy lottery tickets have superstitions about certain numbers, lucky or unlucky, and go through particular rituals when buying the tickets. These people may only win once, but that’s probably enough for them to justify the rituals and superstitions. I might not believe in superstitions for the most part, but I’d find it hard to argue with a person holding a winning lottery ticket.
Rituals and superstitions are well known in sports, and not just laundry-related items.
“Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison wears the lucky socks that were a gift from her grandmother. Hockey player Alex Danson spins her stick 15 times before each game. Tennis player Rafael Nadal takes alternating sips from two water bottles at every break between games. The Olympic games are filled with superstitions and rituals followed by the best athletes in the world.
But while it may seem paranoid, psychologists say such customs make perfectly good sense. “In many of these sports, there’s waiting time before they perform and often there’s nothing they can do to prepare or practice during that time. And so these rituals are a way of fending off anxiety and creating a mantra-like focus prior to the performance,” says Stuart Vyse, psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. . .
. . .these small influences on an athlete’s psychology create a placebo effect. And though placebo effects are fairly weak, even a tiny change in performance can make the difference between a medal and none.
“If you’re talking about a one second lead in a three hour bike race, then that’s less than 0.01%,” says David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London.
Superstitions don’t have to be complex. One study showed that even saying “break a leg,” having a lucky charm, or crossing your fingers led to improved performance in skilled activities. These small tokens of luck make people feel more confident in their abilities.” 1
While writers may disagree on the necessity or even the existence of a writing muse, is it possible lucky charms and certain rituals might have an impact, even if it is a moderate placebo effect, on writing output and/or quality? A Google search of “writing rituals and superstitions” brings up 2,920,000 results.
The Barefoot Writer blog addressed the issue of lucky charms:
“Superstition actually increases your confidence — it’s been proven! Social psychologists at Germany’s University of Cologne did a study on people who played memory games while in possession of their personal good luck charms. The results showed those who had good luck charms did a lot better at the game than those without.
Lysann Damisch, one of the study’s co-authors said, “If you have your lucky charm close by, you feel more confident and secure about the following task, which makes you try harder and perform better.”
According to Damisch, you don’t necessarily need an object to prompt luck. The study also showed that following a lucky ritual or simply being told, “Good luck” can improve confidence, leading you to aim higher and try longer. Ultimately, this means achieve greater success.” 2
Traditionally, black cats are considered unlucky. But in the world of writers and writing, cats of all kinds and colors are welcome additions to the writing environment, practically a requirement. Writers are producing magic of a kind, so the cat-and-writer pairing might go back to witches and their familiars. Nothing against dogs, it just seems cats are more common writing accessories than fur friends of the canine variety.
The Writer’s Relief blog shared these somewhat eccentric writing rituals of famous authors:
“Isabel Allende, a Chilean-American writer known for her works of magical realism, begins all of her novels on the same date—January 8th. This is because she started writing her first novel, The House of the Spirits, on that date.
British poet Edith Sitwell would lie down in an open coffin before she began writing her poetry for the day. She claimed it helped her to clear her mind and focus.
Joaquin Miller was rumored to have installed sprinklers above his home because he believed he could only write his poetry to the sound of rain pouring down on his roof.
Friedrich Schiller claimed that he couldn’t write without the smell of rotten apples. He kept rotten apples in his desk drawer and would inhale the smell when he needed to find inspiration.” 3
The Grammarly blog described another numerical superstition:
“The final page of the manuscript must be even (or odd) numbered. If the writer does not meet this goal, she might go to great lengths to pad the story to get just one more page out of it. But why? The answer is simple: If the manuscript doesn’t hit just the right page number, then nobody will want to read it, and the work is doomed to the slush pile or ash can forever.” 4
There is a lot of information online about this topic – much more than will fit in this post. Links to further articles are listed below. Check back at RU on Monday, April 24 for Part Two, when authors will share their personal rituals, superstitions and lucky charms. If you would like to be included, contact me on Facebook or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have a totem or lucky charm of some kind that helps you write? What are your writing rituals? How do they work for you?
Becke joined the RU team in January 2011. She moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. During Becke’s twenty-plus years as a freelance garden writer, she wrote six garden books and one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. She still writes occasionally for landscape trade publications. Becke also used to review books at Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance Buy the Book blog. Writing as Becke Martin, she has three short stories in the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS anthology published by the Ohio Valley Romance Writers Chapter. Becke has two adult children, two awesome granddaughters and two cats. She has been married almost 46 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.
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