If you will be in the NYC area on June 12, please drop by McNally Robinson NYC, 52 Prince Street, at 7 PM. Andrea Buchanan, Caroline Leavitt, Rochelle Jewell Shapiro, Rachel Zucker, Miranda Field, Jessica Berger Gross, and I will read from our essays in About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope.
Dear Dr. O'D.,
I am in the final year of an MFA program, writing my thesis novel. I often find myself playing a game with myself, half-believing that all kinds of magical thinking and good luck charms actually work. Sometimes I will choose to wear a certain shirt while writing because the last time I wore it, and the time before that, I worked so well. I have lucky mailboxes, good karma coffee shops. I have all kinds of little rituals and beliefs that I know are silly, and I don't really believe in them, and I don't spend a lot of energy on them. And yet, a newspaper horoscope telling me that as a Gemini I am in a very creative and prosperous phase can set me up for a good writing spell.
The down side of this is that if these things work positively, then don't the bad omens have equal power? Last week I walked under a ladder without thinking, just as my boyfriend walked around it. He then told me I had just set myself up for bad luck. I know this is nonsense but it made me anxious (as did his unkindness, which is another matter).
How can I allow myself to experience the benefits of this half-baked magical thinking while not allowing the darker omens and portents to affect me negatively?
Rational, Yet Superstitious
Writers spend a great deal of time in dramatically charged worlds of our own creation. Often, part of our task is eliminate from these worlds any random occurrences, omens that don’t actually foretell anything, or pistols that hang on the wall for no purpose but decoration. We become accustomed to the expectation that every detail is fraught with plot significance.
This belief in deep, mystical connections among seemingly unrelated phenomena tends to carry over into everyday life, and it’s reinforced by the otherwise inexplicable nature of much of a writer’s experience. When you’re trying to make sense of your story’s acceptance by a great journal after twenty lesser publications rejected it, or the ability of a less accomplished fellow student to connect with a great agent or publisher while your masterpiece languishes in the slush pile, a lucky mailbox or cursed sweatshirt is as good an explanation as any. And because control is important to us, any scenario that puts us in charge of events is preferable to one that involves luck or chance.
As you suggest, the trick is to take advantage of the confidence-enhancing properties of the “good” omens while deflecting the negative influence of the “bad” ones. Fortunately, as a writer, you are in an excellent position to accomplish this.
As an exercise, try writing a story about a writer who passes under an enchanted ladder to find—what? A gemstone with a djinni trapped inside? A letter from a beloved childhood pet? A portal to the world of the writer’s WIP? Play with this The point is to do what you already do—imaginatively reexamine and reframe a given situation in a way that transcends its conventional interpretation. In working out the details, chances are you will detoxify your experience and regain your sense of control over your destiny.
You may wish to consider rewriting your boyfriend, too—but you didn’t ask about that.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity, will be published by Seal Press in June and is now available for pre-ordering. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.