Superstitious describes a belief in chance or magic. If you’re superstitious, you may avoid walking under ladders, spilling salt, or passing black cats — all because you think they will bring you bad luck. … The Latin word that superstitious comes from is superstitionem, excessive fear of the gods. (Vocabulary.com)
I never thought of myself as someone who engages in superstition or magical thinking, but maybe I should revise that.
I flick spilled salt over my left shoulder. I touch wood for luck. If I speak ill of the dead I follow it with “God forgive me”, just in case they should decide to rise up and haunt me. I always go out of a house through the same door I came in. Does this make me superstitious? I’m inclined to say yes.
Intellectually, we know it’s silly to put much stock in old wives’ tales about black cats, washing your face with May snow, cracking an egg into a glass of water at midnight on a certain day of the year, and all the rest of it. But we still do it. For me, much of my personal superstition takes the form of magical thinking. Encyclopedia Brittanica puts it thus: “Magical thinking, the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.” This dovetails neatly with the old Roman notion of excessive fear of the gods: if I perform certain rituals and say certain words, think about things in a particular way, I will avoid the putative wrath of God(s). There is a very real fear that lies beneath our superstition. Like the old chain letters that used to get passed around in the 1970s, we believe something really horrible will happen unless we perform the necessary actions. You know, unless you forward this letter to seventeen of your closest chums, you will die of suppurating ass boils. That sort of thing.
My particular strain of magical thinking has to do with my writing – whether I’m doing it or not, how well I seem to be doing, what will happen if I don’t write. (Hint: something bad.) I can get some serious worrying mileage out of this, obsessing for days or even weeks at a time. Obsessing, ruminating, going over it and over it, like pacing back and forth on the same piece of carpet until it’s threadbare.
If I’m not writing, what am I doing? Nothing. Well editing, yes, and ruminating on things I’ve seen and read, and incubating ideas that might turn into new books and stories. I must write! I am obligated to write!
What will happen if I don’t write? Not much, probably. But my mind says otherwise. If I don’t write it means that I was never a real writer to begin with. It means my talent is dried up and anything I might have written, won’t ever be written. That’s it now. The bank is closed. The top of the bag is tight shut. No more goodies for you, my dear. You wasted what we (who? God? Aliens?) gave you, so now you can just suffer. The fact that I’m a writer is my only claim to legitimacy as a human being. There. That sounds suitably dramatic, doesn’t it? But it’s true…at least my mind insists it’s true.
All my life, I’ve been A Writer. When I’m not writing, I am not A Writer. It’s like I’ve lost my identity or something. I’m not producing anything, not publishing or putting anything out there. My neurotic mind told me I wasted six months on a book I was writing, and it was supposed to be a mystery novel and then it wasn’t, and then it was something else. I just completely lost control of the material.
For a while. Once I put it aside and had a rest, I was able to finish that novel. It’s a rough first draft and not even within shouting distance of perfect, but I did it. And I’m glad I did. I’m glad I was able to put my magical thinking aside, to place it in abeyance while I did the work.
I have to write or else I don’t exist. That sounds nuts, doesn’t it? If I don’t write, then I don’t exist. I am a non-entity. I imagine being looked at and people thinking, You’re a writer? Really? When’s the last time you published anything? And then thinking that I have to hurry up and write something really big and really good like RIGHT NOW just kneecaps me.
Don’t do this to yourself. Please. Don’t write because you think you have to, or because you’ll be forgotten about unless you write something riveting and mind-blowing right this minute. Don’t force yourself. Writing is work, absolutely. But let it be joyful. Write what moves you. Write what you feel you must. Don’t fall into the trap of writing something that will sell because Jo Blow down the road wrote a book about nasal mucus fetishists who get off on slapping each other round the face with a dead fish, and it sold to the movies for TEN MILLION DOLLARS.
Lots of rubbish gets sold to the movies for ten million dollars. A lot of it is crap.
Don’t write crap.