- by Barbara Keiler
It shames me to admit that once, years ago, I made fun of my grandmother for being superstitious. We were walking down a street in Brooklyn, and we passed on opposite sides of a lamppost, and I refused to say “bread and butter.” She became furious. According to her, if two people moving in the same direction are briefly separated as they walk past such an object, one to the left of it and one to the right, they must say “bread and butter” to ward off bad luck. That long-ago evening, I spent the rest of our stroll saying, “toast and jam,” “crackers and cheese,” and “bagels and lox.” My grandmother was not amused.
This incident shames me not just because no one should ever tease a loving, doting grandma but also because I, like many writers, am pretty superstitious myself. When you’re dealing with creative karma, a temperamental muse, the deep and dangerous recesses of your imagination or whatever you want to call the source of inspiration you depend on to enable your writing, you don’t mess around. If superstition helps, you become superstitious.
I don’t follow the traditional superstitions. When a black cat crosses my path, I stroke it behind its ears. When I spill salt, I wipe up the spill. Ladders and broken mirrors don’t bother me in the least.
But I practice my own rituals to appease the universe from which I derive my ability to write. At my desk, I surround myself with a collection of totems that, I am convinced, rev my imagination. Dangling from the curved neck of my desk lamp are assorted beads, a tiny white silk rose, a little plastic cat (yes, it’s black), a few brass bells and a woven yarn god’s-eye that I made when I was sixteen years old. To the left of my computer is a small woven sack given to me by a fellow writer who assured me it would bring me good luck; to the right is a collection of stuffed animals, each with a unique significance. The L extension of my desk holds a pen stand featuring statues of Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, a stage prop from a play a friend of mine wrote when we were in college. In her play, the pen stand had sat on the desk of a character called the Fairy Godmother. I don’t remember anything else about the play, but I’ve kept the pen stand on my desk ever since. I like to believe it will make a fairy godmother feel right at home should one enter my office. I’ve never known a writer who couldn’t use a fairy godmother now and then.
I also observe superstitions that don’t revolve around props and tchotchkes. For instance, I never show anyone what I’m writing until it’s done. Some writers participate in critique groups and share their writing with others from the first page onward. I have critiqued unfinished manuscripts for fellow writers. But I’m convinced that showing anyone a manuscript of mine before it’s done will bring bad luck, so I don’t do it.
Believing that what I’m writing is brilliant usually brings bad luck, too, so while a manuscript is in progress, I assure myself that I’m what writing pure dreck. Only after the novel is complete will I allow myself to consider it good.
When I first started writing fiction, I was convinced I would never be able to write on anything other than my circa-World War II cast-iron Remington manual typewriter. (No, this was not during World War II-really, I’m not that old!-but it was when personal computers were rare.) My husband wanted to buy me a computer. Being superstitious, I argued that if I bought a computer before I made my first sale, there would never be a first sale. He overrode me and bought me an Osborne. Two months later, I made my first sale. My husband thought this would cure me of my superstitiousness.
It didn’t, of course. That I’d sold my novel after purchasing a computer was an anomaly, a free pass granted by karma, the muse and any fairy godmothers who might have been in the neighborhood at the time. A real writer does not jettison her superstitions so easily. A real writer can never be cured.
Grandma, forgive me. I’ll say it now: bread and butter.