Dispatches | November 10, 2014
On Ritual, Habits, Luck, and the Writing Totem
By Michael Nye
For many years, my mother would give me small tchotchkes as gifts. I don’t remember exactly when this started, but in my memory, it was sometime during my teenage years. Most of them are entirely forgettable, long since donated or regifted or thrown away or White Elephanted (note: probably not real verbs…) or something of the like. I’m not terribly sentimental, and I didn’t particular care for any of these gifts, even if they were from my mom, and so letting go of them was not a big deal.
During graduate school, I lived in an apartment complex in St. Louis that was a short walk from Barnes & Noble. Back then, they used to charge for WiFi, and being a graduate student, I of course was not willing to pay to hop online, so it was a good place to write because it (mostly) kept me focused on the page. The white noise of writing in coffee shops has always been good to me, even if there is a balance between background noise and “Good God, why does that guy talk SO LOUD??!!” when writing in public. Post-graduate school, I still wrote in coffee shops, and did so when I first moved to Columbia, too.
I write at home now: I bought my first home a few years ago, and got a Labrador retriever this past spring. I have an extra bedroom that is my office. Sparsely furnished, there’s little in there besides a desk, a chair, and a bookcase. I wake up before dawn to feed and walk the dog, then settle in at my desk to write for a few hours before heading to TMR. Call it a habit, a routine, or a ritual (as one of my literary heroes, Andre Dubus, preferred). Whatever it is, for the most part, it works for me.
Naturally, like any writer, there are days when I sit down and I get nothing done. Not for a lack of effort or staring off into space—sometimes nothing good comes to me, or I write the same sentence a few times and it stinks, etc. Every writer experiences these working days. They aren’t useless or bad (though they feel that way in the moment) but just part of our natural process of creating a narrative.
When I’ve done readings with a Q&A, I’m usually asked some standard stuff. Do you write by hand or computer (usually the latter), do you use a pen or a pencil (pen), where do your story ideas come from (who knows?), do you write everyday (no, but I try to), how do you begin a novel (who knows?), how many drafts do you write (varies), did any of these things really happen to you (sure, some, but most of it, no), and so forth.
Lately, I’ve become fascinated with the writer’s totem.
Which is odd because I don’t really believe in totems, trinkets, lucky charms, luck, and all that other stuff. And I don’t believe that this miniature snow globe brings me any luck (if it did, it owes me big time for the relatively unproductive last four weeks). But one of the small gifts my mother gave me over the years is up above in the photograph: a snow globe of Snoopy writing a novel. Underneath, it’s titled “World’s Greatest Author.”
Peanuts, and Snoopy in particular, have always been a major part of my family life. My maternal grandmother had, it seemed, all the Peanuts paperbacks, which are now somewhere in storage at my mother’s house. I had a Snoopy stuffed animal as a kid; in fact, I still have it. Every Christmas, my sister gives me a Peanuts desk calendar. Like most children, I thought Snoopy was cuddly and cute and funny and I liked his imagination when he pretended to be this and that variation of World’s Greatest. When I got a little bit older, I found in rereading the Peanuts comic strips how dark and sad and depressing Peanuts creator Charles Schultz could be. Perhaps subconsciously that’s why I gravitated toward the comic strip. I have no idea.
Further, I don’t have any memory of when, specifically, my mother gave me this gift. It must have been sometime after I was willing to tell my family I was going to be a writer (or that I was going to graduate school: same thing, yeah?). My sense is that I’ve had this snow globe for a long time, but how long, I don’t really know. And I kinda like not knowing.
So it sits on my desk now. I prefer a clean desk: laptop, coffee, the printed version of what I’m working on, a pen, and nothing else. The dog house has edges that make it easy to grip, and it’s small enough to fit in my palm. Spinning it around, seeing the colored flakes float up and down inside the globe, I imagine those are typewriter pages that Snoopy has just rapid-fire wrote. Like the Peanuts, the snow globe gives me good memories of family and friends, but also reminds me of the dark place that so much of Schultz’s art came from. And, on days when I’m writing, to get to the place in my mind that I need to get to, I need be mindful of both of those things.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
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