Monday, January 30, 2012

We Creatures of Habit

Otto Dix once said, "All art is exorcism." In his case, he was grappling with the demons that took up residence in his brain after World War I

but he could have been talking about any struggle to make meaning, and let me tell you why.

Right now, I'm on this major mission after meaning. I know because I've been having a TON of examination dreams. You know the kind: where you wander into an exam and realize you haven't studied all semester? Where that calculus might as well be Swahili? I've had a couple of house dreams, too, and just last night/early this morning, I jerked awake from a real doozy about a patient--no one I recognized--for whom I apparently kept no record, no notes, did no exams, etc. It was, when you get right down to it, the perfect nightmare: me as a study in--and the very picture of--incompetence. To my credit, just before I woke, I was rearranging my office, moving things into the light, giving my animals--ANIMALS?!--space, digging through old records and beginning to right some of what I'd been doing wrong.

Now, being a shrink and having done some training in psychoanalysis--all those years of staring at acoustical tile, financing my analyst's vacations and free-associating about, well, things better be good for something--I tend to pay attention to my dreams and more so than, say, a deck of tarot cards or a horoscope because dreams are internally generated and chockful of symbols both peculiar to me and somewhat universal. (For example, house dreams are, by and large, commentaries on the dreamer herself. All those messy rooms, dilapidated furnishings...) I know myself well enough to understand that my dreams reflect what I'm worried about. In this case, I'm in the throes of beginning a new novel which is . . . well, let's just say it's kind of different and my self-doubt's a little high. Okay, okay, you win: it's off the charts. Yet I sense some daylight here. In the dream, I did at least understand my mistakes and was working to correct them. In fact, I woke thinking that I really had to declutter my desk, move the printer, take a bunch of books back to the library . . . And these are all signs I recognize. I breathe a little easier when I've cleared the decks, tidied things up, given myself some space. My dream's telling me that, too: although the jury's still out on what those animals mean, my brain's saying, among other things, that I need to give myself both a new space (the book) and SOME space (to cut myself a bit of a break; the sun's gonna come up tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar, there's tomorrow, yada, yada, yada).

Which brings me to writers and their quirks, habits, rituals and superstitions--and, no, they're not all the same beast, IMHO, although they may come to be loaded with the same emotional valence. For example, my paying attention to a dream is not, I think, the same thing as the ritual I follow pretty much every morning: up by first light (and frequently before), brew that pot of coffee, answer some email and read a bit of news (all standing up, by the way, and in the kitchen where I can look out and see the sun rise and which birds are coming to the feeder). But by 7:30 a.m.--8, at the latest--I better be writing-writing, or I start to get this crawl-out-of-my-skin feeling. I become very uneasy. Not starting work by a certain time feels like . . . bad luck.

I'm not alone here. Nearly all writers have habits, rituals, etc. There are famous examples. Ernest Hemingway had a lucky rabbit's foot he used so long it was nothing but sinew and bone by the end. (But contrary to the mythology, Hemingway didn't ALWAYS write while standing:

although he supposedly claimed that "Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up."

This is something that Philip Roth seems to have taken to heart (walking a half mile for every page he finishes while standing). On the other hand, Mark Twain liked his bed

and, if you can believe him,Truman Capote wrote lying down (so the movies--while fabulous--have that wrong):

What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

The Paris Review, Issue 16, 1957

On the other hand, Capote enjoyed being a celeb and, for his time, was a master of the outrageous.

Dickens arranged the items on his writing desk just so--dueling bronze toads, a bronze dog thief with pups stuffed in his pockets, and a green porcelain tea cup filled with fresh flowers, among other things. (Dickens seems to have had a touch of OCD, too, needing to touch things a certain number of times, but that's another story.) Legend has it that Carson McCullers always wore a lucky sweater when she wrote, which one can only hope she washed.

I could go on, but you get my point and these are only the tip of the iceberg. Do a search and you'll find stories--some of which are probably true--about the habits, superstitions and rituals of writers as various as Stephen King, Anthony Trollope, Franz Kafka, Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Freud . . . the list goes on and on.

Now, is it so amazing that writers have rituals or habits or superstitions? No, and like I said, I don't think they're all the same beast. I believe that a habit can BECOME a ritual and that ritual can become loaded with all sorts of (largely personal) significance, like that coffee mug you just have to use every day or your special pen, or--my personal favorite--a piece of jewelry that symbolizes your current project. (I've had the devil of a time finding one for my current WIP. I sense what I'm looking for/groping toward. Just haven't found the piece that speaks to me quite yet...)

But people are pattern-machines. Our brains are wired to make associations and find meaning in randomness; to generate order out of chaos; to take an ill-defined stimulus and attempt to give or fit it into a story. The behavior's got a fancy name--pareidolia--but it's the basis of dream analysis, you get right down to it. After all, your brain only has a certain set number of images and memories culled from everyday experience. Depending on what's going on, your dreaming mind, that enormously complex, meaning-generating machine, will cycle through and cobble together images it knows will get your attention. Or, to take all the woo-woo out of it, a dream is nothing more than your brain's attempt to associate what you've gone through that particular day with prior experience. Think of a dream as analogous to a computer trying to find the right--or similar--folder in which to insert a specific file, and you catch my drift.

If you think about it a second, this kind of pattern-seeking is to our evolutionary advantage. Nice to predict when that saber-toothed tiger might be on the prowl, for example, and it helps if you understand that the thing with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth contained within something vaguely circular is the face of a person, not a coconut. It is why people inevitably see faces in random dots or, as here, in the rocks and hollows of a crater on Mars

which "really" looks like this under different light at a different angle and with different resolution:

It's why our brain sees a woman's body clinging to this tree,

searches for faces in clouds:

or, depending on your point of view and circumstance, the Devil:

And, by extension, this explains why people structure highly-evolved, codified rituals and rules into things called mythologies and religions--because we are all, each and every one of us, seeking to establish meaning out of chaos. People are hard-wired to seek patterns in randomness. We even know where, in the brain, it happens (the ventral fusiform gyrus, to be precise). So we can't help ourselves. We are the creatures who develop habits in order to survive. It's just the way we are.

By extension, if you think about this for a second, you can readily understand why people like artists and writers develop rituals and habits, need to have things just so, or attach meanings to what are at first random acts later strung together to become an indispensable part of their routine: because we are trying, mightily, to give shape to the jumble of images and emotions that are stories and put them down in recognizable form.

Or put it this way: when I was in practice, I thought of my job as one of helping patients find the words to tell their stories. Well, we writers are no different. Our job is to fish all those words out of our minds and string them together on a page, in a certain order. We struggle with this all the time, and it's exactly why young writers are always looking to more established writers for those magical tricks: lucky charms, quirky habits. Writers create order out of the chaos of their minds, not an easy task by any stretch.

So is it weird or odd or crazy for writers to be superstitious beasts, or adhere to certain habits and patterns, or have their lucky talismans? Not at all. This kind of neuroplasticity leads us to develop associations: ah-ha, I was playing Van Halen when I had that great idea; or I used this typewriter to write my first successful novel and now I'm going to write every novel on this same typewriter(Cormac McCarthy); or hey, I was eating an apple under L'Arc de Triomphe when I figured out how to get my character from A to B (Alexandre Dumas). Or--in my case--I must start writing by a certain time every day or I get very, very uneasy. I must write a certain number of pages (and do, unless there's an earthquake), or I get uneasy. (Worse, the writing loses its vitality and the characters start to die in my head . . . but that's another post for another day.) In the end, I am uneasy because I am breaking with habit, and I have developed a habit because what I'm trying to do is make sense of disorder and chaos.

In the end, there is no right answer about which ritual to follow, what habit will lead to success. If you think that doing a three card reading from a tarot deck is an important way to start your day, have at it. If you want to write in the buff, that's fine, too (Cheever wrote in his boxers), but do pull the blinds and make sure the heat's on. Whatever you choose, remember this: if you expect to be a writer, you must write. How you get into that groove--how you pull together the chaos in your mind--is entirely up to you.

No magic involved.


On a completely different note, my new YA novel, DROWNING INSTINCT, has its book birthday on Feb. 1. YAY!

To celebrate, I'll be giving away a signed hardcover. The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland and Australia, and will start at midnight (EST) 2/01/12 and end Wednesday night, 2/08/12, at 11:59 p.m. (EST). Be sure to stop by my blog beginning at midnight (EST) 2/01/12, and check out the Rafflecopter entry form for your chance to win.


Jordan Dane said...

Congratulations on your new baby! Can't wait to read it.

I'm on the road, promoting my baby, & will be working a deadline thru Feb, so will be keeping a low profile--not writing in bed or standing. I don't have any weird rituals about writing, but I do tend to create at my desk computer & edit on hard copy each day.

My biggest demon is the lure of online. It glitters & beckons so I wear my special tin foil hat & 3-D glasses to divert the negative energy.

But no, I have no quirks...whatsoever.

Ilsa said...

No, I'd say not ;-)
Enjoy your time on the road!

Anita Grace Howard said...

Haha! Love those insights into famous writer quirks! And that skull picture is gruesome! Love it. :)

I have routines that I follow not so much each day, but for each book: I post "headshots" of my main characters on a bulletin board in my office, I prefer to watch movies about my current WIP’s subject, and I'll compose a playlist of songs to evoke the moods of my characters / scenes.

Great post, Ilsa! BTW, you might check your rafflecopter link back to your blog; I tried it twice and it didn't work.

Ilsa said...

Thanks, Anita. I've fixed that link to the raffle, too.

Ilsa said...

Actually, scratch that. I haven't post the link yet because the raffle doesn't go live until midnight Wednesday :-) I'll announce again, though.

Jennifer Archer said...

Interesting post, Ilsa! I have many procrastination rituals when starting a new novel. Too many to list. I also have started putting together a music soundtrack for the book that I listen to while writing.