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The End of Superstition by Laura Kaplakian

They say that theatre people are among the most superstitious of professions. They cherish many, perhaps hundreds of taboos, most of them in place to ward off bad luck (as opposed to inviting good luck). First among these is the bad luck rampant around Macbeth, so much so that for five hundred years, the name of that play is not spoken ever within the confines of the theatre itself, but referred to always as “the Scottish play.” Beyond that ancient taboo, there are many others whose roots lie buried in lore and antiquity. No peacock feathers on stage. No whistling backstage. No knitting. No real flowers… the list goes on. Collectively, theatre people subscribe to these superstitions, and do not breach them.

However, writers are not a collective tribe. Writers are generally solitary. The superstitions one writer invokes will mean nothing to another. But the way in which writers work is changing. One need no longer tote one’s Smith Corona in a heavy case, nor plug in an elaborate computer with a big box and a large screen. The laptop, the tablet have perhaps sent us back to the era of ultra simplicity when all one needed was pen and ink.

Virginia Woolf in her A Room of One’s Own opined that writing was women’s preferred art form because the tools were so few, so cheap, and so easily had:  pen and paper. These could be swiftly taken up and swiftly put away. Her other requirement (in addition to the proverbial five hundred a year) was the sweet solitude, the room of one’s own. Is that still a requirement for the writer’s life? Less and less so. While we are not a collective as the crowds needed to put on a play, many writers are finding they write best amid the voices, the white noise, the clang and rattle of a coffee shop, a theatre lobby (you know who you are!), even a bar. Some writers have found the proximity of their peers spurs productivity.

             I am not one of these. I work alone, and save for the occasional teaching residency or writer’s retreat, I have worked in the same space for a long time. Creatively,  I am settled into this space, no longer the gypsy I once was, plugging in the old Smith Corona wherever I managed to camp for a few weeks or a year or so, not long enough to collect superstitious trinkets.

But in twenty-plus years, my working desk and surrounding environs are adorned with many gewgaws. They seem essential to my writing life. Most are not affiliated with any one book, just a generalized collection of items that constitute a small silent cheering section of friendly objects.

They are many and varied, most are silly: little toys given me by my children when they were little, and little hand-made gifts given me by their friends, favorite coffee cups, now chipped and filled with pens, a pipestem Elvis, a garage sale angel, a little mouse someone made from beads and cloth scraps, postcards of John Lennon, Boris Pasternak, Ellen Terry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matisse’s “Goldfish,” all aged, battered, dusty, curling at the edges. I have framed poems friends have written, framed pictures of kids’ drawings, framed drawings of old haunts. There is a long loose curl of birch bark picked up one memorable day at the beach  (though which memorable day I can’t remember). I regularly consult a carriage clock from England and a paper-made barometer from Scotland. The newest addition is a little white bunny in a tutu which a friend who served in Iraq found in Baghdad, hence its name, the Baghdad Bunny.

Clearly,  much of this is trash of the Rosebud variety, that is:  it is important to me and to no other. Could I write without this eclectic collection of junk? Probably. But not here. Take these away and I could not write at all. I look at them every day, and they ward off bad luck.

I suspect younger, newer writers don’t and won’t need these sorts of superstitious gewgaws  And why should they?  When one memory stick can carry say….five or six different novels in varying stages of growth or decay, the equivalent of two thousand pages of manuscript, why not put it in one’s pocket, and follow the parade? These peripatetic laptop-toters can work anywhere, or so they say. Are there writerly superstitions,  taboos shared by—or singular to— people who work in collective places?  Or are we all, mentally, still living in a room of one’s own?