Sunday, March 15, 2015

Finding Your Magical Writing Mojo

Last week I spent a few days in New Orleans with my mom and our guys, celebrating her birthday. This is us having lemon-drop martinis (this particular apple did NOT fall far from the tree!) at Lafitte's - one of my all-time favorite bars. In fact, my mother and I had drinks at this very bar, sitting at one of these window tables, during my trip to New Orleans for the neuroscience convention when I decided to be a writer, not a research scientist. Lo, these many years ago.

I do have my touchstones.

So, yes, I believe everyday magic, in the rituals and celebrations that both let me count my blessings and hopefully pave the way for more. Never let it be said that I'm not a superstitious person, in my way. Something that comes as a surprise to some people. I was telling my agent, Connor Goldsmith, and agency head, Laurie McLean, a story (Birdwoman) and mentioned as part of the tale that I used a pendulum to dowse for petroglyphs. Connor burst out - if you've met Connor, you'll know he has a way of bursting out - with "Good God, Jeffe, you're supposed to be a scientist!" I, naturally, leveled him an even stare and said, "Yes, and a good scientist relies on empirical evidence. I found the petroglyphs."

Heh. And then I freaked them both out with the rest of that story!

You'd think then, that I would have a natural answer to this week's topic: Writer Mojo: my lucky___ (item, coffee, etc.). The thing is, though, I don't. Not anymore. This is why.

See, back when I first set my sights on being a writer instead of a research scientist, I had no idea how to go about it. And yes, I was hugely superstitious about it, as one is when one is grasping for something, anything to hold onto. In a way, because I had no craft, no real skills to rely on, I reached for luck instead.

I think that's significant and something to keep in mind. Many writers refer to various kinds of appeals for outside help like this, whether to a muse or other sorts of divine inspiration. In some ways this reflects our sense that the stories don't come from us exactly, but stream from some other place that's not within our conscious control. I think it also reveals a lack of confidence in our ability to access that place and shape the story from there.

Because I didn't know how to make myself write, I came up with all sorts of superstitious tricks. There was this blue jersey dress I loved, but had worn too much for it to be socially acceptable anymore - stains and worn spots. I wore it to write, to cue myself for that activity. I had certain music, particular totems on my desk, a ritual of starting in to ease my way.

Those things meant everything to me - and the slightest misstep, the least bump in the magic ritual could derail me. I did this for YEARS. At least ten. Seriously. Which means that lucky, magic writing dress that had started in that job as being already too worn to wear in public, had suffered another ten-plus years of wear and tear.

It might have had holes in it.

Big ones.

And finally one day, my husband David pointed out that the holes had gotten so big as to indecently flash portions of my intimate anatomy. I replied (maybe a titch defensively) that only he saw me and what did it matter? He answered, with infinite patience, that the dress had become little more than a collection of strung-together rags and I should put the poor thing out of its misery already. With far less patience, I said this couldn't happen because it was my lucky writing dress.

I still recall the look he gave me as he said, "My dear - the writing comes from you, not from what you wear."


It might sound silly, but it was kind of a revelation for me. I realized that he had the right of it, that I had been writing, getting my work published, winning awards and readers for quite some time by then. I had gained the skills and craft I'd lacked to begin with. Most important, I'd developed the discipline to create the foundation to allow the stories to stream in. Discipline that didn't depend on magic or muses.

So, I threw the dress away. Not without some mourning and a fair amount of grief. It marked an era of my life. I also ditched, one by one, my other writing rituals. As I eliminated each one and the stories continued to flow - even improve and lengthen - I experienced a newfound sense of freedom. It felt liberating not to need those things.

It gave me confidence, a kind of trust in what I knew how to do and what I could produce.

While some writers talk about their "muses" and how to coax them into visiting, others - like Neil Gaiman and Eudora Welty - have given great advice about doing the work. By sitting down and writing words, by putting in the time and dedicated discipline, we create the foundation for the stories to emerge. It’s not the clothes or the lucky mug or that perfect soundtrack, it’s us, developing the skills and concentration. Maybe it takes a long time to believe in that, but eventually we can set those crutches aside and trust in ourselves.

I did love that dress, though.


  1. The Birdwoman story is and always will be, THE most creepy thing.....better than Stephen King and worse too in a way, because it's real. Enjoyed your post!

    1. Thanks Veronica! It totally creeped them out too. :D

  2. You started out with lemon-drops and then went deep, way deep. What a great post! And now I know when I get to buy you a glass of wine I need to ask about the Birdwoman story.

    1. Did you go read it? I'm happy to discuss! Are you coming to RT??