On Writers and Pigeons

Jeanne MatthewsJeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.

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Victor Hugo wrote in the nude.  T.S. Eliot wrote wearing pale green, lily-of-the-valley face powder and lipstick.  And Dan Brown devises his plots while hanging upside down like a bat on a special inversion therapy frame.  Keep these pictures in mind and I’ll get to the pigeons in a minute.

Most writers have their established rituals.  They have settled on an optimum time of day to write and a preliminary habit or exercise that tees up the ball, so to speak.  James Joyce played the piano before he started writing.  Don DeLillo stares at a photograph of Jorge Luis Borges.  Maya Angelou browses the Bible or shuffles a deck of cards.  William Least Heat Moon required a supply of cedar pencils carved by Native American artisans.  Vladimir Nabokov wanted just an ordinary No. 2 pencil and a box of lined index cards, although he couldn’t think what to write on the cards unless he was lying down smoking a cigarette.

Rituals are a form of self-hypnosis.  They allay our anxieties and afford the comfort of repetition.  Few of us would admit that they are driven by superstition.  Superstition is irrational or, as Webster’s dictionary defines it, “a false conception of causation.”  But if the thing you did last time worked, don’t mess with it, right?  If the story that popped into your head while you were hanging upside down earned you a bezillion dollars and a Hollywood contract, you’ve got to figure that hanging upside down is a critical component of your success.  Change and maybe next time the words won’t flow as easily, or maybe they won’t flow at all.

We writers are magical thinkers in spite of ourselves.  Carson McCullers always wore the same sweater when she wrote; Isabelle Allende begins writing each new novel on the same date she began her first; Steven Pressfield sets a toy cannon atop his thesaurus to fire up his word power; and A.S. Byatt needs her collection of pumice, preserved insects, and snail shells around her.

The modus operandi of some writers can seem eccentric, if not downright crazy.  Alexander Dumas claimed that he couldn’t write unless seated beneath the Arc de Triomphe eating an apple.  Dickens walked twenty to thirty miles a day and obsessively touched certain objects at least three times each day.  And William Blake couldn’t write without entering a dream state in which angels appeared and whispered their message in his ear.  He saw the spirits’ words flying about the room in all directions like a hive of disturbed bees until they finally alit in coherent order on the page.

Of course, you don’t have to be crazy to make people think you are.  Aaron Sorkin likes to act out his characters’ dialogue while watching himself in the mirror.  Back in 2010, he got into character a little too deeply, head-butted the mirror, and broke his nose.  He may since have placed a protective barrier Her Boyfriend's Bonesbetween himself and his reflection, but I’m guessing his routine hasn’t changed.  Sorkin’s kind of crazy spells m-o-n-e-y.

I think it’s because writers don’t entirely understand the alchemy of transforming a blank page into an alternate reality that we approach the process with such a sense of mystery and trepidation.  Sometimes it seems as though a particularly compelling scene or character or a telling bit of dialogue really did come from a source beyond ourselves – whispering angels or that ineffable muse we talk about so much.  We surprise ourselves with thoughts we didn’t know we had and, instinctively, link these flashes of brilliance and bons mots to the ritual performed just prior to receiving the brainwave.

Okay.  This is where the pigeons come in.  The psychologist B.F. Skinner once conducted an experiment with a cage full of them.  He fed them at regular intervals with no regard whatever to the birds’ behavior.  What he discovered was that each bird associated the arrival of the food with whatever it happened to be doing at the time.  One bird turned counter-clockwise three times; another pointed its beak toward a particular corner of the cage; one swayed its head to and fro like a pendulum.  Each believed that his little ritual influenced the delivery of the food.

I rest my case.  Writers are fundamentally no different from superstitious pigeons.  Me, I keep a basket of buckeyes on my desk and when stuck for inspiration, I worry one until it shines.  I don’t know if this conjures up ideas or elevates my prose, but those nuts have brought me this far.  And even if it’s bird-brained to think they make a difference, I wouldn’t get rid of them for the world.  Besides, my Southern relatives assure me that buckeyes ward off arthritis.

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14 thoughts on “On Writers and Pigeons

  1. Fascinating. This makes me wonder if other creative type people (musicians, dancers, painters, actors) have found rituals they go through to make their muses flow. My husband, an amateur actor has a set of exercises he goes through before going on stage, the last being sure that his zipper is zipped. I find myself wanting to write and have started several blogs but not continuing after 2-3 posts. Maybe I haven’t found my ritual???

    I found this blog because of a mutual friend, Ursula Edwards. I used to live next door to her in Federal Way, Washington. I have not read your books yet but am looking forward to getting them.

  2. This was a fun post! I actually used to get a lot more writing done when I had to sneak in snippets of a work in progress at my day job, when nobody was looking. Now that I write from home, I spend most of the day avoiding writing. Sigh.

  3. I do so enjoy your wit, Jeanne, not to mention these gems of information you unearth — it’s no wonder I’m such a fan of your books! Now you’ve got me wondering if I need to find a quirkier ritual than staring off into space while I have conversations in my head. I may try hanging upside down, if it’s not presumptuous of me to borrow on someone else’s success. Writing nude has no appeal, and I’m nowhere near Paris. On a tangential thought, I’ve often speculated that B.F. Skinner did his experiments for the entertainment value. I think you’ve proved that to be true. I can picture him chuckling as he dragged his wife into his lab and saying, “Watch this!”

    • It does seem that the literary high-muck-a-mucks have more bizarre rituals. My buckeyes seem pretty tame by comparison. I’ve been thinking of adding a more colorful element — an interpretive dance, perhaps, a la Isadora Duncan.

  4. I guess I need to find my own way of just getting started. I feel the need to have all of my household chores done and my errands run betore I can sit down to write, and we all know that we’re never really finished with those things. Unless I have a big block of uncommitted time, I just can’t seem to get started again. It has something to do with concentration, I guess/

  5. Sandee, any friend of Ursula’s is a friend of mine. Good luck with finding the right ritual. Whatever you do to coax the muse, it’s sort of like the Budweiser Lite commercial they show during football games with diehard fans doing their little good-luck rituals. “It’s not weird if it works.”

    And Alice, don’t feel bad. Thinking up ways not to write is what most writers do best.

  6. Loved these factoids! I don’t have a piano or upside down equiment or can get to the Arc d’Triomphe on a regular basis, but I think I need to find my own ritual. Thanks for sharing…

  7. Jeanne, where do you get all that information? I’m impressed, well beyond words. I especially enjoyed the thought of Dickens, wandering through London, giving full measure to his OCD at every step.
    I don’t know that I have any facilitating rituals: I go off to my writing room, light up the computer screen, look at where I left off the day before, and start writing. On the other hand, it may be more than coincidence that on my computer sits Wotan’s raven, the messenger of news good and bad, from Wagner’s Ring cycle…and between that black bird and me, blocking the path, sits a fair-sized Totoro, that Japanese-anime guardian who protects children from coming to harm.

  8. Loved this article, Jeanne. I don’t think I have any rituals other than a huge need for chocolate to keep up the inspiration. Whenever I go to the Safeway with 6 or 7 Kit Kat bars in hand, the clerk always asks if it’s a “writing day!” Off to Tweet this fun post.

  9. A really interesting discussion and very amusing. That pigeon experiment was fascinating. I thought I knew something about these writers but see that I didn’t. If Dickens walked that long distance every day, when did he have time to write! I am not a Dan Brown fan so his being upside down seems right to me. But yes, it seems to have yielded him big bucks.

    Reading this was a good use of time.

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