Webb's Blog

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Writers' Totems

“Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity,” from Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers,
by Susan Shaughnessy

At a recent conference, a writer said, “Writers are the most superstitious people in the world.” I laughed and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Then I walked away in search of a more interesting discussion. After all, I’m the least superstitious person I know. Life is merely a matter of cause and effect, so what good does superstition do? Black cats, broken mirrors -- it’s all nonsense. When I arrived home from the conference, I said as much to Hubby, who was slumped in front of the TV. “Let’s go take a look at your desk,” he said, getting up and leading me into the den.

Here’s what he pointed out.

My desk has four tiers. On the top tier are photographs I took of the Sonoran Desert, plus a photograph of a cowgirl riding in Scottsdale’s Parada Del Sol who looks just like Lena Jones, the narrator of my Desert Lost and other mysteries. On the second tier stands a pink pig with green Mardi Gras beads and a tiny jade “good luck” horse on a string around its neck. The pig was bequeathed to me by a crime reporter friend who died recently; she said she hoped it would bring me better luck than she’d had. Next to the pig stand two plastic, one-eyed aliens once served with a MacDonald’s Happy Meal; they scared my son, so I took them for my own. Keeping the pig and aliens company are a small plastic koala, an anteater, and a wombat -- creatures who feature in The Koala of Death, to be released in late August. On the tier below stands a bobble-head Elvis waving an American flag (Webb family tradition says he’s a distant cousin). Next to Elvis is a fairly detailed replica of a Crusader (my mother’s family, the Riddells, are more uppity than my dad’s, and claims that one of our ancestors rode on the First Crusade).

But now we get to the really good stuff. On the bottom shelf -- the computer monitor shelf -- is a cross made of rushes that I was given on Palm Sunday in Bosham, England, while researching a book. Snuggled next to the cross is the feather of a raven, which I found in the same field where the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Perched on top of the computer stand itself are the following: a ceramic figure of Buddha; two hand-painted rocks, one showing “The Man in the Maze,” the god whom the Pima Indians say created the world, and another raven, which is considered to be a messenger from the Spirit World by some American Indian tribes. Also on the stand are a carved bear, another important Indian figure, and a tiny plastic polar bear I found in the parking lot at the Phoenix Zoo. A small piece of quartz I picked up in an Arizona canyon sits next to them. Flanking everything are two plastic chuckwallas, reptiles common to the Sonoran Desert. And my mouse pad? It’s that kitschy painting of dogs playing poker. The bulldog is slipping an ace to what appears to be a yellow Lab. Those two don’t rely on superstition; they make their own luck by cheating. Now my eyes track right and up to the big file cabinet next to my desk, where I see a two-foot high plaster statue of Elvis with a plastic lei around his neck, a penguin, a giant anteater with her baby on her back, and a zookeeper doll with a squirrel monkey hanging around her neck and a koala clutching her leg.

“I’ve heard you mumbling and praying at your computer, too,” Hubby noted. “You couldn’t write without praying or being surrounded by those totems you call your ‘little friends,’ but if your totems work, they work, right?” Then he returned to the TV and the documentary he’d been watching about Einstein, who once famously said “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe.”

Hubby is a Quaker, so he’s tolerant of other people’s religions -- or lack thereof -- and most definitely he’s tolerant of plaster Elvises, one-eyed aliens, and painted stones. While I’m not certain that the objects on my desk qualify as “totems,” the next time I hear someone calling writers “superstitious” I think I’ll keep my mouth shut.

“No workplace can be truly alive until we see the divinity within one another, until we experience behind the breastbone the breath of life, until we insist that our work will not be the humdrum product of a sleeping spirit but a glorious monument to who we really are.” John Cowan, from The Common Table.

9 comments:

carl brookins said...

Since you brought it up, Betty, my response is yes and no, or maybe, or hmmmm. Does the radio wired to the wall count? I am surrounded by bookshelves crowded with stuff. I'm not including the tools of the trade, computer, printer, etc. Books, lots of reference books. A carved wooden loon, a huge box of rolled up navigation charts, and piles and piles of paper. A lot of it is stuff that appears to have been unmoved for centuries, a totem or sign of laziness?
hmmmm.

carl brookins said...

Since you brought it up, Betty, my response is yes and no, or maybe, or hmmmm. Does the radio wired to the wall count? I am surrounded by bookshelves crowded with stuff. I'm not including the tools of the trade, computer, printer, etc. Books, lots of reference books. A carved wooden loon, a huge box of rolled up navigation charts, and piles and piles of paper. A lot of it is stuff that appears to have been unmoved for centuries, a totem or sign of laziness?
hmmmm.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Intriguing post, mostly I have photos of various members of my family around. Nothing I'd call a totem of any kind.

I do have lots of reference books, posters and framed pictures of some of my books.

Christina F said...

Totems? Guilty. Raised Catholic, I have a shrine in my living room with saints, my grandmother's crucifix, candles and such. Where I write it's more earthy -- stuff from Da Rock Shop and the Gem and Mineral Show: black tourmaline to keep things peaceful and some blue stone that's supposed to bring inspiration. And crystals of various kinds, Himalyan salt lamps...enough said.

jennymilch said...

I tend toward the reading of omens in all my life, such that my writing life may in fact be the least of it! On roads I practically read license plates wondering what they're telling me; at my desk I escape into someone else's world--who's usually far less nuts than I ;)

Sarah M. Anderson said...

A small(ish) corner of my desk is devoted to good luck charms, from a Korean mask (that helped me get pregnant) to a coqui frog from Puerto Rico and a whole lot of in between! I have to hope their working . . . which is, I'm pretty sure, the point!

Lori said...

Most of what I'd call my totems are in the room that used to be my office; framed posters with southwest themes, a Santa Clara black pottery bowl with bear tracks... out here in the dining room were I now work (no cable in my office, hence no cable modem without much difficulty) I have a (Zuni, I think) bear fetish with an arrowhead tied to its back, along with two Navajo sand paintings, both inscribed on the back, with varying degrees of misspelling, "to heal the sick people(s)." Beside my computer is a rock inscribed "create" and a clear "stone" with an angel and the word "Health" inside, given to me by my sister. Are they true totems? That is, do I believe they are necessary to my work and that they help it in some way? (Oh, and the birchbark basket from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation, way up north of me). Well, no. But I like having them around me. Can I work without them? Yes. I often find "other places" when I feel I can't write, and I don't bring anything but a notebook and a folder with me. I don't know if I "believe" in them, although I really love my "create" rock (the angel "stone" was given to me by my sister; I wouldn't have chosen it, but hey, it can't hurt). I guess if it comes down to it, that's my feeling about them -- they can't hurt. And if they do help, well, most days I need all the help I can get! Great read, Betty!
Lori (as to those piles of books -- I think that's laziness on my part!)

Esri Rose said...

I have that kind of stuff on my writing desk, too, but I don't believe in anything supernatural. (I'm an atheist, for crying out loud.) As writers, we do our best to create a shared reality. I believe these "totems" are just another attempt to bring our created worlds into the real world. Basically, it pleases us to pretend that actual items are from our made-up universes.

Esri Rose said...

And then there's the stuff people give me (like your "create" rock, which I keep because I like those people, and it makes me happy - in a lonely, difficult business - to feel that someone else is invested in my success.