cheerfully recycled from the Book Bench, the New Yorker's lovely book blog
Voltaire did it in bed, on his mistress's back. Churchill did it while standing and walking. Benjamin Franklin liked it in the bathtub. Hobbes did it on his bedsheets while locked away; when he had finished with those, he continued on to his legs. As Harry Bruce makes clear in his new book "Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers," the work of composing literature has been done all over the place, and with all sorts of objects. Victor Hugo apparently liked to do his scribbling in what Bruce calls, "a glass cage on his roof. There, he stood before a lectern and wrote, naked. On occasion, for variety, he dumped pails of cold water over his head and rubbed his torso with gloves made of horsehair."
Why this weird custom? Judging from Bruce's book, the writer's desire to control his creative process ~ hours, positions, implements ~ is near universal. For some, it's about pace. Shakespeare, whose writing Coleridge said "goes on kindling like a meteor through the dark atmosphere," wrote so fast he couldn't even insert punctuation, often churning out four thousand words a day with a cumbersome quill that would make a modern pen seem, well, much lighter than a feather. For others, it's about the instrument. John Barth, for example, said that he could write with nothing but a fountain pen, while Kerouac swore by the typewriter.
John Hersey has said that "every writer becomes habituated to a way of working that may matter to him a great deal." As it turns out, it matters to us, his readers, too: it's often the first question asked at the end of a reading. Mac or PC? Pen or pencil? Morning or night? We like to think we can understand the genius of the writing if only we have better insight into the method by which it was composed. And then, like the writers, we fetishize the objects used in the process (see, for example, the purchase of Cormac McCarthy's typewriter for $254,500).
Perusing Bruce's compilation of these peculiar rituals ~ rituals viewed with gravity by both writers and their readers ~ had to wonder: is there a feng shui to writing? Methods for concentration we can all employ? How important are these habits, anyway?
As it happens, with the approach of the World Cup, I've also been noticing a few of the strange pre-game habits of professional soccer players. Some wear the same socks game after game. Some must always lace their shoes in a prescribed order. One even used to make his wife wash the windows the day of a game (poor lady). Lucky numbers, lucky jerseys, lucky post-goal celebratory leaps: somehow in soccer it seems more silly but also more obvious. It's about superstition. And in both cases I suppose that superstition, however odd, is about what helps you get your game on.