As a kid, I loved to visit my Aunt Beth. The walls of her tiny kitchen were covered with cheerful things: painted shamrocks, family photos, palm crosses, hanging mugs. I was especially fascinated by all the little wooden plaques with silly quotes, bar jokes, and household “rules.” One of them, though—from some guy named Murphy—wasn’t quite as funny.
“Who’s Murphy?” I asked my aunt. “Don’t know,” she said. “But we’re related to him.”
I’d never heard of anyone in our family named Murphy. Maybe my aunt meant we were related somehow because we were Irish. He probably looked like one of those cartoonish characters on the signs—tweed cap, happy-go-lucky, maybe a bit of a schemer. But being a kid, I quickly forgot about Mr. Murphy and his law—until I graduated from college and headed to New York to become an editor.
I got to work with amazing writers who worked in all different genres. Quite a few of them, I soon learned, knew my alleged relative Murphy—very well. Crashed computers, emergency surgeries, visiting in-laws, sick pets, sick kids, files that wouldn’t open, revision emails that never arrived, fabulous safaris to Africa that couldn’t be canceled—you get the idea. I sympathized, I really did, but this is how I really felt:
And then, when I became an author myself, all of these disasters (well, not the surgeries or safaris) circled back to me—like the heat-seeking missiles in Top Gun. I missed my first major deadline, by a mile. Now I was one of Those Authors. Curses on you, Murphy!
After I finally handed in my opus, I did a little research on our family tree. Aunt Beth was wrong. We’re not related to any Murphys, unless you go way, way back. But the first official reference to Murphy’s Law (yes, there really was a Capt. Edward Murphy, Jr.) was in a 1950s scientific journal. The story involved a bunch of bickering aerospace engineers at what later became Edwards Air Force Base. Seems the engineers were testing how much gravitational force a human being could withstand, using a rocket sled and sensors that were incorrectly attached (backwards) by Capt. Murphy’s assistant. (Side note: The Mercury 2 astronauts made Murphy’s Law famous in the early 60s, explaining why their pre-mission testing and double-checks took so long.) Here’s a pic of the real Murphy:
If you’re an author, these variations of Murphy’s Law may sound familiar:
*Everything takes longer than you expect.
*Nothing is as easy as it looks.
*If there is a worst possible time for something to go wrong, that’s when it will go wrong.
*If something could have gone wrong but didn’t, in the long run it would have been better if it had gone wrong.
*If you criticize a typo in someone else’s work, one will show up in yours. (This is actually Muphry’s Law, and yes, it’s misspelled on purpose!)
*Murphy was an optimist.
So all writers have to do is plan ahead, right? Wrong. There’s another law of Murphy’s I didn’t mention yet:
*If only 10 things can go wrong and you prepare for them, an 11th will show up and go wrong.
It’s almost Christmas now, and maybe this topic would have been more appropriate in, say, March. But this way I can hedge my bets I’ll be on time for Saint Patrick’s Day. And when I send Aunt Beth her Christmas card (she’s in her 90s now), I might ask her for Murphy’s address so I can send him one, too. Just to let him know I’ve finally trumped him. No need to mention this post is one day late.