Monday, January 21, 2008

Writing, Magic, and The Moment of Truth

by Julia Buckley

I am in between writing projects; I am working now and then on a young adult thriller, but I was hoping as well that I'd be visited with a good idea for a new adult suspense novel. Unfortunately, those ideas come only intermittently, and then I desperately tap away, trying to get as much of it down as I can before I lose the inspiration.

I wonder if other writers are more orderly than I in their composition process. I get one seed of an idea and then sort of burst out of the gate like a bull at a rodeo, flailing around. At least that's how it seems to me. It's very obsessive--I have all of these disjointed ideas, images, dialogues, and I need to compress them into a form that might at some point be readable, even compelling.

I'd like to say I use an orderly process--index cards or legal pads or even a working outline--but it's far more vague than that. I think I'm actually waiting for magic, or maybe the Holy Spirit. :)

I read a terrific book once called MAGIC, RHETORIC, and LITERACY: AN ECCENTRIC HISTORY OF THE COMPOSING IMAGINATION, by William A. Covino. It's a complex book which traces the link between words, magic, and human thought throughout the ages. In the ancient world, thought itself was thought to be a magical process; Aristotle wrote that "phantasy is our only basis for speculative reasoning." Throughout the ancient world and into the Renaissance, in the writing of greats like Plato, Aristotle, Pico, Aquinas, Augustine--there is a suggestion that writing itself, and the ideas that seem to come from nowhere--are magical processes.

Even into the Romantic Period, Covino contends, there were writers who clung to the notion that the composing imagination was rooted in something magical:

"Romantic fascination with the magical imagination is explicit in Blake's visionary poetry, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's conjunction of the natural and the supernatural in the Lyrical Ballads, Percy Shelley's faith in the power of language and mind over cultural and political matter in Prometheus Unbound, The Witch of Atlas, and A Defense of Poetry, and Mary Shelley's portrayal of a magical world ravaged by a monster of science in Frankenstein.

English Romantics turned to magic in order to license the powers of the composing imagination, to find a discourse for intellectual and political revolution, and to define writing as a liberatory force that constructs realities."

I always remember this book when I begin to compose, because I often feel that I'm waiting for some exterior thing, some process that begins outside of myself. I'm curious to know what other writers would say about this. Feel free to leave your comments about the matter. Is your writing a magical process? Or do you plow through with sheer hard work and determination?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, I've long thought that what you're calling magic or the Holy Spirit is what writers used to call the Muse and what folks with a spiritual perspective mean when they say "I am just a channel." I forget who said creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but I think that's just about right. The 10% magic is what gets me started and the moments every writer lives for--but sheer slogging is necessary if we want to finish anything. BTW, I think I've blogged on this topic--I can't remember offhand if it's appeared, will appear in the next month or two, or is just a bunch of notes from the Muse waiting for me to do the work. :)

Sofie Kelly said...

Julia, there is nothing magic about the way I write. In my case I think it's about 99% perspiration and maybe 1% inspiration. I get an idea. I play the what if game. I start writing the book. I decide it's dreck. I finish the book anyway.

I blame it on having to dig potatoes when I was a kid--the most back-breaking, tedious job I've ever had. Makes most other things seem easy.

Lonnie Cruse said...


Like you, I get a great idea to start writing, then the flailing begins. I do used index cards, cut in half, because a whole card is far to big to jot on and terrifies me. Hehehe. Right now I'm getting close to the saggy baggy middle of a book and it's like walking in a waist deep mud puddle. Whew. The fun part is going back to read what I've written and being surprised. Like, where did THAT come from.

Keep slogging, your work is excellent.

Julia Buckley said...

How very interesting. Liz has a 9% higher magic quotient than does Darlene. :) And I assume Lonnie's "great idea" is a sort of magic. That was the very notion of the book: what is that great idea, and whence does it come? That's what interests me.

But I agree, Lonnie, that looking back over old stuff is more rewarding than trying to assess brand new stuff which, as Darlene pointed out, often seems horrible. Probably because it doesn't match up to the "great idea" floating around in our heads.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm pretty much flailing from start to finish. The original concept alters drastically as I write. And it's amazing how much I will go back and change or rearrange after I thought the blasted thing was done to perfection. If there are authors out there for whom writing is a purely "magical" experience, I don't want to hear about them!

Julia Buckley said...

Hahaha. I know what you mean, Sandra. Although I'm still not convinced there isn't an outside thing: you all write mysteries which require complex plotting. So where do the ideas and inspirations for those plots originate? Within our own minds, or somewhere in the ether, waiting for us to tap in?

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, I think all "inspiration" is simply a personal reaction to life and the world around us. The more involved we are with the world, and the more we care about things outside ourselves, the more open we are to inspiration.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Next day: I woke up this morning still thinking about this conversation. I realized I'd left out the name I'd give it in my "other hat" as a therapist: the conconscious. Maybe the characters that bubble out of us are akin to those we meet only in dreams.

gs said...

For what it's worth (probably not much), my stories always stream into my head from "somewhere else," and I don't make up the dialogue -- I hear the characters as they speak it. It seems (perhaps incorrectly) as though the story originates, and the characters exist, outside of me, and I've often wondered if they will live on after I die. That is, if they are alive at all :)

It's a spooky feeling.