Digging Ditches Or Casting Spells: On Magic In Writing


Here is a modified version of the keynote speech I gave to the very wonderful Surrey International Writer’s Conference this past weekend, should you care to check it out. It’s been slightly rejiggered and reformatted to fit a proper blog post rather than a banquet speech.

* * *

There’s a war going on.

No, no — it’s not the war between self-publishers and the traditionally-published. Not a war between lit fic and genre nerds, not a clash betwixt authors and reviewers and the authors who, ahem, stalk the reviewers. This isn’t a war between you and me because frankly there’s way too many of you and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t last fifteen seconds.

This isn’t even a war outside this blog.

It’s a war inside here.

*taps chest*

Inside the rusty bucket of fireplace ash I call a ‘heart.’

And even then you’re saying, “Oh, I know what he’s about to say. He’s about to talk about the war between cake and pie,” but there I say, nay, nay, that is not what I mean. (Besides, that is a Cold War, long locked in a permanent state of stalemate. Just as you think pie has clenched it, cake rises from the darkness of defeat, sporting frosting that tastes like buttercream and vengeance.)

The war I’m talking about is a hot war. Active and alive, fought even now as I write this blog post.

This war is about magic.

This war is about whether or not this thing that we do is somehow magical.

(And by “this thing we do,” I do not mean publishing. Oh hell no. Publishing is purely the making of sausage. Publishing is a gray and lightless place. Publishing is Mordor. Publishing is the inside of Gollum’s mouth: sticky and fishy and bitey.)

No, what I mean is: we sometimes think of writing as being a precious thing. A magical talent, an otherworldly commodity. When talking about writing we sometimes speak of things in a magical way, right? THE MUSE COUGHED INTO MY MOUTH AND FILLED ME WITH HER PRECIOUS BACTERIAL WHIMSY. Or, MY CHARACTERS DIDNT LISTEN TO ME, NO SIR, THEY JUST WENT OFF AND DID THEIR OWN THING, LIKE A GANG OF ROGUE CHIMPANZEES LET LOOSE IN A SHOPPING MALL HA HA HA SILLY SENTIENT CHARACTERS I’M JUST A PAWN IN THEIR GAME.

Trust me — I get it. I even want to agree. Our writing certainly feels magical, right? It has the sense of the ritual about it — the occult, the arcane. Conjuring something from literally nothing. The act driven by little reagents: the right pen, the proper font, the perfect coffee mug. The act further driven by sacrifices big and small: things laid on the altar of the act like our time, our tears, our sanity. (I mean, because c’mon: writers are cuckoo bananapants. I would posit that as writers we are each crazier than an outhouse owl. Which is of course an owl trapped in an outhouse. I think we can all agree that is an owl we do not want to meet because that owl wants to fly but all it can do instead is huff outhouse fumes in a dark crap-closet poop-prison.)

With writing, we all feel like little Harries and Hermiones running around:

“SCRIPTO NOVELIOSO!”

*shoots words out of magic wand*

Ah, but see — I was not raised with magic in mind.

My father was not a man given over such foolish notions. He was a man of fundamental things: dirt, wood, hay, the bang of a hammer, the growl of an engine. I remember at a young age asking him about God and he shrugged and grunted: “God lives in the Earth and makes the plants grow.” I was like, whoa, really? Is that true? Here I was picturing an actual deity lurking beneath the unturned earth, ready to shove corn stalks and blackberry briar up through the ground. And he gave me this look like I’d been donkey-kicked and was like, “Jesus Christ, how should I know? Now hand me that wrench.”

My father’s answer to things was not ‘magic.’ It was HARD MOTHERFUCKING WORK. God forbid you tell him you were bored. “Go build something. Mow the lawn. Move that box.” He would utter that dreadful curse: “Bored? Oh, I’ll give you something to do.” He literally — and this is a true story — told me one time to dig a ten foot long ditch, three feet deep, in the yard. I did it. Are we laying pipe? Hiding a snake? Burying various body parts? Then he covered it back up again. I was like, what the crap are you doing? Why did I dig that hole?

He said: “Sometimes you just need to dig a ditch.”

When the day came that I made it clear I wanted to be a writer, I’m pretty sure his ass clenched up hard enough to snap a piece of metal rebar. Writing was a soft job. A writer’s hands were soft hands. My father’s hands were no longer hands: they were just bones wreathed in callus. (Actually, a note about my father’s hands: he was missing his pinky finger, because he smashed it in a log splitter, and instead of paying the doctor to cut it off, he did it himself with a pair of bolt cutters to save some coin and, apparently, aggravation. By the way,there’s no writing advice analog there, no storytelling metaphor buried in that — seriously, do not cut off your own finger with bolt cutters. That’s a PSA from me to you. You can thank me later.)

So, I took his grumpy ethos of GRRRR HARD WORK with me to into the word mines and I told him, you’ll see, I’ll work hard, I’ll make it big someday. (And I think he was like, YEAH YEAH, LEMME KNOW WHEN YOUR LITTLE HOBBY MAKES YOU CUT OFF YOUR OWN PINKY FINGER.) And then that was that for how he felt about my career choice.

So, a big part of me is very much anti-magic when it comes to this thing we do. Anyone presents a romantic, misty-eyed narrative about writing and my knee-jerk response is, SHUT UP. WRITING IS JUST DIGGING DITCHES. ITS YOU CLEANING OUT THE CREATIVE HORSE STALLS. ITS ALL HORSE POOP AND HEAVY SHOVELS. SHOVEL IT! HORSE POOP!

*thrusts shovel full of horse poop at you*

It’s easy to see how magical thinking can hurt you, as a writer. By giving over your writing to the fates, the gods, the muses, and in that, you remove your own agency. You cede control of the work — of the creation of the work — to forces beyond you, absolving you of all responsibility. I had a neighbor who talked about wanting to be a writer, and she said that she’d do it but she just had to “find the time,” but that when she did she would do it because she was inspired — she’d be hit by a “bolt of lightning” and even if she were driving her grandchildren around she’d have to pull over on the side of the road and just write it all down. Which of course sounds lovely. Inspiration! Bolts of lightning! So dramatic! Also sounds like a really great way to never write a goddamn thing.

With magical thinking, if the ritual isn’t perfect, if the proper sacrifices were not made, if the magical elves who live under your desk are not appeased — then the work never gets done. I can assure you right now: every day of writing does not feel like magic.

(Some days feel like an act of violent proctology on an angry goat.)

And don’t even get me started on editing. If magic was an essential to edit your book, I’m not sure a second draft would ever ever EVER get written. Editing can be a bewildering slog. It can be a dizzying run through a hedge maze at night. The only magic felt there sometimes is a nightmare magic — imps and incubi hounding your every step.

Leaving writing as a magical act further suggests that those that can conjure the creative power are somehow more special: given over to a sacred gift, born of a proper bloodline or under an alignment of authorial planets. Writing too hard? Hm, must not have that old wordslinger magic! You’re not a proper ordained priest in the Inkolyte Brotherhood. Oh, what, you think anybody can just write? What are you, some kind of Lutheran? Get your weird manifesto off my door, anarchist.

But even still, even in those comparisons…

Little hints of magic. Sparks in the dark.

And so then the battle flares up again: I like magic. Magic is neat. I want this thing we do to be magical because it explains so much — it explains the serendipity of a good day’s work, it explains when your characters seem to have minds of their own, and it explains what happens when you get a really great book that grabs you by the sticky wicket and won’t let go. Imagination and creation are so volcanic, so pyroclastic, how can that not be magic? Stories shape the world. Writers have power. What I’m trying to say is:

GODamnit, I want to be Gandalf.

Why can’t I be Gandalf?

WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO TAKE THIS AWAY FROM ME.

One day, I too shall have a Gandalfian beard.

*slams down giant pen against the earth*

THOU SHALL NOT PROCRASTINATE

*wrestles the fire demon of authorial distractions into a chasm*

Ahem.

Still, though, much as I want to be Gandalf — Gandalf was special. An elevated class. A proper wizard. I’m no wizard. I’m just a regular old human tub-of-guts. It feels like magic, but it can’t be magic — can it? Maybe there’s something there, I think. I wonder, then, is it less about casting a magic spell or giving yourself over to mystical forces, and is it more a magic trick? Is it artifice and illusion? Less Gandalf and more Penn and Teller? What we see as the audience at a magic show seems impossible: the rabbit in the hat, the girl in the box. But the magician isn’t given over to that magic. The magician knows the trick. The magician created the mechanism by which to fool US into thinking that what we are seeing is real.

So, which is it? Spellcasting magic? Just a trick? Purely the product of hard work?

Let me tell you about three times where this thing that we do felt magical truly for me.

One: me, the year 2010. I spent five years trying and failing to write what would become my debut novel, BLACKBIRDS. I have a screenwriting mentor at the time — because that’s what you do, right? You want to be a novelist, go get a screenwriting mentor? — and he sits me down and tells me to outline the book that I am unable to finish. And I say HO HO HO no silly Hollywoodman, we AUTHORIAL TYPES find our sails filled with MUSE BREATH, not with the crass and gassy winds of your pedestrian outlines. And he says, no, shut up, do it anyway, and so I gnash my teeth. Grr. And bite the belt. And punch frozen meat. And then I do it. it. Holy shit, I do it! Suddenly, I have a plot. I have an ending! And a month later, I have a novel.

Two: another writer’s conference. Not long after Blackbirds has come out. I’m coming out of a banquet a young woman hurries up to me and she’s shaking and quaking and I’m suddenly worried about her. Is something wrong, I ask? Seems she’s nervous about meeting me. And I think, oh, god, what has she heard? What did I do? Is she about to serve me a subpoena? She’s totally about to serve me a subpoena. But then she says she’s a fan, she loved my novel BLACKBIRDS and it made her want to be a writer and I think, oh my stars and garters, I think this is my first bonafide fan! (And then I think: I should probably tell her to learn restaurant management or lockpicking skills or anything but writing.)

Three: this memory, a few years before the other two. My father is still alive, before the prostate cancer would come to claim him. I’m in Colorado visiting his new house, for he had just moved out there to retire, and as with the war between cake and pie I feel like my father and I have forced a stalemate. He doesn’t approve of my career choice but he grudgingly acknowledges it and I acknowledge his grudging acknowledgment and life moves on. Then comes a day on this trip where he introduces me to a close friend and neighbor, a man named George. And George proceeds to dictate my career to me thus far: all my successes, all of my projects, none of my failures. And I ask him, how do you know all this? Are you stalking me online, George? Though I am always flattered by the attention of older gentlemen — *bats eyelashes* — you don’t seem the type. He seems surprised and says, “Well, your father told me all about it, of course. He’s really proud of all the things you’ve worked to achieve.”

*jaw does not hang open so much as it unhinges and falls to the dirt*

Well, holy shit.

There. Magic. Punctuating the darkness like little fireflies.

Three times that are not exhaustive. Just three snapshots among many.

What all this tells me is that:

The act of writing is not magic.

But it sure has its magic moments.

And why does it have those moments?

It has them because of us.

See, the truth is, no war is going on. These different ideas — magic as spellcasting, magic as trick, writing as a product of hard work — come together to tell the whole story. It’s hard work that allows us to tirelessly practice and reiterate our tricks. It’s hard work and indeed sacrifice that allows us to sometimes conjure those moments that remind us that writing starts as fingers on keyboards and words on pages but can end up as something so much stranger and so much greater than we ever anticipated. We are the magicians and wizards, but it takes a helluva lot of hard work — not from the outside, but from the inside, magic drawn up from within like water from a well more than it is hoped for like a bolt of lightning — to clinch the spell, to perform the illusion.


46 responses to “Digging Ditches Or Casting Spells: On Magic In Writing”

  1. I think of writing as the same sort of magic that fine woodworking or sculpting or any other physical art form embodies. So yeah, I agree with you on this one.

  2. As I did not get the full package to the conference this year I missed your keynote, so I am happy you bloggified it for us. I was very glad to take in your workshops and to meet you and shake your hand, of course. You ARE an inspiration and I promise to dig my ditch with gusto. Cheers!

  3. As the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry discovered, even when you’re born with the ability, learning to control and use your magic is hard work.

  4. I loved your speech! I bet it got a standing ovation. I think a writer’s brain works differently. We are always imagining and painting scenes in our heads while the strangest occurrences can give rise to new ideas; a nightmare, a conversation, the weird guy who sat next to me on the plane.

    I could relate to your first fan. I’m a major yapper and clammed up when I met you. *starstruck*

  5. Dammit, Chuck! It’s almost three in the morning here, I’m already two hours late for bed and here you go uploading a blog post that just makes me itch to write… WHY!?!? *ahem*
    In any case, I will know consider it my solemn duty to dig my ditch with as much magic as possible and… wait… what is this coin doing behind your ear!?

    Also, great story about your father, he sounded like a man worth knowing.

  6. I was just thinking this morning about my father, who although he’s still very much alive has been content lately NOT to write, so I threw down the NaNoWriMo gauntlet at least stir up his competitive nature. We’ll see.

    But he’s always been so tough and larger than life to me, like he was made out of wood and stone instead of flesh and blood.

    Will we seem the same to our children one day I wonder?

    Oh and btw, thanks for the fuel for the November fire. Ü

  7. I was lucky enough to be in Surrey and hear your speech in person. Funny, just last night I was thinking I wished I’d taken notes because it was so wonderful. Thank you for posting it.

  8. This is wonderful. Just what I needed to read to motivate me to slog though the days that “feel like an act of violent proctology on an angry goat” during the up coming NaNoWriteMo.

  9. I’m so sorry that you lost your father, but I’m glad that you got to find out how proud he was of you before it was too late.

    I really needed the inspiration/kick in the pants this week. You delivered, man. Thank you. <3

  10. And here I thought this was going to be talking about whether magic in fiction should be used for lofty, magic-y, spell-casting things or if it should be used to do practical, earthy, ditch-digging things. I’d like to see that post too, but this one turned out OK. 🙂

  11. First of all, let me just say I love your speech. I have recently been grappling with my magic wand myself. It is very moody, you see. Some days it produces any number of mystical words and some days, I the lowly human, am left to do the dirty work.

    Secondly, I can absolutely appreciate your experience with your father. I am a first generation college student. My father is an all around man’s man who was always covered in sawdust or motor oil. My little brother and I have always been more of the flights of fancy kind of people and when “bored” Dad has even made such suggestions as, “Go lift something.”

    Anyway, despite him not being sure what the hell I am studying (humanities), he has been very supportive and I think his elbow grease mentality has helped guide me through many a potential pitfall. I absolutely love your blog. It always help me stay on track. Thanks!

  12. I gotta tell you, sometimes I visit here just because it’s like visiting with my brother. Well, my brother-of-childhood-past that had only just became a cop and was full of coppy idealism and none of the jading and self-treated PTSD that makes one a complete jack-hat. (Short of getting killed, things happened to my brother the cop in the first six months of his service that most cops never have to deal with their entire careers) This is one of those times when Chuck appears to be channeling my brother unknowingly. Seriously, I’m getting chills.

    My dad is not the “praise to your face” kind of dad either. And he and my brother have been at odd ends of their own cold war for a long time. My dad, you see, spent forty years at a job he hated because he thought careers are sacrifices one does for family. When my brother became a paid writer (he had a regular column in California Flyfisherman), my dad was indeed so extremely proud of him. My dad bragged about my brother everywhere and to anyone who would listen, and often to people who wouldn’t listen. But even after fifteen years, my dad still has yet to tell my brother to his face about how proud he is. I don’t know if my brother would believe it if he did. Cold wars suck and have just as many casualties as lukewarm wars.

    To bring this back to some sort of relevance, I’ll bet you never hear a professional ditch-digger say “I’m just not feeling the ditch today. Maybe I’ll dig it tomorrow.” A professional writer, or journalist, or cop, or internet stalkery lurker shouldn’t say it either. Muse might give you the idea, but it’s the hard manual labor that’s going to bring that idea to light.

    And now I’ll get off my soap box and return you to Chuck, since it’s his blog and not mine, and go call my brother…

  13. I haven’t been following your blog for that long (how did I miss it before?), but one thing I really liked was seeing the different things that people git out of it. Great stuff, look forward to more.

  14. Biggest part of observing the magic, you don’t see the years of work. The wizard hunched over a huge oak desk, studying tomes by black and red candles in a far off tower. Far off from any distraction. You see the big sexy fireball later, and it’s impressive; so many dusty hours of putting words on paper, not so sexy.

  15. That bit about your dad made me tear up… I’m such a softie! What a great speech this must have been, to be such a great post.

    This is exactly the post I needed, because it’s exactly how I feel. I’ve tried explaining this to my boyfriend (an engineer who thinks writing is some sort of mystical ability, even though he’s a brilliant story teller when he wants to be), and I think showing him this will help.

    I definitely know the feeling with your dad, though. Mine is the same way – hard work is the only route. Although he never made me dig a ditch for no real reason, he did make me work in his go-kart shop (which was more to do with the engines and parts than the vroom-vroom-fun bits) until I found a different job. He DOES support my dream and thinks I have the talent and ability, but DOESN’T think it’ll actually work out. Basically, he wants me to get “real career” and thinks that writing isn’t one. Even when I tried to placate him by telling him that I plan on being an editor first, he figured that because it’s similar to writing, it still isn’t a “real career” because it doesn’t require manual labour or even leaving the house in some cases. Oh well.

  16. I have given up trying to define the ‘magic’. ‘there are more thinks in Heav’n and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy’ (Shakespeare via Hamlet) and I am no longer going to try to explain the dreams, the feelings of a presence beside me or the coherent voices I hear; the world I see out of the corner of my eye. What we do is a gift. A magical, spiritual, supernatural one. How else can it be explained? But it’s like the starving, homeless prophets of the old testament who had dogs chasing them and people throwing things at them. We are these – still kinda starving, still trying to get people to listen to our stories… That which makes me mad makes me special. My strengths are my weaknesses, two edged knife and all that. The SHEER BONE CRUSHING EFFORT OF THE EXECUTION of getting the story down and perfect is only made possible by the magic.

  17. Such beautiful writing. You make it “seem” magical the way you delivered it. I now want to read Blackbirds! (Not like this three times a mama has time in betwixt editing one boom and completing another, but I enjoy reading your writing enough to make the time.) Absolutely no patronizing was intended in the spirit of this comment. Hard work, indeed!

  18. Ah yes, sometimes the magic is humming in the air and the words flow and flow. Other times it is pure grunt, GRRRR! to force the words out, the time some writers blame ‘writers block’. No such thing in my mind, that’s when you have to knuckle down and work!

  19. I always get a little “trying to break eye contact and disengage” when people talk about their characters as cheeky monkeys who they just can’t seem to control. I just can’t do it. If it works for people, I’m very glad and I don’t want to shit on that. It isn’t my scene at all, but I feel it’s very important for people to know what works for them and to stand by it.

  20. I was lucky enough to hear this speech in person, and it was (and is) absolutely brilliant. I’m glad to see you’ve shared it with the world. It was an honour to meet you and a joy to trade writing war stories with you. I hope you come back to SiWC next year.

    Best. Speech. Ever.

  21. The way I’ve always thought of writing is like giving birth. It’s hard, and painful, and tons of work, but there’s also magic to it to. I feel that way about any creative process though.

  22. Of course writing is magic. But I am Gandalf, and I control the magic I need to write. Outlines? never have, never will. Outlines are for lesser magicians who need to write down their magic spells and incantations, and then hope the Muse reads it and makes it hap[pen.

    Writing as hard work? Not if control the magic. Digging a ditch is hard work. Baling hay is hard work. Shoveling coal is hard work. Such thing harden the body and soften the mind. They sometimes make you cut off your own finger. Writing is magic, and the pen, the pencil, and the keyboard are the wands that controls it. The right wands chooses you, and if you wave it properly, magic pours forth.

    Either that, or it’s writing that softens the mind, and mine just ran out my ears.

  23. Wonderful speech! Made me laugh but also think seriously about what I consider writing to be. Definitely hard work, but those magical moments are the ones I cherish the most. I love the idea of being a magician and that my readers experience the magic. This means I can experience both too. Considering I am a writer and a reader.

  24. Damn . . . the pure suspense. First couple paragraphs I thought, “tricks and hard work only? It’s way more than that.” By the end of it I thought, “ok, he’s right.” I think the magic comes from all of the above mashed-up and looked at through one particular experience. It’s different for everyone. Some days, one good sentence is enough magic to keep me going for the week. Some days, ten pages of pure rubbish is enough to make me wanna close-up the keyboard and sell girl scout cookies. It’s all part of the journey. I prefer to work hard, grind it out, and in the end, chalk it up to magic. Thanks for this one Mr. Wendig.

  25. Well said. Well said, indeed. My dad – still kicking ass and taking names at 91 – taught me some of the same lessons that your dad taught you. One of my dad’s sayings: “If your job is digging ditches, dig the best damn ditches you can dig.” So that’s what I do with my writing: work hard, take it seriously, show up every day and do the work.

  26. I really like your blogs. So much so that I will have to buy your books now. I’ve just today submitted my very first manuscript to a mentoring programme and it required a lot of discipline. Perhaps some magic and even if no-one ever reads my novels a lot of learning and joy. I sent it in two hours before the deadline and then I went for a long walk and caught up on your blogs. Keep them coming. Thanks, from Sydney, Australia.

  27. I kind of expected a post on why, if your world has magic in it, people aren’t using it to dig ditches.

    AND NOW I CAN WRITE THAT POST HA HA *flys away*

  28. Got to this late, but absolutely glad I made it. Will share this with all my writer friends (the real ones).
    h

  29. Holy shit. Yes. May be your best post yet. I also dug ditches as a child, and cleaned coops, and hacked weeds. Which taught me how to slog through a first draft. Writing is work, work, work. But occasionally, it’s worth it.

  30. First thought: Dang, I thought this was going to be like the article about guns – practical thoughts on magic in stories. 🙂

    ALAS.

    I shall read it anyway. 🙂

    (Incidentally, the first rule is: NO TIME TRAVEL. If you can time travel, you win. You know why those Time Turners disappeared, more or less? I’d bet all the money in my wallet that some fan with more knowledge of speculative fiction than she had got to Rowling and said, “You can’t give people time machines. Ever. Or they just win. Here’s why.”)

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