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.

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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.