Category Archives: How We Create Magic

You Can Imagine an Angel

forestWe drift through a physical existence composed of incomprehensibly small particles, separated by spaces that are filled with energy. It seems, though, as we perceive the world, that we see shadows moving on the ground, light and dark exchanging, and we can look up to see leaves moving on the trees that appear so solid and substantial. There appears to be no escape from the illusion of reality, and at times how heavy, how grim, and how hopeless that illusion can be.

The spirit has ways to try to find itself, however, and one of those ways is with words, which are themselves so insubstantial, almost as if they don’t exist, but how powerful they are. To give an oversimplified example, if a woman falls in love with someone who is not interested, and she is then turned down for a job she wants, the woman can write a story about a character who struggles and then gets hired, and who later finds romance. With writing, the unhappy woman can at least imagine a better reality.

More profoundly, I was shown an article this week by a writer who described the ability of writing to help the writer make sense of chaotic and disturbing events. For events of chaotic incoherence, such as experiencing a war or becoming a refugee, a writer might find or create some kind of narrative, presenting events that lead to one another. In that piece of writing, crazy unconnected things will happen, but in the writer’s narrative, events will also move in some logical direction.

Writing can not change what happened, but the creation of a narrative structure allows the writer to mentally process the disturbing event with some feeling that at least a bit of logic is moving through the madness. It may just be a mental trick, but given that our spirits are trapped in a world of physical illusion anyway, it works.

At other times, events may not be chaotic but nevertheless disturbing, such as violence against a person, or even something more long-term, such as ongoing racism. In such a case, one approach a writer might take is to create a story in which the events become controlled by the writer, as in my oversimplification above. The writing allows the writer to write the world as it should have happened.

I also just read an article in the Washington Post about a class teaching Tolstoy and Russian literature to young prisoners in Virginia, with the powerful effect the writing had on people who felt helpless and lost. The article made it clear that for some of the prisoners, the experience was deeply affirming, helping them to recover some of the hope in life that they had lost.

The power of literature is perhaps an indirect indication of the power of the human mind and spirit. In the most basic conception of writing, it is nothing but symbols, and those symbols are arbitrary inventions. Compare, for instance, how the word “angel” in written in Russian (ангел) or Japanese (天使).

Once in a while, I used to tell my own students that a page of writing does not say anything. It is nothing more than spots of ink on paper. When we read it, however, the words form and the ideas happen inside the mind of the reader. The reader helps to create what is happening with a piece of writing, and when a reader is moved by writing, when the reader is inspired, finds affirmation, finds hope, connects with life—the reader is touching things that in some sense were there all along.

We say that writing is powerful, and it is, for both writers and readers. At the same time, writing is a tool we have invented to touch the power that we all have inherently.

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Yes, But From Where…?

sculpture of man with his head in a wallA week ago, I saw a painting of a giant hand with a snow leopard standing on the palm (or perhaps it was a normal hand with a really tiny snow leopard). The painter was nearby, and when my girlfriend commented on the painting, he said the idea for it came from waking up in the Himalayas to find that a snow leopard had been walking around outside their tents.

Yet even if you woke up and stepped out of a tent on a chilly morning in the Himalayas to see footprints of a large cat, how would you go from that to the idea of such a painting?

For almost a week I didn’t write anything on the current novel, in large part because I was gone for several days last week to Charleston, South Carolina, to the Spoleto festival. When I don’t write for a while, I find that it takes more effort to get into the flow of it again, so one night this week I was looking at notes I had previously made. Puttering with the notes is less effort than actually creating a text, but it gives me the feeling I’m somehow working.

After a bit (I do this all the time), I thought, “Enough putzing around. Time to face that demanding void and write something.” I always approach the writing process with the idea that what I write doesn’t entirely matter, because it will be revised anyway, and no one has to see it. Just write something, I tell myself, even something stupid.

So I did. Slowly, I described my character in a yoga class, then on his way home he stopped to talk to neighbors and learned that the woman had made a banana pudding. Gradually, a piece of the world came out of nowhere. I often find that once a scene is written, though I will probably revise it, what is there begins to seem like a real place, with real events. I get a feeling as if I’ve gone from a demanding blank void, where there is nothing, to a place that truly exists. Everything ahead continues to be a void, but what has been written now exists for me as if it was always there.

Sometimes I wonder how this is possible. I know I wrote it, obviously, yet after it’s done, there’s a kind of magic about it, as if I merely uncovered what was simply hidden. Where do these creations come from?

It was in Charleston last week that I went to an art gallery and saw the leopard painting, and while we were there at Spoleto we also attended a modern dance performance by Dorrance Dance. The show was partially tap dance, but combined with very modern choreography, to make a performance that was fascinating and at times strange.

If you have an idea to write about a man talking to his neighbors about banana pudding, or you decide to paint a hand holding a snow leopard, or you want the legs to move in a certain way as the foot rhythmically taps the floor, where does all this come from? From about 30,000 years ago we have examples of both carved objects and wall paintings, so humans have been imagining and creating for a very long time. Even though I am one of the creators, even as I’m inside that process doing it, it still mystifies me.

I also think not only about where acts of creation come from, but why are we compelled by that demanding void to fill it?

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The Invisible Wall Between Worlds

old couch

Just put it on the front porch

One day this week I was working on an article (if you have been sadly deprived of reading this blog until now, I’m a copy editor for a medical journal in rheumatology), so anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, and you know some of those articles are like alphabet soup. That’s not a perfect metaphor, since you might actually want alphabet soup, whereas a piece of writing full of HAQ and PsA and WOMAC and SF-36 and . . . you get the idea, it ain’t no day at the beach. Or even a day at one of those weird indoor fake beaches.

So anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, which I have to hunt down and clarify (as much as they get clarified in this kind of writing), wondering what HCQ means, when it suddenly occurred to me to walk over to the cafe for a cup of coffee. I stood up from my desk, and the very moment I walked out of my office, it was like a switch had flipped. Almost instantly my thoughts turned to the scene I was writing in Moonapple Pie.

The ten minutes it took to get a cup of coffee were like this:

From my office I headed down our stark grim stairwell, because our building is like most modern buildings. If you want to waddle over to the elevator, it’s in plain view in the middle of the building, but if you want to walk because it’s healthier, you have to search for the stairs, and when you find them they have the ambience and charm of a hallway in a prison. Nevertheless, as I walked down the stairs, I was seeing my character Oleander, who was fifteen years old, riding with her father up to the north Georgia mountains to see his parents. I wondered if she should say more in the car with him. I also decided she should be looking forward to going, because her grandmother makes biscuits.

Leaving my building, I went out to the park between us and the ATT building, where the cafe is. I think the park is pretty fabulous, and at the bottom of a long grassy hill is a small lake with a fountain that shoots up rather high in the middle. As I turned from the park to walk up the long flight of outdoor steps to a second garden, I was thinking of the scene that follows Oleander in the mountains. This would be her brother Eston, an artist, in a flashback when he was in college. He goes to a party with his friend Karl, and it occurred to me that since they’re at a college party, someone might drag the living room couch out onto the front porch. So Eston and Karl could sit there later in the evening.

I went into the ATT building, to stand in line at the cafe. I always order a medium coffee, and by now the guy who works there just hands me the cup, and since I know it costs $2.09, sometimes I hand him exact change, without either of us saying anything. We do talk on occasion, however, and I know he’s an artist. As I was waiting in line this time, I was thinking about my own artist, Eston, and his friend Karl talking about art, having a disagreement over what the purpose of art is.

The barista gave me my cup, I added milk and filled it up with coffee, then left the cafe. When I walked over the weather had been wanting to mist us with rain, so I decided to take the covered route back, through the parking garage. I walked down the stairs, which are far more hidden in the ATT building than in my own. It took me more than a year to find them. Walking down the stairs, I decided that Eston and Karl will have their conversation late at night, after being at the party for hours, and they will be drunk on the front porch couch.

In the parking garage, I passed a woman who might have had dreadlocks, and who might have been wearing a dress that had flowers on it, but I wasn’t paying much attention to her. Instead I was thinking about Eston and Karl, about their conversation on art. It occurred to me that it would also be interesting, and would fit the college scenario, if they were to just fall asleep on the porch and wake up there in the morning.

Then I came back to my office, sat down at my computer, and in a minute I found that the acronym HCQ stands for hydroxychloroquine. I was back in the medical editing world.

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Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

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The People Who Came From the Sky

Australian dreamtime pictureLast weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.

The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.

I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.

For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.

The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.

Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.

As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.

On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.

So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.

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Many Thoughts From the Same Words

Greek pottery with a laurel wreath

Rewarded with a laurel wreath

On a warm sunny afternoon this past Saturday, I went with my girlfriend to Emory University, where I ignored a sign saying “Lot Full,” drove around it, and pulled into a parking garage where there were, in fact, empty spaces. Ha, lot not so full after all.

While I’m still parking the car, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “poet laureate,” a phrase with an interesting etymology. It’s odd in English to have the adjective “laureate” come after the noun, but we just think of the whole phrase now as a type of poet. The adjective refers to a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree, something started in ancient Greece as a way to recognize people who won contests, such as the Olympics.

So technically, maybe “poet laureate” means a poet wearing a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Or nowadays, it means the official poet of some place, such as the United States. This past Saturday, we were at Emory because my girlfriend had heard that the Poet Laureate of the U.S., Tracy K. Smith, would be giving a reading, and we wanted to hear it.

Thus we found ourselves at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, an impressive building with an extremely high ceiling, whose purpose appeared to be creating grandeur, although there could be an acoustic purpose as well, I guess. The building does have a two-story high organ against the far wall, behind a stage.

We had assumed we’d have to arrive well ahead of the event to be able to find a seat, so we got there at 3:00, an hour early. When we arrived, only five or six people were in the lobby, and I wondered if the place could be filled already. In fact—the doors had not yet opened. Those five or six people, plus us, was who had arrived that early. So my girlfriend and I sat and talked, and that was good, because we can both do that.

People drifted in gradually, and about twenty minutes till 4:00, the doors were opened, and we hurried to get seats, but we need not have hurried. We looked around and wondered whether the light turnout would be embarrassing to the poet. I said, however, that if the poet had reached the status of Poet Laureate, she had spent years going to small events, hoping to read her poetry to someone, and lucky if twenty people showed up. By the time the reading started, the auditorium actually looked quite full, though seats were still available.

Before that afternoon I didn’t know Tracy K. Smith, as I don’t really follow contemporary poets. There was something about her manner when she spoke that made her very appealing to me, a sort of calmness and intelligence. I found the reading interesting, and I was very glad to be there, but she only read for about thirty minutes, so I didn’t feel like I had been exposed to her poetry enough to say much about it.

At least from this reading, the main idea I got was Smith’s interest in history and for using that in her poetry. The use of history was not as simple as writing poems about events in the past, but rather writing with a sense of history, which might even form a kind of “substory” to a poem that takes place in our own time. I don’t know if I’m getting her exactly here, but maybe I have some sense of what has influenced her.

Smith also read some poems written with a technique I’d never heard of, using the original words from historical documents to create a poem. To me this felt a bit like pushing the envelope for what a “poem” is—though I’m in favor of pushing the envelope in art (maybe in life). She had one poem, for instance, that seemed to consist entirely of quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which I recognized), quotes that were pulled out and read to create a new sort of work from the fragmentary phrases.

I came away from this reading thinking about the concept of a poem, and more broadly, thinking about the concept of any kind of literary work. We had sat in an auditorium listening to the poet speak, and speech itself is, after all, just sounds. As those sounds reached us, our brains turned them into thoughts, then took those thoughts and went where they would go.

Every person in the auditorium was creating different thoughts based on the sounds of the speaker. Tracy K. Smith read us poems consisting of her words, or words from other documents, giving us the sounds to send our minds in multiple directions. Many thoughts from the same words. I suppose that’s part of what poetry does.

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More Like a Towering Granite Wall Than a Block

a mad girl wearing a straight jacket in front of a typewriter

I’m sure you’ve heard of writer’s block. It’s when… when you, um… oh, I don’t know what I was going to say. I’m kind of stuck here.

Anyway, you’ve heard of it. Even people who wouldn’t know writer’s block from a salt block have heard the phrase. I have a T shirt that makes a joke: Writer’s Block—when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.

I’m here to question whether there is such a thing as writer’s block. I’m not questioning the fact that a writer can have difficulty and be unsure of what to write. I think that’s quite common. In fact, I know it’s a basic fact of normal writing. Ignoring my personal thousand years of experience, I used to teach college freshman writers, who illustrated over and over that not knowing what to write is the human condition.

Taking into account my personal thousand years of experience, I maintain that trying to write can bring feelings of strain, struggle, neurological dark and stormy nights, and existential despair at the vast and vacuous emptiness of all attempts at creativity. Sure, I’ve done that.

I wonder why some people think that’s special and needs its own name. “This is hard. Writers’s block!” Who thinks you’re not going to feel lost and struggle when you write? Who thinks it’s supposed to be easy? Suppose, for instance, you had a blog that you posted to every week, and every week in order to write you needed a few glasses of whiskey, a large bag of peanut M&Ms, and half an hour of sitting in the dark hugging the stuffed dog you still have from childhood?

I mean I just, you know, created that scenario out of thin air, but I’m saying some people could struggle to write a blog. And how much more difficult would it be to write something people were actually going to read?

On the other hand, it’s… it’s… it’s… damn. I was sure I had an idea here. Oof. OK, I can do this. The trick is to keep at it, to write something, anything, it doesn’t have to be good. It can be edited and made better, unless it’s for a blog.

When I’m working on a novel, for the most part it’s a constant struggle. Occasionally someone will say something to me about how I must write because I enjoy it. That’s not exactly how it is. Seriously, writing is not easy. But it’s something I do, so I put on my big-boy pants, I acknowledge that this will be real work—not just a phrase, not just a metaphor, but real work—and I sit down sometimes with a sigh and a determination that I will sit there and do it.

What is writer’s block? I guess that’s when you thought it was going to be easier than it is, and you’re shocked and dismayed by reality. At this point, I might offer some crafty hints from my thousand years of experience to help you overcome those moments when you feel stuck. I thought about doing that—I mean, it was kind of a thought. It went by pretty quick, but I’m sure that was what I was thinking.

Then I reverted to my real self and thought, “If you need help getting over the difficulty of writing, stop writing.” Nobody’s making you do this. If you have writer’s block, go watch TV.

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