Category Archives: How We Create Magic

Oh, I Just Threw Something Together

Decorative swords

Deadly art

The following three things have something important in common: haiku poetry, ballroom dancing, and the carved figures on the front of old ships. Of course I don’t have to tell a sophisticated person like you what they share, but other people might not know. These are all forms of art.

Given the stupendous possible variety in artistic expression (let’s go ahead and throw in painting wall murals, weaving lace, performing rap lyrics, and raking sand in a Japanese garden), we might feel provoked—even though we really do know better—to quietly query ourselves “What is this art thing?”

In a very basic way, whatever a person’s motivation might be, art consists in shaping the physical world. Right? You have to use something to make art, even if it’s just using the sounds you can make or the motion of your own body. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that almost every object human beings have ever touched has been turned into a form of art by someone. Even swords, which are basically long pieces of sharp metal used to kill someone, have been made into art.

If we talk about acquiring skill in art, what can “skill” mean amid such inconceivable variety? I would describe skill in art as having increasing control over the medium, over that part of the world the artist is using. Heightened skill then leads to an increasing ability (1) to make the medium come closer to what exists in the artist’s imagination, (2) to work the medium in more subtle ways, and (3) to express the art with greater consistency.

Suppose, however, an artist does not have great skill, whatever the reason (lack of talent, or lack of opportunity to perfect the talent, or just lack of desire to perfect the talent). Is it possible for both the artist and the audience to be satisfied by art that shows little skill?

I think it is possible. The audience might have an emotional connection to the artist. One of my colleagues at work, for instance, has filled his office with drawings done by his young children. As a very different example, the audience might take pleasure from something unexpected and different. The painter Grandma Moses painted very popular images of old-fashioned rural life in a simplified style, or consider the fame and acclaim gained by Jackson Pollock, who would fling paint onto canvases—I mean seriously, people, he just flung paint.

In general, however, we admire those artists who work hard to learn to control their medium and have more control over the effects, even if we also like people whose art seems less controlled and polished (like early Joe Cocker).

If we consider artistic skill in writing, we could begin with basic control of the medium: (1) knowing the mechanics of written language, in particular spelling and punctuation, and (2) having a strong command over the grammar of the standard version of the language. But as I used to tell my students, knowing the mechanics of writings brings you up to zero. Then you can begin to get people to listen to what you have to say.

The true craft of fiction writing requires skills that become hard to describe, such as having a sense of dramatic flow in a story, knowing how to transition in a satisfying way between parts, or knowing how to make a character seem real.

I’m a huge admirer of craft in art, every kind of art. Craft alone is not enough, but for me, neither is raw, undeveloped talent enough. Being too talented, in fact, might make the artist lazy, and I’m not interested in lazy artists. When talent, whatever that is, comes together with a willingness to work and learn the craft, then amazing things can happen, like Artemesia Gentileschi, Fred Astaire, or Alexander Pushkin.


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Thinking a World Into Existence

Colored leaf arrangement

Colored leaves arranged by Andy Goldsworthy

Picture yourself, if you will, as having no physical existence, just a cloud (although a cloud is physical—so not a cloud) of thoughts floating in space (although “floating” is also physical, but anyway). You might think of your mind this way, as a kind of entity, something we can’t really describe, like a disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space.

I’m not going to pursue this blog entry into the philosophical view that our physical existence is actually an illusion. Oh, no sir, we exist, alright. It’s our minds that I have questions about. And yet something tenaciously continues to insist “I’m here. I’m here.” OK, fine, but it’s spooky. Let’s consider what these minds can do.

Have you ever known a child who didn’t draw, or play with dolls, or use objects to create an imaginary world? “This is the doctor, and she lives on the boat with her duck, but sometimes she uses the rocket ship to go places.” These activities of children just sounds normal, right? It’s what humans do. Every human is creative.

Nevertheless, in the societies that we’ve constructed, we have managed to devise a world in which some people think they are not creative. All humans create, even if they do not write novels or symphonies or bake cakes that look like movie stars. It is a basic aspect of being human.

In my discussion here, what is creativity? You may not write a novel, but you’ve spent your life telling yourself stories, imagining things that you wish would happen (and I don’t just mean, you know, stuff you don’t want to tell anybody). Your mind pictures something that does not completely exist in the physical world, and the thing you think of exists in your disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space (your mind). That’s creativity, the same idea that every religion attributes to whatever gods they worship, from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god to Hindu Brahman to ancient Egyptian Ra. From thought comes existence.

Yet there is a difference among people, or there appears to be, in the intensity with which they pursue creativity. If creativity allows us to escape the prison of physical life, maybe some people have a greater desire to escape. In other instances, creativity is probably not about escape, but about expression. Something inside has to get out, I just gotta dance!

I feel it myself, the compulsion to make something appear where nothing was. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes, to look at the blankness of a page and wonder what should be there. It’s interesting to ponder, since creativity is basic to human thinking, why someone chooses a particular way of creating over another way. I feel driven to write, and another person feels driven to build birdhouses.

The first answer that comes to my mind is that it’s because we discover we’re good at something. I would love to be a musician, for instance, but I think I’m not good at it, so I don’t pursue it. And yet I’ve known some craaaaaapy writers, who really loved to write. So maybe we’re drawn to particular forms of creativity for mysterious reasons, like so much of life. It’s a mystery, like our minds.

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I Pretend to Know That

bowl of herbsA couple of weeks ago, I had intended to drive to a state park in the North Georgia mountains, where a national herbal medicine conference was being held. I didn’t specifically want to attend the conference, but I did want to see what was happening, to get a feel for it and make some notes. It turns out I did not go, but I’ve talked to someone who did.

The reason for the herbal medicine interest is that I have a character in the novel I’m currently writing who is in the process of becoming a herbal healer, which I know almost nothing about. Because I have a strong interest in character development, I try to have characters familiar with a wide variety of topics, like real people, so my characters will necessarily know things that I don’t know.

I’m not going to become seriously knowledgeable about every possible thing familiar to my characters. What I write, in effect, is an illusion (assuming it works). If character development is done well, and I’ve read people who do it well, it really does seem that the characters know many different subjects.

If you are a writer, unless you strictly follow the idiotic advice to “write what you know”, a great deal of research may be needed. I was recently reading about the movie director Mira Nair, who made the movie “Mississippi Masala” and how she went to Uganda to do research for the movie. That kind of thing is far beyond my resources, but I still do a lot of research.

If you’re a clumsy writer (and it’s easy to be clumsy, as I know from experience), you can take what you’ve learned about some topic and drop it in clumps into your novel. Even if you put quotation marks around it, however, and present it as the character speaking, that block of information doesn’t even come close to creating a real character.

People don’t usually go around giving lectures on what they know. Most of the time, as they move through daily life, what they know about topic X comes out in more subtle ways. To be realistic, what you must to do is show repeated, more subtle references, as in these examples.

  • Someone who is a good cook might be standing in line at the supermarket, looking at a recipe in a magazine, thinking I wouldn’t put tarragon in that.
  • Someone who is a basketball fan may look at a calendar for a different reason, but notice they’ve marked a date to meet a friend to watch a playoff game.
  • Someone who trains dogs could be in their basement looking for something when they happen to see an old [insert dog training implement—do research].

In the novel I’m currently writing, in addition to the character who will become a herbal healer, I have a visual artist, a painter. Attempting to show the knowledge of these two characters requires both research and attention to details within the writing.

  • The artist: I knew there is such a thing as complementary colors, something a trained artist would presumably know, but I didn’t know what they are, so I looked up a color wheel (several, in fact, as I prefer to verify what I’m finding).
  • The artist: He is looking at an object, thinking about what colors he might use to capture that look, using [name colors of paint—do research]
  • The herbal healer: I met someone who knows herbal medicine, so I asked if I could interview her, which I did once for a couple of hours over lunch. I made notes, and I followed up on information she gave me.
  • The herbal healer: My character is at a friend’s house and notices a pot of flowers in the room, then learns that the flowers are a herbal plant she’s just been reading about.

Doing the things I’m describing above is a LOT of work. That’s what good writing is.

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What If We Just Made This Up?

nun playing a guitar

So then I put my dog in the pickup truck.

As long as you’re wasting time on the internet reading a blog, try this little quiz. If you were a writer and made up a character to write about, would you prefer:



  1. a) a male police officer
  2. b) a female police officer
  3. c) a Catholic nun
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp

There’s not really a lot of information to go on there, however. You might have chosen the young boy because you once were a ten-year-old boy and you went to camp. Or you might have chosen the nun because you actually are a nun (then again, you might have chosen anything but the nun because you actually are a nun).

Creating characters in fiction can be exciting, because you can basically write about any possible human being on the earth, a vast, practically endless, number of options. Creating a character can also feel overwhelming, because you must narrow a vast, practically endless, number of options down to one.

Then again, you could give things a twist, so that any individual choice feels larger. Let’s add a bit of twist to the ones above.

  1. a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen
  2. b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin
  3. c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats

I love creating characters, probably the most important aspect of my own writing. As part of how I work, I watch people around me sometimes, listen to how they talk, and even repeat things they said in my head, thinking about the language they used and the tone of it. I think so much about fictional characters and what makes them tick (i.e., do they behave the way real humans probably would?) that I sometimes have trouble reading other books. I’m constantly thinking “No, no, they wouldn’t do that.”

Some books are not really about the characters, however; they’re about the story itself. In those cases, if the detective finds the hidden letter with the clue to solve the mystery, and he solves it, then it’s goodnight, ladies, the book is done. And so what if every single time he talks to someone, he coughs as if he’s not sure what to say, and he’s embarrassed in every store that he forgot to bring cash—and that’s the extent of character development. Who cares if he doesn’t seem real? He found the envelope and solved the mystery.

Sometimes, I care, though I can’t honestly say that it’s wrong to write with shallow, undeveloped characters, when the purpose is to tell an entertaining story. Sometimes I just want entertainment myself. I’ll watch the Three Stooges all day long, and I’m not thinking about how those characters don’t seem real. I’m thinking, “Har! Moe hit Larry with a frying pan!”

In fiction, though, while shallow characters are not inherently bad, they don’t entertain me. I just can’t enjoy that kind of writing. I want to read about, and write about, real human beings. So for the experiment, let’s take those characters I presented and add just a bit more.

  1. a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen named Randi Hotlee; at home he also runs a black labrador rescue unit, with eight dogs currently living there
  2. b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin, but her own father was an abusive famous violinist, and she doesn’t want her kids to take violin lessons
  3. c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own; the sister is also raising the child the nun gave birth to before she became a nun
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats; he’s very afraid of bees and thinks there might be bees at a summer camp, but he wants to learn to swim

Now who would you choose? And once you’ve chosen, where does that person live, what is one of their favorite foods, and do they know how to ride a bicycle?

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Poetry at a Higher Elevation

Young Harris College

Young Harris College

Though it is hard for me to imagine my grandmother as a young girl just out of high school, no doubt she was once. It is even harder for me to imagine that my farmworking grandmother, who I remember in a print cotton dress and sunbonnet working in the fields, who filled baskets with fresh tomatoes and corn and strawberries, went to college for one year when she got out of high school.

The college my grandmother attended was in the north Georgia mountains, in a town with the very strange name of Young Harris. From picking cotton, she earned enough money to buy a large trunk to carry her belongings, and off she went to Young Harris College. After one year, however, she was too homesick and never went back.

Last Saturday I went to the town of Young Harris myself, the first time I’ve ever been there, to the very school my grandmother attended. I went with my girlfriend to a meeting of the Georgia Poetry Society, which she belongs to (and which my father used to belong to). I didn’t mind going to a poetry meeting, but I really just went to spend the day with her in the mountains. I got up at 6:00 in the morning, which is still the middle of the night, in my opinion, as we had a two-hour drive to get there and needed to get on the road.

I find the mountains of north Georgia peacefully beautiful, and the road we followed for a while writhes back and forth like a frantic snake. That contorted road led us up Blood Mountain, up and up for miles, with no hint of descent, and all that way we passed thin muscular bicyclists, in tight cycling outfits, pushing hard on the pedals, to work their way maniacally up the mountain.

On our drive, we also passed the farmstead home of the poet Byron Herbert Reece, an Appalachia boy who published novels and poetry, and who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, earned Guggenheim Awards, and was a writer-in-residence at UCLA and Emory. When we finally reached Young Harris College, where the meeting was being held, I was a bit astonished by what a pretty campus it is. The view takes in those wonderful low mountains, and the campus itself is an interesting mix of new and old architecture, incorporating some pleasant landscaping.

We met in the faculty and staff dining room of the student center, where one wall was lined with bookshelves filled with bound volumes of old magazines (I know because I checked to see what they were), and with framed black and white photographs. Along the other side of the room were glass doors looking out at the mountains.

The meeting began with an open mic, which I signed up for and read a poem about sailing to Saturn while drinking wine with friends. We also had a longer reading by a featured poet, Karen Paul Holmes, who read from a new book, and she did some quite nice pieces. I had seen her before in Atlanta at the Callanwolde Arts Center, so we recognized one another.

The events for the day were scheduled to have two workshops run by poetry professors from the college, but instead of workshops we ended up having lectures. I didn’t really mind, as I have little interest in poetry workshops (i.e., no interest). I don’t wish to write poetry when someone says “write”, nor do I have any great interest in studying how to write poetry. Unconsciously, perhaps I do study poetry, as I’ve thought quite a bit about how to write it, but if someone were to ask me to study the topic, it would grow dismal for me and lose all interest.

While we were in that room, those words that had taken their place in line for history sat on the shelf in bound volumes. The words that were still participating in the messy chaos of life were moving about in the air around us.

Here is a bit of poetry by Byron Herbert Reece:

My heart’s contracted to a stone.
Therefore whatever roads repair
To cities on the plain, my own
Lead upward to the peaks; and there
I feel, pushing my ribs apart,
The wide sky entering my heart.

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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” is 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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