“Is Writing Magic?”: On the Nature of Mystery and Its Relationship to Artistic Practice

That is what a writer friend-of-friends posted on his blog recently:

“What do you do if you never want to write?” No writing advice addresses this question, he said, or the one that he sees hidden behind it: Is writing magic? If writing is magic, it must not be forced.

After a discussion of the passive art of wooing magic, he juxtaposed this thought: If writing is not magic, then you should sit your butt down and write and edit and produce a manuscript and sell it.

He concluded the argument thusly:

“So there is the writing god, way up on the mountain top, and there is capitalism, way down in the hollows. Between the two I’m perched in a little alpine meadow, watching the clouds roll by…”

In a time-honored tradition in which I offer my priceless wisdom to a needy stranger and am resolutely ignored (insert world-weary sigh), I left him the following comment. (Perhaps you will find this interesting; the writer in question? Not so much.)

I think almost all writers feel what you are describing and most do answer that question, only perhaps not with the exact language you are using. The common answer: writing is work, so work.

Specifically, I think you’re asking the wrong question. “Is it magic?” Why should magic be unrelated to difficult, painful, tedious and sometimes dreadful labor? Only in Amurrica is magic a hat and a rabbit, a sprinkle of fairy dust.

I went to a writing workshop with Sherman Alexie once.

“Kill ceremony!” That’s what he said.

That and “Write anywhere.”

That and “Stop making excuses.”

Mr. Alexie may not be warm and fuzzy, but he’s got a point. (I would argue that Mr. Alexie always has a point.) Art is not supposed to be about being comfortable–—good art, meaningful, moving art–—stirs and unsettles and changes. Before it ever reaches anyone else, it does so to the work’s maker. You sound (and I and most other writers have sounded exactly the same at many points and will no doubt again) like the zen novice who shows up expecting enlightenment to happen every day. The masters tell us that that so-delicious ecstasy is not enlightenment, but only its shadow. Real enlightenment is the laboring to show up and pay attention day after day, year after year.

IMO, asking if it’s magic is a convenient misdirection–fear’s sleight of hand. You are obviously meant to write because you suffer by not writing, so maybe it’s time to think in terms of pragmatics. The little questions instead of the big, flashy ones. i.e. What contexts help you to build the best container(s) for your writing? Do you need a class? A community? A sense of obligation? Personally, my writing suffers in isolation. I used to do what you’re doing (cut back my hours at work, set aside time) and wrote nothing that required an intensity of focus and continued attention. Instead I wrote blog entries and the occasional poem. Since then, I’ve found formal workshops to be helpful. (This only works if the other members are serious writers, not people who “have always wanted to write” or “used to write in college/high school” etc. and actually works best if I have no social ties to the writers–—we have nothing in common other than the dedication to literature. Queer social writing groups, in my experience, don’t provide enough challenge and a wide enough perspective to create big work.) Even better–—for me—–if there’s an attendance-based grade attached.

If you care about writing and really can’t get yourself to do it, I’d advise you to apply for an MFA program. There are a bunch of fully funded ones if you are willing to trust your art, apply several years in a row and move anywhere (it’s only two years) and the MFA is about the closest thing I have ever found, as a writer, to magic. (That and the feeling that comes after several hundred hours of work when holding the ten-times-revised story or essay and thinking, I fucking wrote this and it’s perfect.)

Lesson from a Jew: G-d wants you to work. (And maybe suffer too if it helps build character.)

Best of Luck,

p.s. I think a lot of queer/trans artists make the mistake of writing within a queer/trans vacuum. Problem being that politically-driven/-bonded communities/networks are morally, rather than artistically centered. The artist can be a moral person, but must be amoral (not immoral) as an artist. Speaking about truth requires plumbing not only the shadows of the world, but also our own and this is very difficult to do deeply within a “safe” zone.

Well, There’s Liminality and There’s Liminality: On the Marginalized Writer and the Cult of Outsider Status (with a few digs at J.D. Salinger)

Holden Caulfield is no one I’ve ever cared about.

For readers inhabiting multiple planes of marginalization and erasure, the idea of liminality or outsider status takes on a different tone than those who might see it as a side effect of their unique selfhood, their own rebellious nature.

For many of us, we did not rebel against society and the family. From the start, society/family rebelled against us. We were pushed to the margins or were driven there by the grief of being asked to subdivide and censor our beings.

The marginal writer (the targeted writer) is no Holden Caulfield, for we understand the preciousness of human society, we love and are invested. Unlike Caulfield—the icon of the normative, white, male artist—it is our very engagement that forces us to relentlessly observe, to criticize, to reflect society back to itself. Most importantly, we demand an unflinching ethic not only from society, but also from ourselves as artists and ourselves as individuals. What divides us here from the propaganda-distributionist or the evangelical minister is that we don’t presume a goal of purity or the achievement of an ideal world. Rather, we strive to see, to see more clearly and to act in accordance with that sight. Not a fixedness (that which has marginalized us in the first place), but a flexible, progressive envisioning, that works to encompass an increasing truth, holding each to the same standard of rigorous observation.

Caulfield could afford the adolescent irony which he used to disguise his own sadness from himself. The writer who has had liminality thrust upon her, must craft characters and plots, wield language, with deadly authenticity. If she can learn anything from arch, young Holden, it is how good a lie feels in the mouth, how much truth it can reveal. Unlike Holden, we have been watching a long time. We know (or teach ourselves to believe) that the stories that collect in our mouths are significantly more accurate than any possible recitation of facts.