The Magic of Writing


(a bit of recent revision)

Recently my sister-in-law (a photographer) recommended the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert to me. I wasn’t sure I’d like it, and the truth is that parts of it are a bit hokey, but overall it was a fantastic (and quick) read for an artist. Interestingly, I’d just written this draft before I read Gilbert’s book. And so, in the spirit of Gilbert’s book, I present to you my own little post on big magic:

I’d love to tell you how it works–that moment your horrible sentence becomes a half-way decent one, that instant an idea pops into your head that will fix the gaping plot hole you’ve been stewing over for days. I don’t know how it works. But it does. And it feels, every time, like magic. It is one of my favorite things about writing–the payoff from all those hours and all those sentences.

When it happens it sometimes seems so simple that it feels like you don’t even deserve it. Or the opposite–when it happens you often find yourself wondering why the heck it didn’t happen four days or ten pages ago–why did you have to go through so many bad ideas first?

Maybe you deserve it, maybe you don’t. Probably a little bit of both. Either way, it comes to you–in the quiet moments, in the hours of working.

Because it’s really not magic at all (though I certainly believe that it’s still a little bit of grace). It’s really the end result of a lot of work and a little science. It’s one of the reasons that working consistently on your writing is so important.

This is usually how it works:

1. You write a scene. It’s kind of terrible, but it’s got a good heart. You take out the unnecessary exposition, use some stronger verbs, clarify your pronouns, combine some sentences, simplify others. For me, this isn’t always a one-time job either. I usually work it a bit, and then the next time I come back to it, I refine it a bit more. Soon enough, it’s gone from something bland or choppy or wayward to something of precision and art. It takes time. Sometimes it takes so much time that you’ve forgotten how bad it was in the beginning, but if you go back and read that first draft it’s like looking at your baby grow into a man (minus the sad sentimental parts)

2. Or….You’re stuck. Stuck stuck stuck. Something in your plot just isn’t working or one of your characters just isn’t strong enough. You try to write through it, and you wind up with pages of crap. You try to think through it and your brain gets all tangled up. You try to talk through it, but you just sound like a lunatic to anyone who dares approach you at a party. And then one day you’re riding your bike through your neighborhood and the solution pops into your head. It’s so obvious, so perfect, so integral to the story that you wonder how it hasn’t been there all along, how you ever got along without it. But the thing is that it never would have happened if you hadn’t worked through all those pages and ideas before, if you hadn’t given your brain some fodder for your subconscious to gobble up when you weren’t paying attention, so that it could then turn out the perfect idea.

So how do you get there? To that point of magic? To that solution? There’s no perfect answer, but here are a few ideas.

1. You write. Every day. Or at least very consistently. You work at writing. If you’re a newbie (or even an oldie), you spend a little time learning about the craft of writing. And then you write write write.

2. You also read.

3. You give yourself enough quiet moments in life that an idea might actually be able to pop into your head. Yeah, I hear you. You’re busy. You have kids and jobs and deadlines and dinner and the gym and a crazy modern life. I get it. I really do. But if you don’t carve out a little solitude it will be very hard to solve problems (for writing or just regular life). So go for walks regularly, take hot baths, ¬†enjoy a quiet cup of herbal tea in the evenings, whatever. But make some time for quiet in your life. And enjoy it.

And may the magic happen for you.

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  1. Johnny Knight

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