"We are quicksilver, a fleeting shadow, a distant sound... our home has no boundaries beyond which we cannot pass. We live in music, in a flash of color... we live on the wind and in the sparkle of a star! ...And you want to trade it all for a quarter of an acre of crabgrass."
- Endora to Samantha, Bewitched
I started writing when I was ten, and by the sixth grade was reading my stories aloud to the class. By sixteen I'd written two novels--neither was very good, but they showed enough promise to get some attention. At seventeen I won the New York State Young Playwright's Contest, and the next year won it again. So by the time I went to university, everyone expected me to major in English. But there was only one problem with that. Creative writing classes and literary criticism make me cringe.
When someone starts talking to me about plots, character arcs, and motivations I recoil like Bela Lugosi did from the crucifix. For me, at least, stories are not car engines that can be broken down, analyzed, and reproduced. Storytelling isn't a science, it's an art, and the characters that inhabit them are not little robots designed to serve a function, but beings evoked from somewhere else. Writers, like the coccyx or the appendix, are the vestiges of a more ancient phenomenon. They are the modern shamans; odd, half-mad people who cross over the the Otherworld, traffic with spirits, and bring back something to share with the tribe.
Alan Moore (From Hell, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc), who is a practicing ritual magician as well as a writer, pointed out in the conclusion of his epic Promethea that language and magic are intimately intertwined. We cast spells and have spelling, poetry talks about invocation and evocation just like conjuring spirits does, and the traditional magic book of wizards--the grimoire--is linguistically related to the word grammar. We cannot think coherently without language, which at its core is about shaping the world around and inside us. This makes it a quite magical thing indeed. Having spent the last 25 years practicing magic myself, I see other connections as well. The deepest of these is summoning spirits.
Despite being a magician I consider myself a materialist; I don't believe that spirits and other worlds exist in exactly the same way the physical world does. I like to use the analogy of figures in a dream. They may, in fact, be figments of our imagination, but at the same time they seem to exist independent of us. They are the Other, and operate outside our conscious wills. If this wasn't true, nightmares could not frighten us. We'd just tell them to go away. Inside our heads are entire landscapes, multiple unformed realities populated by a legion of beings. Through language, they can sometimes be conjured from their world into our own, where they achieve a kind of half-life. "Hamlet" is distinct from any of the actors who play him, and there is something in acting anyway that resembles possession. "Santa Claus" may not be real the way my neighbor is but he certainly has more power to affect behavior around the world. And don't get me started with "God." These things may--or may not--be conjured up from within the human psyche, but it is a mistake to think they are not feisty, independent, or real.
For me, putting characters on paper then is no different from conjuring elementals or Enochian angels. I think this is what the Greeks meant when they discussed Muses. I don't necessarily see myself as making up characters and stories, so much as I cross over into some deep place and discover them. I go over to the Otherside and bring something back. This is also why Hermes--the Roman Mercury--was the god of magicians as well as of communication and crossing between this world and the next (he was also the patron of liars, con men, and thieves, but those are just storytellers who use their power for evil).
There is something miraculous, mystical, and fantastic about a good story. The characters seem real. I know for myself, at least, that I cannot really force them to do anything. Rather, they follow their own courses, make their own choices, and I scribble down what paths they chose. When people ask me to make changes to a story, my standard response is "don't tell me, take it up with them." I enjoy the magic of the process, and resorting to what they teach you in Creative Writing 101 feels a bit like trading quicksilver for that quarter acre of crabgrass.
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