Let's Talk About Magic
I want to talk for a minute about magic. Not the Harry Potter kind, but what is often taken as the New Agey kind.
Before we get too far, I have to say that I am the least New-Agey person out there. The Secret? Ugh. I knew that theory was bunk when I was a kid because I spent all my time wishing and hoping and envisioning what I wanted – my deepest, most heartfelt passionate desire. And I’m here to tell you that a pony never appeared. And “Follow your bliss?” People take it to mean that once you discover what you love, bingo!, you’re there – as if following it is the easy part. But what Joseph Campbell actually meant was that when you figure out what you want to do – like, say, to write a novel that changes how people see the world – you have to put everything you have into actually doing it. In fact, Campbell himself is reported to have later grumbled, “I should have said follow your blisters.”
To be crystal clear, doing something doesn’t mean sitting in front of your laptop waiting for the muse to begin moving your fingers over the keyboard like it was some kind of literary Ouija board. I know you’re with me on this.
But then why do many writers talk about a certain kind of magic in the writing process? And isn’t it true that the story -- or parts of it -- sometimes do magically appear? And not even when you’re at the keyboard. Instead, maybe when you’re in the shower. Or taking a walk. Or reading the newspaper.
Yes! That does happen. Sometimes, the answer to a question you’ve been pondering suddenly materializes when you wake up in the morning, or as you savor the sensation of water cascading over you in the shower. But it’s not New Agey magic, nor is it a gift from the powers that be. It’s a gift from your cognitive unconscious -- that part of your brain that is always mulling things over at warp speed, completely beneath the level of awareness.
While you’re trying to figure out whether you turn the knobs to the right or the left to turn the water off (I don’t want admit how long it took me to memorize “Lefty loosie, righty tighty”), your cognitive unconscious is free to dig into the deeper problem at hand. I can’t tell you how many writing conundrums appeared to solve themselves while I was busy rinsing the shampoo out of my hair.
But this doesn’t happen to a writer who has done no work. In fact, it often happens to writers who have been working very hard to understand their story. As the saying goes, “Luck seems to favor the prepared.”
And if a writer is well prepared, sometimes the magic solution actually comes from outside yourself – from a newspaper article, a magazine, or a stranger on the bus. This is something Jennie Nash talks about a lot – it’s how she solved one of the biggest problems in her current novel, the one she developed in the pages of Story Genius. She was stuck, and while sitting in an airplane on the tarmac, she flipped through the in-flight magazine and there, in the glossy pages, was the precise answer she needed to unlock one of her main character’s origin story – which is a key tenant in the Story Genius system. “It was as if the universe handed it to me on a silver platter,” Jennie says, “It really did feel like being struck by lightning.”
The same thing happened to me last week.
I’m excited to have joined the faculty of the School of Visual Art’s MFA program, Story: Visualized in New York City. I’ll be teaching a my first class there in June, and I’ve been working on my syllabus, and looking for examples in movies, graphic novels and comic books that I can use to teach story in a new way. The important thing to note here is that I was working. Hard. I was a little anxious, because I needed to find these things quickly, and I was about to set aside time to search for them, when suddenly….
I was getting dressed to go out (this was a rare occasion, we writers spend a lot of time in our PJs with bad hair, pounding away on the laptop) and I put on the radio (if it’s on your phone does it count as the radio?) Anyway, although I was in L.A. I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered on WNYC. I had three minutes to listen. That’s all the time I had to get dressed. Those three minutes, as it turned out, began in the middle of an interview with McArthur Grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, not about his bestselling book, Between the World and Me – which won the National Book Award. But about a comic book he’s writing - Marvel's Black Panther.
But I didn’t know any of that then. I looked it all up later. Here is the first thing I heard:
“ . . . All these were instances when he leaves; at one point he's a schoolteacher in Harlem, working in Hell's Kitchen at another point. Just for fun. Just for kicks. Let me see what the world is about. This is a very bizarre way for somebody who presumably likes ruling a nation to behave, and certainly not the typical behavior for a king.
So what's going on there? Does this guy actually enjoy what he's been charged with or is his heart really somewhere else? And these are the questions I really wanted to ask in the comics. That is the undergirding conflict, I think.”
I had no idea what story they were talking about, but naturally it completely grabbed my attention. Because this is my world – the world of story. A world in which the internal questions being asked here are the key questions. The undergirding of conflict – in other words, the undergirding of the story itself.
Click HERE to hear the rest of the interview, it’s an eye opener.
I knew the instant I heard it that I’d found something I wanted to share up front with my students at SVA. In fact, I was so jazzed that I instantly tweeted it, tagging SVA. It was very exciting, even if it did make me a tad late to where I was going.
But this kind of magic only happens when you’re totally involved in the story you’re telling, when you’re digging deep. Like Jennie was, like I was, and like you often are. When it happens, it makes you feel like you’re tapped into another layer of life, connected by the universal electricity that binds us all: curiosity.
And that curiosity is what makes us good storytellers. Curiosity not about what a character would do, but curiosity, as Coates suggests, is about why they'd do it.