On Our Resistance to Decode Magic: Sunday Essay

WizardcurtainNote: Around once a month, I pledge to break blog decorum and essay = attempt to say something;
a trial; an artful testing out on foot. 
The essay more than any other writing form is the amorphous form of the writer’s quest.
“The essay’s engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road….This is what makes them so damn fun to read. Their vibrancy and intimacy, their mystery and nerve, their relentless searching quality simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and a wow.”
-Cheryl Strayed, Best American Essays 2013, Introduction

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

That sentence changed everything for one disillusioned law student in the 1940s.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez disdained the study of law. He replaced his law books with cigarettes, poetry, and cheap conversations with bohemian artists. The restless renegade had trouble sleeping, and one night his roommate came home and loaned Garcia Marquez a book to help him drift asleep. Instead, the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s short novel The Metamorphosis woke him up.

“I never again slept with my former serenity,” the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude says in his memoir about the incident. In a 1981 Paris Review interview with Peter H. Stone, he describes how the line set him off on a quest of change: “When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.”

Kafka’s line, 30-plus years later, cracked open Garcia Marquez’s imagination. He set out to try it himself and to read every piece of fiction he could find.

He’s the boy sitting in the magic show who says, “I want to do that!” and rushes to the magic store and to the bookstore to buy books on magic.

What is that drive? And, more, why do some aspiring artists and writers ironically shirk that urge? And what are the consequences thereof? 

Captivating books and brave new stories do perform magic.

As Edward Hirsch says of certain poems, books can cast a spell on us. They absorb us. We forget what time it is. We have an experience. It’s why we go back for more, and it’s why we aspire to create anything that we expect others to enjoy or to be changed by.

Let’s say that performing magic is the capacity to arrange and sequence things in a way that changes awareness with surprise, delight, and a mix of other emotions. In that sense, a well-sequenced, deftly designed story is magic. Its design – unseen by the “naive eye” – changes our perception, outlook, and in-look.

But some writers and potential authors at first refuse to decode and learn the magic – even though they want their work to perform that magic. Why do they refuse?

I’ve been wondering about this question again especially since I have shown authors in my mentorship program during the past several months how the magic of trade nonfiction, fiction, and memoir often works.

“I see film and read books with a whole different set of eyes,” they say. And they’re not sad about that fact. They’re delighted.

Why we resist decoding magic, though, might have something to do with wonder. Or science. Or fear. Or the ineffable.

She cried in my studio.

Said she had cried for the past two hours on the drive up from the city. Since she was writing an essay related to her loss of a loved one, I had assumed she was still grieving the death.

But as we talked more about grief, I realized I mis-thought.

“No,” she said, trying to hold back the tears, “it has to do with the way you dissected that magazine essay, the way you mapped it out and showed me how the writer did what she did.”

Guilty. I had done that. I had taken a couple of colored pens and annotated this particular published essay in this particular magazine and had drawn a map to show its story architecture. I am admittedly, unapologetically map-manic.

I had done so because she had claimed she was hellbent on and ready to write a book and to write an essay, too, about loss that she was certain was right for this particular magazine. Upon hearing of her education and sampling the raw talent her rough drafts showed, I thought she had potential. I wanted to boost her confidence by handing her concrete tools to use while trusting her writing process. We had agreed to study essays from this particular magazine.

But, somehow, my mapping provoked tears.

“I think I was foolish,” she said, “to think I could write this book in a few months or write this essay and get it published. When I see your maps, I see the work ahead. And I don’t know if I’m up for it.”

“Maybe you are grieving,” I said again.

“Grieving what?”

“Your naive self. Maybe you’re letting that naive self die, and possibly you’re about to live and work as an apprentice. Which isn’t so romantic.”

She nodded.

Maybe we don’t want to know how the magic trick is performed because then we’ll be robbed of our naive wonder.

I understand this mindset prevalent among adolescents. Their worldview and body are shifting so dramatically that for someone to come along and analyze how, say, The Wizard of Oz works shovels one more mound of dirt on their childhood’s naive wonder. But adults? What are we fearing?

Dorothy quivers but stands her ground in her ruby slippers as the gaseous massive head barks at her.

wizardNonplussed, Toto scampers across the Wizard’s floor and pulls back an emerald-colored curtain. “Pay no attention…” We know the rest. Or do we?

Dorothy’s disheartened and angry, but she’s not sad. Instead, no longer hoodwinked and reliant on a mysterious disembodied figure, she feels empowered and equipped ultimately to use her own wits to get home.

In the film version, Judy Garland’s glare dissembles the chagrined Frank Morgan. “You’re a very bad man.” She’s the one barking now.

“Oh, no, my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

It’s a brilliant scene. I can see behind the veil and understand how it works, and the scene works magic on me every time.

And I admire Toto.

Words have crawled on my fingers.

Apparitions have vaporized between my eyes and the screen. I have moved on my mat and let something between breath and image arise and write itself. After three hours of immersed writing, I have stepped outside to find the world wide awake and pulsing to a different beat.

I know that magic.

But do I want to make magic only for myself? Do I want to create something only so others can marvel that I created it? Or do I as a writer want to create magic for others? Do I as a consultant want to help others hoard magic or spread magic? There’s the rub.

“True art springs up only in spontaneity and in raw, unbridled process. Otherwise, it’s all hack or manipulation. Craft kills the muse.”

That’s a limited frame laden with unnecessary dichotomies.

The assumption diminishes so much of what we human beings are uniquely suited for. Being curious. Finessing. Honing. Harnessing our potential. Making magic for others. Not manipulating.

The muse might be a master carpenter instead of a princess who has never handled a tool in her life.

Jack Kerouac edited On the Road. Elizabeth Gilbert might have called upon her “inner genie” to draft Eat, Pray, Love, but she also knows how to craft and design a 3-act story that works magic.

Even angels can benefit from a thoughtful editor who’s sensitive to the exchange between art and audience. (I’ve edited angels.)

Being authentic stems from having authority over your craft and standing in that confidence. In this way, you get out of your way, and you get out of your creative medicine’s way.

That’s what I’m thinking.

I have known thoughtful therapists and therapy-minded people who love process.

They have written as a way of processing their minds and ideas for years. After a decade of writing in process, they amass journals of personal process writing that has given them marvelous insight into their own lives and into the nature of their own minds. Among so many journals, they think they might have a book somewhere in there. Often they don’t. Mostly, they have amassed morning pages and journals.

When we’re young, we think we’re too brilliant and original to hone our craft.

We write without reference to anyone or anything that’s been written before, and when no one recognizes our genius, we curse the industry as being rigged to promote a bunch of sell-outs.

A 22-year-old man came to me convinced he had special insight into the nature of the universe. He knew he was special but no one, including his girlfriend, could appreciate his special relationship to the universe. He knew he had a brilliant book inside him although he never really wrote anything. He just needed his girlfriend to appreciate his gift and to give him the freedom to write.

I suggested he go home and start cleaning the house they shared every week.

“And my vision?” he said.

“The sooner you stop thinking you’re special to the universe, the sooner you’ll be of service to the universe. Go home and clean. For six months. Then maybe we can talk about writing.”

Cinderella does the dirty work. The vain sisters who think they’re special don’t experience the magic.

When we’re middle-aged and accomplished in one field (or even in writing), we say to ourselves we know too much and are too busy to “learn the basics.”

What we may be saying is we’re afraid. We’re afraid of looking foolish.

We’re afraid of failing and of our work being judged.

And so we hide behind claims of originality and of our brilliance not being understood. After all, if we’re “breaking the mold” and trying something that has “never been done before” and “can’t be compared to anything else out there,” then how can it be judged?

It’s a reasonable defense. But it’s ultimately not helpful for those of us trying to bring good work into the world.

A 40-something actor came to me convinced he had a special book about happiness in him. Or about life. Or about awareness. He wasn’t sure, but he knew it would be good and unlike any self-book “out there.” He wanted to write a self-help book although he despised self-help books and hadn’t read one in 8 years. I suggested he study the field he’s trying to re-define.

“When you tell me to go study these other books,” he told me, “it reminds me of being in my twenties and pitching an original tv sitcom. Its whole premise was that it was unlike any other tv sitcom, and a producer suggested I go study how tv sitcoms are written. That’s what your suggestion reminds me of.”

I’m not sure if I was supposed to be impressed or put in my place.

I said, “I assume you’ve grown up since then.”

We didn’t work together.

We’re afraid of being a student again. But here’s what I’m thinking: Learning as a student is not learning as an apprentice-artist.

Students sit in desks. Apprentice-artists work in wizards’ labs.

Students seek grades. Apprentice-artists seek growth.

Students fulfill assignments. Apprentice-artists test out & experiment.

Students work from the outside-in. Apprentice-artists, the reverse.

Students might learn to hammer a sentence or design in place. Apprentice-artists let their armor be hammered open.

Students are on a career path. Apprentice-artists are on a quest.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

Call it The Apprentice-Artist Manifesto.

10. Is the mystery the same as the magic?

Certain arias awaken dormant birds. Certain sentences twist my chin to face behind me. Endings of certain stories confound my eager attachment for everyone to get what they want, and I feel the more alive for having been confounded.

At this moment, the earth spins at a speed beyond my comprehension, the maples disrobe to prepare for winter, and two mice make tunnels I’ll never see in my study walls.

I savor and even court moments when “the Planks of Reason” fall out from under me and only sensation and smirk hold me up.

In the hands of artists and maestros and Grand Architects, I remain easily enthralled.

The artistic experience that can be explained is not the artistic experience. I get the Tao Te Ching of Art.

But the gift of curiosity calls us to pull back the curtain and have an even deeper experience. At least that’s what I’m wondering.

11. Here’s the rub, again: Who’s the magic for?

If the main joy you wish to receive from writing comes only from that ecstasy of one-pointedness when mind mingles with image and idea and self-revelation, then you might forget craft and love your process. The root of amateur is related to amore and the Middle French amator, a lover. And the world needs amateurs. We need the amateur’s heart. Without keeping an amateur’s love, an artist risks hacked craft. No wonder for the author, no wonder for the reader.

Amateurs stay at a creative endeavor’s first junction and might mostly know wide-eyed naive wonder. Apprentice-artists venture further to other junctions and, thus, experience other more nuanced faces of wonder that I have only recently started to name.

Amateurs fall in love. Apprentice-artists stand in love.

And they design wondrous experiences for others.

“A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

– William Butler Yeats, “Adam’s Curse”

Making magic for your audience is a different kind of joy.

It is a gift.

And your audience is hungry for that gift. For a few moments, they ache to feel a little more awake, a little more alive, their minds opened and their hearts expanded.

They want to wake up and feel changed – not so much like Gregor but more like Gabriel.


P.S. This essay is a walking-talking conversation. Add your verse in the comments section below. -jbd

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  1. Beautiful essay, J. I love the loop w/Marquez. I have always loved that anecdote about Marquez & law school. I, of course, was encouraged to go to law school. 🙂 Writing is a good skill in law! Ah. Thankfully, trickster monkey was already at play in my world well before I met him in all his furry green form and put a stop to that nonsense. Such joy in these paragraphs.

  2. This is really beautiful, Jeffrey. I love the whole segment about how we resist decoding magic. And making magic is a gift–for the audience, but also for me as I write it. Nothing makes me happier.