Casting the Writer’s Spell

July 8, 2012 | By | 12 Replies More

US Author, K. A. Laity

In my creative writing courses, I wave my magic pencil over my students and declare them to be writers—at least for the duration of the semester. After that, I say, it’s up to them to take over the spell. They generally giggle and roll their eyes (they’re college students after all), but I think it gives many of them license to believe it. The magic pencil has surprising power.

What does it take to call yourself a writer? As a child, I wrote stories and transformed them into books, because I knew that’s where stories belonged. I wrote for my friends, and I wrote a novel in high school as well. I knew writing was what I was always meant to do, but early on I somehow got the message that it was “no way to make a living,” and therefore, not a career option.

In too many cultures now, the arts are treated as disposable luxuries, instead of the essential activities that they are. I grew up in a place where the schools were producing better autoworkers for tomorrow; there was not a great deal of interest in cultivating the arts, unless you could somehow turn them into filthy lucre. Generally we were taught to dream small and feel satisfied if we reached those mundane heights: a secure job, a nice suburban house, and a happy marriage.

The pressure affects women in particular; we are under more scrutiny, something that I was oblivious to as a child, when I lived in a state of tranquility and continuous creativity. It may have been my forced induction into charm school at our local department store (yes, really) that first alerted me to my position as a female. When I was younger, I was told I could do anything that my brothers could do, but at adolescence, that changed. The message I received seemed to be that I was falling short in my role as a girl, and I was being observed and judged by others—a phenomenon of which I had been ignorant until this point.

After being the superstar of the sprawling, unlimited universe inside my head, it brought me up short to find that I was simply a bit player in someone else’s story; I was ugly, suspect, and disapproved of. I didn’t have to wait until seventeen to learn that harsh truth. Despite all the lip service to individuality, American adolescent culture is all about conformity (and it’s not very different elsewhere, as I’ve seen from my travels). I laughed too loud, I wore clothes that my mother had made, and worst of all, I was “too smart” and never tried to hide it.

It’s not an uncommon story: the confident girl crushed in her teen years by doubt and self-consciousness. I think I was lucky to be oblivious to those social pressures for longer than many, which allowed me to develop a core of creativity, if nothing else. So I created written works in secret for my friends. I wrote stories, plays, a zine, and eventually a novel (one of my oldest friends claims to still have the manuscript, and occasionally threatens to resurrect it). For me, this was a subterranean success before a select crowd; sadly, it remained that way for far too long.

Unquiet Dreams, a book by American author, K. A. Laity

I wrote a lot, but I hid it all away in a drawer. Occasionally, I might try to press the words upon someone, but at the first sign of rejection, my words went back in the drawer. I wrote letters to friends, loving missives to partners or would-be partners, and began to find more confidence in the written word than in spoken language.

If you write and consign it to a drawer, stop right now. Submit it somewhere. Get used to rejection (we all experience it) but don’t silence your voice. It may be the one for which the world hungers.

Eventually, I began writing and submitting the material. I received loads of rejections, some acceptances, and even a prize. My few pitiful credits gradually grew and multiplied, and eventually, exploded. Now I can’t keep up with all the things I want to write, and just about all of it gets published eventually.

Yet I did not call myself “a writer” when I filled out forms or met people who inevitably asked, “What do you do?” I felt as if I might be challenged when I applied for my most recent passport seven years ago and put down “writer” as my profession, though now I fill out landing cards in various countries without a second thought: a “writer” is what I am.

The magic pencil – I needed it too. I was waving it over my students before I thought to wave it over myself. I had already dedicated my mind to the process, but I hadn’t shown the outward signs of it. I still filled in forms with “student,” “administrator,” or “professor,” but I finally realized that, although I am paid for those positions, I had them because I was a writer. In most magical traditions, you gain power from knowing the true name of someone or something. What powerful magic has come from naming myself “writer”!

Forget about the rationalists who deny magic; it’s absolutely necessary. We are Prosperos, conjuring within our magic circles the one true art: creating something out of nothing, out of the words, pictures, and sounds in our heads. It’s a rich legacy. Put on your cloak, pull out your magic pencil and cast your circle. You are a writer.


K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, Fulbrighter, uberskiver, medievalist, humorist, flâneuse, techno-shamanka, Broad Universe social media maven, and Pirate Pub Captain who is currently anchored in Galway, Ireland.

Visit Kate’s Facebook page or her website.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @katelaity.

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Category: Being a Writer, Contemporary Women Writers, Expatriate Writers, On Writing, US American Women Writers, Women Writing Fiction, Women's Books and Writings

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  1. Carin says:

    “Every morning I start with a drink from my cup of sunshine, to remind myself of who I am before I step into the world of ‘this is who we think you are.'” ~ Dodinsky

    When people ask me what I do, my heart starts beating fast. I tell them I am a secretary and move the conversation along. They don’t know I am always writing in my head, staying up until the wee hours of the morning working on blog posts and writing chapters for my first book before waking early to get three daughters off to school.

    Thank you for reminding me who I am this morning.

    I am a writer.

    • K. A. Laity says:

      Thanks so much, Carin. We all need these reminders. Even the most confident writers, too, need reminders of the magic. It’s easy to lose the thread in the midst of a busy life. But with help we find it again.

  2. May the magic pencil ever wave!

    In reading this piece it evoked a deep sense of camaraderie, I too belonging to the belonging to the shameful world of the “different” as a teen. Whenever I wanted to say something to someone that I considered important I would write it to them, as if the mere act of committing the words to paper endowed them with authority. I did get in trouble for a few dirty limericks I penned in middle school but that didn’t dissuade me.

    I recall one high school teacher in particular – at every parent teacher conference he would complain to my mother that, “Victoria’s sense of humor, although quite developed, is entirely inappropriate to her gender.” Yes, that is correct he actually said GENDER, not to my age, not for the classroom environment, but to my gender! Sugar and spice… Is it my fault I was all hot curry and cayenne pepper?

    For my father the world came to an end when I decided to study Literature and Dramatic Arts. As far as he was concerned anything but engineering school was a road to depravity and abject poverty. At the age of 80, now that I am finally getting a novel published, he is finally changing his tune. I’n not a total failure and disappointment any longer. The most important was that a few years back I too realized that if I din’t believe in and stand behind my work no one else would either.

    I really envy your students K.A. – I’m sure you are a wonderful teacher!

    • K. A. Laity says:

      What a wonderful story of your own success, Victoria! It’s crazy the ways people try to shut down the natural creativity of children. So glad to hear you kept your vision. Hurrah!

      • So true, my husband and I often catch ourselves placing demands on our kids that would be unthinkable to place on the children of others that we teach. It is a constant battle to remind ourselves how important those imaginary friends are and how much we can learn from them.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    Despite having published a lot of stories, I still never call myself a writer. Even in my head. Must be superstition.

    • K. A. Laity says:

      Long overdue, Patti. I even saw a write up of a collection that called you a ‘veteran writer’ so even if you shy away from the term, others recognise you. But you really should.

  4. Loved this message, Kate, wonderful magic pencils are EVERYWHERE…… :):):)

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