Maybe it’s because I grew up too fast.
A bespectacled avoider of physical education, I became too serious too soon and now long to recapture my childhood.
Or maybe this is my way of protesting.
On the other hand, at this mid-stage point in my life, I’m hungry for adventure.
Whatever the reason, my writing has shifted a few degrees away from everyday life. In other words, I’m incorporating magic.
Magic is a dangerous word. Tossing it about in the wrong circles can get you branded as a less than serious person: one of “those” writers.
All too often magic equates with the supernatural; however, the literal definition of the word is to control nature. A broad interpretation might include opening an umbrella in the rain. By this logic then, is a levee magic? A lock, a dam? It becomes one small leap to say engineering is magic. Another small hop, and I can call my husband a wizard.
Except his Purdue diploma is based on mastering rigorous calculations and difficult topics such as thermodynamics. Engineering is understanding and applying proven scientific principles, the antithesis of magic. Or is it?
Another definition, and one I favor, is simply magic is mystery. To the uninitiated, how a canal lock works is a mystery. How this computer I’m using works is a mystery.
Magic is everywhere, or it is nothing.
Children believe the world is magical. To them nearly everything is a mystery. As children most of us accepted what could not be rationally explained. Remember Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? Mary Poppins? The Wicked Witch of the West? I did not doubt that monkeys could fly or that tea parties could bump against the ceiling. As children we believe we can make magic, too. Phyllis Curott, author of Witch Crafting says for most of us, our first attempt at conjuring — casting spells and affecting outcomes — is wishing on stars.
But somewhere along the line, that is chased out of us — at least in Western cultures. In the Christian tradition, according to Cat Yronwode (an expert on magic, sacred architecture, and folklore) magic went out of favor with St. Thomas Aquinas, who forbade the carrying of any lucky talisman not inscribed in Latin. I’m also quite cross with those early Christians for co-opting the Solstice and the bacchanal. They starched the magic right out of Yule, spring’s awakening, the harvest season. And yet the Bible is full of magic: talking serpents, multiplying loaves and fishes, and walking on water.
In my growing disillusionment with organized religion, I’ve developed a hunger to learn more about other cultures’ mythology and their separate, but often parallel paths to a deity. Non-Western cultures are more at home with myth and magic. When literature draws on the energies of fable, folk tale and myth, magic blends with the real world.
Alejo Carpentier (among the first practitioners of magical realism in literature) advised writers to “Strive for a greater intensity — seize the mystery that breathes behind things.” Meeting that challenge can reveal fascinating new vistas.
I discovered an unexpected vista in South Carolina’s Low Country. In my novel Fall, Maggie Bliss has inherited the wisdom and healing skill of her Gullah grandmother. Though Maggie’s uses for guinea pepper and St. John the Conker root make her daughter uneasy, her ability to communicate with creatures (a crow, a teenager) and objects (an old sweetgrass basket, a pear) makes her more at home in the world than those who want nothing to do with the old ways and customs. She despairs there may be no one for her to share her knowledge with. I despair, too. The Gullah culture is dying.
Magical realism can also be a form of protest, an implicit criticism of society, ranging from the metaphysical to the anthropological.
In my current novel, Conjure Silver, I am exploring Lithuanian gypsies, their myths of Perkunas, the god of thunder, and Eglé, who like Eve was beguiled by a serpent. Unlike Eve, she married the snake and lived many happy years with him. The fear and jealousy of Eglé’s brothers ruined her idyllic life, and her sons were transformed into birch and oak trees, her daughter a quaking aspen.
Marann Silver, the main character in my novel, has lost everything because of her gypsy witch proclivities. She struggles to regain her livelihood and must decide whether to embrace or forsake her heritage. Marann wrestles with this decision while illustrating a comic book based on the miracles of Jesus. She discovers Jesus wanted others to perform miracles, too. You do it, He tells his disciples when the hungry masses clamor for bread and fish. Jesus is tired. He says, You do it.
Since ancient Egypt, writers have been equated with magic. Thoth, the so-called inventor of writing, became a great and powerful magician because he entertained a reluctant ruler’s daughter with stories, convincing her to return to her homeland. For his efforts, Thoth was greatly rewarded, and his career skyrocketed. He became scribe to the gods, god of the moon, magic, and writing. His power was astronomical, his control immeasurable.
At the heart of it aren’t we all writing so we can be in control? I get great satisfaction putting words in my characters’ mouths; creating businesses on paper and meting out punishment to those who deserve it. Tell me you don’t.
But to make our stories come to life, whether they are based solely in the real world or incorporate the fantastic, a universal magic must be manifest. John Steinbeck once said, “If there is a magic in story writing – and I am convinced there is – no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.”
There is no particular recipe. But in any bit of writing you may be cooking up, magic is a necessary ingredient.