Friday, August 10, 2007

Waiting for the Magic to Begin

I am one week away from returning to work; I had been hoping all summer that I'd be visited with a good idea for a new suspense novel, but unfortunately that idea came to me only recently, and I've been desperately tapping away, trying to get as much of it down as I can before I lose the inspiration.

I wonder if other writers are more orderly than I in their composition process. I get one seed of an idea and then sort of burst out of the gate like a bull at a rodeo, flailing around. At least that's how it seems to me. It's very obsessive--I have all of these disjointed ideas, images, dialogues, and I need to compress them into a form that might at some point be readable, even compelling.

I'd like to say I use an orderly process--index cards or legal pads or even a working outline--but it's far more vague than that. I think I'm actually waiting for magic, or maybe the Holy Spirit. :)

I read a terrific book once called MAGIC, RHETORIC, and LITERACY: AN ECCENTRIC HISTORY OF THE COMPOSING IMAGINATION, by William A. Covino. It's a complex book which traces the link between words, magic, and human thought throughout the ages. In the ancient world, thought itself was thought to be a magical process; Aristotle wrote that "phantasy is our only basis for speculative reasoning." Throughout the ancient world and into the Renaissance, in the writing of greats like Plato, Aristotle, Pico, Aquinas, Augustine--there is a suggestion that writing itself, and the ideas that seem to come from nowhere--are magical processes.

Even into the Romantic Period, Covino contends, there were writers who clung to the notion that the composing imagination was rooted in something magical:

"Romantic fascination with the magical imagination is explicit in Blake's visionary poetry, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's conjunction of the natural and the supernatural in the Lyrical Ballads, Percy Shelley's faith in the power of language and mind over cultural and political matter in Prometheus Unbound, The Witch of Atlas, and A Defense of Poetry, and Mary Shelley's portrayal of a magical world ravaged by a monster of science in Frankenstein.

English Romantics turned to magic in order to license the powers of the composing imagination, to find a discourse for intellectual and political revolution, and to define writing as a liberatory force that constructs realities."

I always remember this book when I begin to compose, because I often feel that I'm waiting for some exterior thing, some process that begins outside of myself. I'm curious to know what other writers would say about this. Leave comments, please!


Anonymous said...

It's hard to figure out where usable ideas come from. Something I read or something that happens may suggest an idea but why, exactly, those particular things suddenly give rise to ideas while others don't I can't say.

I don't feel that ideas come from the outside, though. They seem clearly to originate in my own brain even if I can't control the process. Commanding myself to think of a good idea never works!

It does seem to be necessary for my thoughts not to be focussed on a demanding task. Ideas occur to me while my brain is basically idle. Yeah, a good excuse to goof off!

Julia Buckley said...

But do you ever have a sense that our brains are wired into some bigger brain? Sort of like the master computer?

I suppose it's a great measure of self-esteem, whether we believe we have what it takes to generate exellence, even genius, without some outside inspiration.

Amy said...

I love this quote, Julia.

I was reading a bookflap of a writer I admire yesterday, that said she worked full time but still wrote 2 pages a day, has three kids, etc. Also, she's won awards, always looks lovely in nice clothes at conferences (where she is an officer in an organization), and is very nice.

I have one child and work part time, yet have trouble finishing a second book. (My first is with an agent.) So I am glad you wrote this entry! I have outlines for two different books, and can't seem to even get the 2 pages a day done? It is like people who exercise every day - how does one find that discipline?

This is a little different from what you are discussing, but sort of parallel, I think. I have the ideas, then get stuck 4 chapters in. I may find this book you suggest! I have always liked Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird for inspiration. I listen to her read it on CD.

Julia Buckley said...

Amy, I can totally relate, but I'll tell you what gets me writing more than anything (other than magic): being in a critique group.

I was totally stalled with my latest project, but I took them the chapters I had, waiting for them to shred them--which is what they should do if they're bad. But instead they loved them, and better yet the comments they made gave me an idea for where I could take the story.

Are you in a writing group of any kind?

Karen Olson said...

Being a journalist taught me that I don't need a "muse" to start writing and it also taught me how to sit down and write for half an hour, get as much done as I can during that time and then walk away. That means a little writing every day, but in the larger picture, the work grows into something more than just a few pages.

I belonged to a writers group for six years, but I don't think it is the reason for my discipline. There was never any rule that we had to have something to share at our meetings, if we did, fine, if not, fine, too. I just make those little pockets of time for myself in between work and my family.

As for ideas, I get a germ of an idea and then let it grow a little before I decide if it's worth something. Then I just write a few pages and see if its got legs. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

Julia Buckley said...

But I still wonder what generates that "germ of an idea."

Karen Olson said...

Sometimes it's a news story. Sometimes it's something someone says. Sometimes it's a place. In the book I'm working on now, it's all of the above: a news story about straw purchases, which is the illegal sale of guns for drugs and/or money; a conversation with an old college friend; and the Three Judges Cave in New Haven, where three judges fled persecution after condemning Charles I in England way back when.