Monday, January 18, 2010

She's No Fairy Godmother

When invited to speak about the “magic of being an author,” I immediately considered the euphoria that accompanies being published: the enchantment of seeing your name in print, the heady power of creating a whole series of books in which characters grow, change, and even give birth. I thought about my own heroine Whiskey Mattimoe discovering she’s pregnant in her latest mystery, Whiskey with a Twist. A development I didn’t see coming. That's the real magic of being an author.

Sure, it’s thrilling to see your stories bound into books and translated into languages you can’t speak. But I wouldn’t call that magic. What mesmerizes me is the creative process, whether I’m working as a novelist or a playwright, hoping my words will come to life on a published page or a lighted stage. Trusting a higher power—Divine or otherwise—to work through me ignites an engine of creativity that I can neither explain nor take credit for. However, I do know how to conjure it.

For the magic to happen, I have to be engaged in my craft, committed whole-heartedly to a project. That might be a symptom of my stern Midwest-Swedish upbringing, a life of dark Lutheranism leavened only later by Saint Garrison Keillor. This writer was raised to work hard and take every day seriously. Although I now find that life makes sense only if we laugh about it, I still work hard.

My muse is no fairy godmother waving a wand above my idle brain as I await a story’s arrival. She’s more like a magician for hire, willing and able to produce amazing feats if I pay my own way. Do I want to “channel” voices and scenes? Then I must pony up some dedicated desk-time, actively immersing myself in the world of my fiction. For me, thinking or talking about writing isn’t writing. Neither is Googling, as productive as it may seem. For me, the way to invite the magic in is to roll up my sleeves and write, write, write.

But what about those times when I can’t write because the insights aren’t coming? My story is stuck. My characters are flat. Nothing short of magic will do. Here’s how I get some:

by writing without trying to write (drafting a scene just for fun, skipping to the end or the next “easy” part, interviewing characters, turning a story into a script or vice versa)
by reading earlier scenes aloud
by thumbing through my Idea Notebooks
by taking my draft to my critique group
by going for a long walk, swim, or bike ride
by washing my car in the rain (works every time)
by grabbing my man or my cat and dancing (dipping is required)

Those are my incantations. I may have to try more than one, but the magic will come.

Sometimes the magic appears before I know I’ll need it. I may dream a scene or a character so vivid that I add it at once to my notebook even though it has nothing to do with my current projects. My muse knows I’m working, so she rewards me. I like to think she pays it forward.

As I tune in to overheard pieces of conversation, posted signs, and bizarre situations, I write them down; if I mishear or misread, so much the better: Lapgevity, the sign in front of a business, looked to me like Largevity and spawned a brood of amusing notions. By recording my inspirations, I invite the magic and encourage my muse. The result is a stock of fiction fodder I can turn to whenever I’m stuck. As I thumb through fifteen years of notebooks, I’m amazed at how many notions I’ve morphed into fiction. If something stirs me enough to write it down, I’ve been touched by magic, illuminated by a spark of the creative process.

So here’s to magic, mystery, and an overdeveloped work ethic! I wish you happy conjuring in 2010.