MAGICAL REALISM FOR ARTISTS
How To Be A Creative Sorceress
I grew up surrounded by magical thinking.
“Don’t rock the rockin’ chair with nobody in it,” Mom would warn. “You’ll invite a spirit in, and then it’ll be rockin’ on its own!”
Mom was famously superstitious as well as a prayer warrior. When I got chicken pox in Kindergarten, the sores were so deep that she and I dropped to our knees and prayed to Jesus to heal them.
“And a day later, them spots cleared right up!” Mom still says today to anyone who’ll listen.
Christianity helped Mom feel powerful — like she was in control.
Becoming a creative sorceress (or sorcerer) isn’t about worshiping the dark one until he gives you a book deal. It’s about finding out what makes you feel powerful and channeling that power into doing the most good for you and the rest of the world.
What makes you feel powerful?
When I was nine years old, crochet made me feel powerful. Using scraps of yarn left over from Mom’s projects, I made a hideous afghan.
I was ungodly proud of it because I had taken useless string and made it into a blanket — a real object! How unlikely! I felt like a provider. I felt like if we were to lose shelter for the winter but found ourselves with an abundance of yarn, I could keep us warm.
Next, I crocheted a bright red, misshapen cowboy hat. As if that wasn’t aggressive enough, it also had bobbles. I wore it everywhere one summer, and Mom couldn’t seem to decide if she was proud or embarrassed.
“Don’t she look ridiculous?” she’d tell passersby. “I told her she does. She made it herself though! Only took her a couple days!”
This had the confusing effect of making me both very proud of my creative magic and also ashamed of what it produced. This is one of my creative wounds.
What makes you feel powerful? One clue is you might have creative wounds surrounding your early memories of it. Maybe somebody told you the drawing you’d spent hours working on was ugly or not as good as the other kid’s, or that you can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
What they forgot to mention is their opinion doesn’t matter. As long as you’ve got the basics of food and shelter covered, there is no rule that says you can’t draw ugly stuff, sing off key, or write shit that people never read.
It’s not only okay — it’s the first step to becoming a sorceress.
You have to be bad at something before you can be good at it — this goes double for magical pursuits.
In high school, I longed to make giant knit sweaters that those waif-like, pixie girls always wore in indie movies. Crochet didn’t produce the desired effect, so I took up knitting. At first, all I could make were scarves with uneven edges. They curved in and out like a genie’s bottle as I dropped and added stitches without meaning to.
Friends and family mocked my early attempts at knitting. They’d see my first row of fabric not even an inch long, and the concentration on my face as I tried to get the sticks to go where I wanted them to.
“That supposed to be a sweater?” my uncle joked, referring to the purple strip I was working on one Christmas. “Gonna take twelve years at the rate you’re going.”
I’d love to tell you I showed him up by finishing that sweater and wearing it to his funeral, but instead I decided he was right and never finished it.
That happens. Get back up and start again. As long as you keep getting back up to work at your magic day in and day out, you’re getting closer and closer. The only way to fail is to quit for good.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
— Mary Oliver, The Uses of Sorrow
Don’t shy away from the material that makes you feel bad. Ask for help.
I’ve known some writers who are “working up” to writing about the thing they need to write about the most, like that time their dad came home drunk and threw out the Christmas tree, or the time their mom dumped them at a gas station and didn’t come back because she really needed to be alone with her Xanax.
My approach has been to dive headfirst — describe what Dad did and how it made you feel. Paint a picture of that crumby gas station. Channeling these emotions will hurt, and you might want to seek out a support system while you’re doing it.
I hired a hippie-dippie therapist hoping she’d make the process less painful. Instead, I feel like each session she’s slowly rolling out my intestines, ironing them with a pin roller, and then tucking them back inside so I can ride home without exposing my guts to fellow commuters.
I keep going back, not just because I feel better afterward, but because in a way, she’s helping me excavate artistic gold.
Creative sorcery is learning to transmute experience into meaningful life lessons.
Your trauma is only as valuable to other people as the lesson you learned from it. Learning to do this magic trick takes a hot minute. Your first stab at translating pain into anything meaningful might be the artistic equivalent of a stink bomb.
The first time I tried to write about the hardest thing, I produced a whiney pity party that made other people uncomfortable to read. Sometimes I want to send apology chocolates to the editors back then whom I spammed with those *deeply* personal essays, but I’m sure just never hearing from me again is good enough.
You can’t skip this step — you absolutely need to have a pity party first. More than one! All that energy you’re churning up is where the healing power of creativity comes from: if you aren’t feeling, you aren’t healing.
And, if your pity party has an audience, so what? As of today, none of those editors have had me tarred and feathered in the town square. Everyone humiliates themselves. It’s a rite of passage when it comes to creative sorcery.
Practice. Try it again.
And again. That’s all magic is — just the practice of anything that moves energy.
If you read Harry Potter, you might remember the chapter where they practice their levitation charms.
“ It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skywards just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.”
J.K. Rowling didn’t have enough pages in her book to tell you how long it would’ve really taken these dim-witted kids to learn a levitation charm. It takes kids ages to learn how to do anything and adults even longer because we know how stupid we look trying to learn —at least kids get the benefit of ignorance.
So you keep practicing, and you don’t expect to be Hermione Granger, who shows up everyone by levitating the feather on her “first try” when we all know damn well she’d been practicing at home all summer. You don’t just succeed. First, you have to flounder like an idiot for far longer than seems fair.
You’ve succeeded when you’ve produced something — a story, a song, a painting — that not only has your soul baked into it but also that which you can honestly say you’d want to be on the receiving end of. That’s when you know you’ve done it: you’ve created art, a magical object bound to you forever by the healing it brought your soul.
Ten minutes every day is better than an hour once in a while.
Do your magic — the thing that makes you feel powerful — for ten minutes a day. Set a timer. Then draw, sing, write, create garbage statues — whatever it is that makes you feel the most like you.
What should you work on? Whatever you want! The only catch is you have to stick with each project until it’s done.
Hopping around from project to project baits your critical brain. It sees you spending ten minutes a day throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks and starts up with the comments:
“You’ve been doing this for what, 15 days now? And you’ve seen what changes? You’re wasting your time. We should check and see if there’s another season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills up yet. Now, those bitches know how to have a fulfilling weekend…”
And before you know it, you’re on the couch watching Hulu where all the mediocre reality shows live.
I have a remedy for that, and you don’t even have to cancel your Hulu subscription.
Finish each piece of art you start. You aren’t allowed to begin anything new until the one before is done.
Done in this case doesn’t mean ready to ship. It means you’ve done all you can with this piece right now.
If you paint the canvas full and you’re sick of it, sign your painting and move on to the next. If you’re writing short stories, you shouldn’t stop until you type The End. The story needs a beginning, a middle, and an ending, even if it’s only 250 words long, or it doesn’t count as honoring your commitment to yourself.
Breaking commitments to yourself clogs up your energy because creative sorcery is fueled by self-trust which you build organically just by showing up to be with yourself every day.
So commit to ten minutes a day, work until the thing is finished, then start a new thing. I hesitate to make the lofty promise that this will change your life, but it changed mine.
Shhh. They hang witches, you know.
People love to talk about their art. That’s what I’m doing here — going on and on about the way I create my art and how I think you should create yours. It’s human to want to share what we learn, maybe because we evolved to teach and learn from others in our tribes.
Making the transition from mere mortal who lives in a tribe to a sorceress who makes her own meaning requires you to put a leash on that human instinct to share too soon.
Secrecy itself can be the secret ingredient that turns your art into something special.
Share what’s finished, but keep your works in progress a secret. You can talk in generalities if you have to, but there is a lot to lose by getting specific. If you voice your idea too early, you risk forcing a half-formed idea into the wrong words when it’s not yet ready.
Friends and family who don’t understand how embryonic your idea is might mistakenly assume what comes out of your mouth is the whole half-baked thing. They’ll say you’re better off not pursuing it. They’re trying to protect you from making a fool of yourself because they’re mortals who don’t know that making a fool of yourself is a requirement of sorcery.
Fear from those we care about can scare us off our best ideas before we have the chance to execute.
Luckily, there’s always another chance! We’re all creative, and there’s always another idea being minted in the back of our skulls — another chance to heal ourselves through the magic of making.