The Magic of Writing: Or, Some Encouragement for Weary Novelists

Writing a novel every day is a form of magic.

Sometimes it involves raising the dead. Other times it is a matter of hanging ideas like clothes on a narrow string, hoping every day that the next piece will not be the one that causes the line to break. And then when the line does break, the novelist has to start the process over again with a new thread, hoping that this one will take the strain more readily.

If there is one constant consolation in crafting a novel, it’s that nothing is wasted. Tens, hundreds of thousands of words may be hung on a string that fails to hold the weight, and I think that most novelists probably have lengthy manuscripts hidden in their desks that will never see the light of day.

But to say that those efforts were wasted belies a misunderstanding of the process. To say writing is a craft means that there is no pass/fail standard by which to measure a writer’s efforts. A craft can always be improved, never perfected, and a true craftsman will always have a vision of his or her own skills that transcends what he or she is now doing. That is to say, a craftsman is always hungry to do better.

In terms of writing a novel, this makes me think of a quote by George Orwell:

“ Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

This is not how all novelists feel about writing. (Ray Bradbury was an eloquent advocate of being in love with writing every day.) But I suspect all novelists feel this way about writing at some point, for some length of time. Now and then the writer finds himself at his desk with his head in his hands, groaning to himself, “Why, why do I do this to myself?”

But then other days come when the words flow like an autumn breeze and all the birds are singing in the trees at once and the air is perfectly clear, and there is a fine dew on the grass and each bead of that dew contains entire worlds to be explored. And you know in that moment that you could write about all of those worlds, forever, to the end of your days, and you would die the happiest person who had ever lived.

And that is the moment you remember when the magic breaks and you sit at the keyboard feeling nothing beautiful will ever come from your imagination again, as if you had discarded the seed of a story and planted the husk instead. But you remember that moment, you taste that crisp air, you tell yourself that what happened once can happen again, and you entrust yourself to the process.

And day by day, driven sometimes by love and other times by inner demons, you work the grand alchemy of writing, turning sand into gold, words into dreams, and breathing life into lifeless letters. That is the magic of writing.

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