There’s no clear boundary between experience and imagination. Who knows what glimpses of reality we pick up unconsciously, telepathically.” -- Normal Mailer

There is this notion that great writing (especially great creative writing) is somewhat magical. I think, in some situations, there is some truth to this idea, but it only presents itself to those who have already laid the groundwork.

I have read and heard a number of writers speak of how they step out of the way and basically let the story or poem flow through them, having little or no control of what is happening. Some allude to the fact that a spirit greater than themselves is writing the story, but I think we need to be careful about assuming it may be some greater being or the universe is dictating the work to the writer. More practically, this magic seems to work best with writers who have really developed their ideas, characters, and overall themes that find the “story wrote itself.”

There’s an old writing adage that says put two characters in a scene together and see what they do. This isn’t magic, this is the art of letting go and letting the characters do what they do best. For instance, if we have a mother who is narcissistic and a teenage daughter who is very independent, goal oriented, and doing something her mother doesn’t approve of, put the two of them in the kitchen, and in no time the two of them should be setting off fireworks. That’s not magic. But as a writer, if we try to dictate that the daughter will give in to her mother and try to make the scene happen just that way, we may end up with a forced fabrication that is not believable and probably stifled. On the other hand, if we step back and let the characters act the way they want to act, we will have a scene rife with conflict, potential, and energy. It’s not that we have allowed some force greater than ourselves to write the scene for us. What we have done is put together the right background – we know our two characters and our conflict, all we need to do is light the match. What happens is a natural extension of the truth of these two people and their situation. Make no mistake – this is the magic of writing – but it is not an unknowable process. It comes from our hard preliminary work.

Another magical part about writing is surprising yourself with new, often unexpected, ideas. Writers of all genres (journal, creative, business, and academic writing) will often say they had no idea what they were thinking until after they wrote it down. We start with an idea and if we allow ourselves to follow it, no matter what twists and turns our minds come up with, we may end up with some sort of an epiphany. It’s not that the universe has suddenly enlightened us; it is more that we have allowed ourselves to follow our own trains of thought, without interference, letting it connect with our other ideas and experiences, until we arrive at a new destination we hadn’t anticipated at the beginning of our journey.

The great scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, noted that “Great ideas, like species, do not have ‘eureka’ moments of sudden formulation in all their subtle complexity; rather, they ooze into existence along tortuous paths lined with blind alleys (to invoke a metaphor).”

So, how do you learn to get out of your own way? We’ll take a look at some techniques in the next article.

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