The Witchcraft of Writing
Louise Marley writing as Louisa Morgan
Every writer hears the question “Where do you get your ideas?” The old joke response is “Cleveland,” but there are serious ones, helpful ones, like long walks, showers, meditation, and so forth. My answer to the question is usually, “I don’t know.” My secret answer, the one I keep to myself, is, “It’s magic.”
There is something about the flow of ideas, the original one that begins a story and the hundreds that keep it going to its end, that is inexplicable. It’s undefinable. It’s as much like magic as anything I can think of, a sort of alchemical brain process that no MRI or CAT scan could measure.
It follows, I think, that if the conception of an idea is magic, then weaving the idea into a workable piece of fiction is a kind of witchcraft. The writer is the witch. The craft is the employment of the skills she (it can certainly be a he or a they) has learned and honed through her practice of them. I may not be able to answer the question of where my ideas come from, but I’m clear about the source of my skills: study, reading, critiquing, reading, taking classes and workshops whenever possible, and, always, reading.
I was a classical singer in my first career. I spent years studying technique, and learned to integrate my skills into the process of making music. When I stood in front of an audience, with an orchestra behind me and a conductor beside me, when all the preparation and practice and craft came together, it could be a magical experience. On my best writing days, I have that experience again.
You may know that feeling, the joy of being “in the zone.” Ideas flow. Your environment is perfect. You’ve had enough sleep and enough caffeine. You know what needs to happen in your story. You hear the voices of your characters, and you can hardly type fast enough. You’re working, but it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like magic.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s tough to access that flow. There were times on the concert stage, too, when the work really felt like work, not magic. There were a variety of reasons: fatigue, illness, distraction, or occasionally, trying to perform a piece that didn’t fit my particular talents. All of these things can keep magic from the writing process, too.
We can cast a spell, though, to call up the magic! We have the tools, and while they may not be bell, book, and candle (although I’m quite partial to candles), they work. Of course, each of us will have our own way of doing this, but here’s my personal list of tools and practices, the ones that support my own craft.
1) Reduce distractions. Turn off the television, the radio (as a former professional musician, I can’t write with music playing, although many do), and the cell phone. Turn the WiFi on your computer off, too. As Maria Popova writes, “ . . . concentration is indeed an art—art’s art.”
2) Choose the environment that stimulates your mind. For me, this means either golden silence, as in an empty house, or the white noise of a café, an airport, an airplane, even the occasional ferry. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but it’s good to know the environments that work for you, whatever they may be.
3) Accept that there will be boring moments. When we’re struggling to think what comes next, then trying to think how to make it happen, the emptiness of the mind can be a frightening thing. Trust it. Wait for it to do its job. As Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work writes, “Embrace boredom.” If you’ve cast a successful spell, the ideas will come to you. The magic will work.
4) Do. Not. Multitask. This has been scientifically proven, over and over, to be pointless. If you’re ready to write, do that. All the millions of other things that demand our attention can wait, because Stories! Books! Poems! Blog posts!
5) Take yourself seriously. Writing is work. Yes, it’s wonderful work, and we love it, but do our parents/spouses/children need to know that? Hunh-unh. Tell them you’re working. Use that word a lot! Everyone is impressed by the word ‘work.’ Insist on respect for your time and your solitude. (The late, great Erma Bombeck used to tell her children they couldn’t interrupt her unless someone was bleeding.)
6) Write what excites you. This is my own special rule, sometimes debated by my colleagues. Every writer has to make her own choice, but my strong belief is that we should write the story that is ours to write, not try to catch the always-shifting market. The danger in writing to the market is that by the time your work is published, the market is all too likely to have moved on.
Those are the tools in one witchy writer’s Book of Shadows! Maybe there’s something there you can use. I have just one more little trick to share.
I’m big on spells, which you might know if you happen to have read my novel A Secret History of Witches. They’re not great poetry, to put it generously, but they help to crystallize my wishes. If the word ‘spells’ makes you uncomfortable, you can think of them as intentions, or prayers, or mantras, whatever fits your personal practice. When I have a good one, I write it out and stick it somewhere so I can return to it. It doesn’t trouble me that it’s not rational; it’s magic.
Here’s a spell that helps me when I’m ready to work. Maybe it will work for you, too!
Let my mind be full and free,
A bounty of ideas well up in me.
Let me write with fearless art
Of life, and love, and the human heart.
Louise Marley is an award-winning writer of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. Much of her work is influenced by her first career as a classical singer, most recently her novel Mozart’s Blood. Writing as Louisa Morgan, she is the author of A Secret History of Witches and The Witch’s Kind. Louise lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and her spirit familiar, Oscar the Border Terrier. Visit her at www.louisemarley.com.