Writers on Writing #28: Erin Lyndal Martin
Magic Words: The "Craft" of Writing
"It is better that you should rush upon this blade than enter the circle with fear in your heart," say the teen witches in 1996's The Craft. "How do you enter?" the girls are asked at athame (a ritual knife)-point. "With perfect love and perfect trust."
In perfect love and perfect trust. Only in writing—and in witchcraft—have I felt that. Perfect love because it's the love for writing is the love for something that can't love me back. And that love necessitates trust. Trust in what? In myself, in the will to conjure just the right words to cast just the right mood?
"As above, so below," Nancy, the leader of the witches says, raising her athame skyward before planting it in the ground.
Trust in the higher mind that creates. Trust in myself. Trust the two dimensions, divine creation and the mundane grit of writing, to marry.
The teen witches play that classic party exercise. "Light as a feather, stiff as a board," they say, their hands beneath the girl who ends up floating in mid-air. I place my fingers beneath poetry and it ascends. Writing is light as a feather, stiff as a board. It is a light and fragile thing, requiring a gentleness with words while it simultaneously refuses to do whatever you wanted to make it do.
I have learned about writing at the same time I learned how to practice witchcraft, or, as I will simply call it, magick. (The k at the end is used to denote the difference between stage magic and the kind of magic that I am describing.)
Magick, real magick, is, of course, hard to define and in the eye of the observer. The most popular definition used by contemporary Wiccans is Dion Fortune's explanation that magick is "the art of changing consciousness at will." (Does that apply to writing? Check.) Margot Adler writes, "Magic is a convenient word for a whole collection of techniques, all of which involve the mind. In this case, we might conceive of these techniques as included the mobilization of confidence, will, and emotion brought about by the recognition of necessity; the use of imaginative faculties, particularly the ability to visualize, in order to begin to understand how other beings function in nature so we can use this knowledge to achieve necessary ends.” (Check.)
In September 1947, the filmmaker Maya Deren traveled to Haiti for the first time to capture Haitian dances on film. At the time, she did not know she would go on to write one of the most enduring, informative and culturally sensitive books on Haitian vodou, Divine Horsemen. In her introduction to the book, she discusses how her role as an artist interlaced with the faith she found there: "I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity; I end by recording, as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations." Just as Michelangelo "saw the angel in the marble and carved until [he] set him free,” Deren learned that her role in magick was to put down the oars and let the magick happen around her.
"Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter," writes Maya Deren. With a touch more hubris, Dean Young writes that "our poems are what the gods couldn't make without going through us." Whichever one you think came first—the poem or the god—there is a relationship between the two on which poets and magick practitioners alike agree. In her essay "Poetry & Panic," Rusty Morrison makes many references to the god Pan: "In a sense, instinct, or call it Pan, carries us where our past experiences say we should go, well before our logic would be able to figure out how to go there."
I remember first calling on Pan in ritual in mid-2002. I called upon Pan that night and, the next day, I met a long-haired hippie in an open relationship who stole my weed and tried to have sex with me. We'd been smoking up in the woods on the way to a concert, and I kept slipping in my sandals. "Hold onto me," he said. "I'm like a goat."
There is a relationship, yes, but I'm careful to remember that correlation does not imply causation. "Anyway as it turned out everybody here recognized me as, variously, a mambo, a medium, surrounded by strong spirits, a witch—so my post adolescent crisis about whether an artist HAD TO BE AN ASSHOLE to be taken seriously or whether a relief worker COULD ALSO be an artist were immediately shunted into the background," said Ariana Reines (the emphasis is hers) in an interview with Michelle Tea. As Reines later confesses, "so I would say I have a rabbinical approach to Vodou and that I will always be a Jew." Tea inquires further about Reines's healing work, and Reines says, "It is wonderful to be in a culture that validates magic."
But aren’t we validating magic, in a sense, when we write?
Magic, wildness, Pan. It is a part of the learning the craft, of learning abandon. "I believe in the divinity of profligacy. The creation of art, okay, just the attempt at the creation of art, as well as the appreciation of it, is both an enlarging of the world and an expanding of consciousness," writes Dean Young. Reines says she is obsessed with "the relation between magic and revolution."
In the Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes about the importance of creating the fictive dream, creating a temporary space of occupation which will not unloose the reader. One cannot have read Divine Horsemen without calling to mind the way the Haitian loas (best translated as saint-like personages) "mount" and "ride" the people they possess. For Gardner and Deren were not consciously creating the one-to-one relationship between poetry and magick, but yet succeeded at it anyway. Though Gardner would never have used this vocabulary, he was arguing for fiction driven by "the evocation of spirits."
"Words themselves create reality through music an incantation," Young writes. Here I must give pause and consider both my writer-self and my witch-self. There is the problem that there are words and there is the meaning behind them, but those are two different issues. Many times in sacred circle have I read a text that was important for me personally, that only carried its weight in my quavering, candle-lit voice? I have cast my sacred space and recited Eliot to the shadows my body made on the wall. In a manner that was "just the same but in reverse," I have performed Southern folk magick, reciting the 23rd Psalm over candles whose middles I had punctured with pins in order to strengthen them. In magick, words create your reality in a literal way. (Sometimes too literal—I once did a spell for money to come to me, and my paycheck was inexplicably mailed to me instead of me picking it up in the HR office like usual.) But, whenever we are moved by a text, are we not also creating a reality, the reality of our processing the text?
The first time I read Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, I was inspired and captivated enough to write for hours, aiming to mimic Thomas's rhythms. Were those hours not a reality that had been created by words? And, if, to return to Fortune, "magic is the art of changing consciousness at will," then does literature not aim for the very same manifestation? To be caught up in a work of literature is nothing if not a sign of the writer's virtuoso and skill at making the reader think his/her consciousness has been shifted at will, the will of the writer.
But, even (perhaps especially) in magick, words create your fantasy as well. Or words are the fantasy, being sent forth like little percussive boats that contain a meaning that transcends the literal meaning of their words. When I was reciting the 23rd Psalm as part of ritual, it was not because I literally believe that the Judeo-Christian LORD would make green pastures in which I could lie down. But what made those words potent was the way I felt holding their unfamiliar syllables (yes, I'm afraid the whole psalm was unknown to me for most of my life) in my mouth, the incantatory conviction with which I spoke. And do gods/God/Pan respond to the literal words we speak or the meaning behind them?
This is, I suppose, one of many things that Christians have been arguing over. Is the true task of loving Christ in the word or the deed? An acquaintance was recently telling me the story of coming of age in her Protestant church. She had raised his and to posit the following question of his underprepared Sunday school teacher: "Are you telling us, then, that if we live a good life and pray and love Jesus and read the Bible, that we won't be saved unless we have said the words that Jesus is our savior and we want His salvation?" When her question was met with an affirmative answer, she was confused.
So was I. Does this mean his denomination was essentially endorsing the concept of magic words?
I have long thought about magic words. What difference do the right words make, when it comes to a ritual? For a moment, I caricaturize showing up for a ritual in the same way one shows up for a job interview, with polished vocabulary and keywords galore. I don't like double standards, and I like them less when I'm the one who's creating them, but that is all I can think to do. My own reasons for choosing to follow witchcraft when it called me are different than the ones when something more cerebral would sing to me. Magick spoke to me mainly because it was irrational, because I couldn't analyze it for months on end until I decided it didn't exist.
Is it faith in letters that creates magical alphabets like runes? Or is their significance the imprint of a collective wish, the collective desire to believe that Odin was rewarded for his struggles with a magical alphabet?
Though Auden claimed in "In Memoriam of W. B. Yeats" that "poetry makes nothing happen," his narrative of runes would say otherwise. Auden's Odin, speaking on the runes, advises:
Runes you will find, and readable staves, Very strong staves, Very stout staves, Staves that Bolthor stained, Made by mighty powers, Graven by the prophetic God.
Know how to cut them, know how to read them, Know how to stain them, know how to prove them, Know how to evoke them, know how to score them, Know how to send them, know how to send them.
(Note that this verse contains a reference to the "mythological" Bolkhor and the "real" God.)
In Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby, a "culling song" possesses the power to kill when sung. In Ben Marcus's the Flame Alphabet, language is poisonous. These magick words, imbued with authorial intent to create words so powerful they kill.
Where, then, does the magic/magick of language reside? For Borges, that distinction was left to the reader: "A book is a physical object in a world of physical objects. It is a set of dead symbols. And then the right reader comes along, and the word—or rather the poetry behind the words, for the words themselves are mere symbols—spring to life, and we have a resurrection of the word." At "resurrection of the word," my mind goes to Signorelli's "The Resurrection of the Body" and Jorie Graham's ekphrastic on it wherein Graham separates the symbolic from the beautiful. Such a dichotomy is thought-provoking: first, is Graham arguing that the symbolic is never beautiful and vice versa? If that is true, then it sounds as if, by extrapolation, she is arguing that beautiful and magical are one and the same.
In a definition Borges creates and immediately dismisses as "feeble," "poetry is the expression of the beautiful through the medium of words artfully woven together." So, then, the beautiful, or magical, is not the words themselves but some je ne sais quoi that informs the words, and if those words are "artfully woven together," the beautiful is revealed or experienced, whichever you prefer. "See how they hurry/ to enter their bodies,/ these spirits," Graham writes, envisioning the spirit rushing forth into the body, "hurry[ing] into speech," much as Deren described the loas mounting ritual participants. Marguerite Yourcenar wrote of having "one foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts. Or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports oneself, in thought, into another's body and soul."
Though the terms "black magic" and "left-hand path" (which basically mean the same thing) come up often in witchcraft, I am not sure to what extent I believe in them. Yes, I performed so-called black magic on the man who tried to rape me and then stalked me when I attempted to have him arrested for his crime. I do not feel ashamed about that. It is much in the same way that I do not feel ashamed to create an unlikeable character. Writing forces a person to see people, even fictional people, from the inside out, which makes it much harder to judge.
Dion Fortune writes:
Science has sought in vain for this organising principle; it will never find it on the physical plane, for it is not physical. It is not the inherent nature of atoms which causes them to arrange themselves in the complex patterns of living tissues. The driving forces of the universe, the framework upon which it is built up in all its parts, belong to another phase of manifestation than our physical plane, having other dimensions than the three to which we are habituated, and perceived by other modes of consciousness than those to which we are accustomed.
In other words, it is fruitless to try and understand magic—the "antilogos weapon," for there is more that we can imagine our physical world. So Dion Fortune writes in her landmark Psychic Self-Defense, a book about shielding oneself from psychic attack by a variety of predators. I do know how much I believe in each predator she cites, but I know there are days I do not have any kind of "shield" (practical or magickal) up, and I can feel the brutality of the world chipping away at me.
An elderly witch I recently met talked to me about the importance of shielding, of how many roles it can play. She suggested that I come up with a shield made of words because I am a writer. It is pure coincidence that the two phrases on which I settled both involve David Bowie. I like to repeat the line from Labyrinth of "You have no power over me." It is succinct and freeing and allows a humorous memory of the goblin king, and of Jennifer Connolley before she was all strung out in Requiem for a Dream.
The other David Bowie phrase must be used more carefully. When my intuition wanes, when I need some guidance, my face lights up and I remember that almighty line from "Space Oddity": I think my spaceship knows the way to go! And what is more magical than that?
Above Carl Jung's door was carved a motto: "Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit." (Summoned or not, the god will come.) I think of times unsummoned gods have come in the form of inspiration that couldn't feel anything but divine. There was a day I spent a subway ride crafting a short story in my head. I walked home from the subway stop, afraid I would lose the words, entered my apartment, and wrote the story in a single sitting.
Christopher Vogler writes:
We writers share in the godlike power of shamans. We not only travel to other world but create them out of space and time. As Writers, we travel to other worlds not as mere daydreamers, but as shamans with the magic power to bottle up these worlds and bring them back in the form of stories for others to share. Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.
As a writer-witch, I agree with this. If there is anything that has consistently saved my life, it is metaphor. But are the elements or my spiritual practice metaphor or are they "real?" When I converse with Persephone during dark times, is it because I believe I'm speaking with the wayward, flower-picking daughter? Or do I simply believe that the story has enough power to save me? Once again, I am left asking if the magic resides in the words, what is behind them, or somewhere else.
In contemporary witchcraft, it is standard to cast a sacred circle before beginning ritual work. This helps contain the energy and keep out malevolent influences. Mostly, for me, it helps me shift my consciousness out of the mundane world. At the end of the ritual, the invoked deities and elemental spirits are dismissed and the circle is opened again: "The circle is open, but never broken. Blessed be."
This experience is also familiar to me in my writing life. When I am deep in a project, I am the sacred circle through which the inspiration flows. Yet, I have never found a way to re-open the circle, to dismiss whatever magick was working through me as I wrote. Nor would I like to bid farewell to that. I like the circle just as it is, open, but never broken.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her poetry has appeared in DIAGRAM, Used Furniture Review, diode, PANK, InDigest, The Offending Adam, Bat City Review, Gulf Coast, Cannibal, and many other journals. She is the associate fiction editor for H_ngm_n, and her fiction and other prose have appeared widely. She is also an associate interviews editor for PopMatters and assistant music editor for The Rumpus.