Art and Magic

One of my favorite blog authors and master story teller, Chuck Wendig, has a new post that discusses the magic of what we creative artists do. Here are his words:

Writing Magic

I think writing and storytelling is a kind of magic.

Maybe literally, if you believe in that sort of thing. Like, okay, when I sit down to craft a story I’m suddenly stringing together letters based on utterances which form words which form sentences which form ideas and then I mash a lot of those ideas together and they begin to create a narrative — a narrative that didn’t exist before, a lightning struck the gassy heavens and lit the skies aflame and now it’s raining Frankensteins and unicorns moment.

It’s profound, powerful, weird-ass stuff.

But I used to also feel that this magic was inviolable. Or worse, fragile. Like, this sense that it’s a nervous horse quick to spook. Or that it’s a little bridge made of glass and if you put too much weight on it you’ll hear the crinkly crackle-snap and tumble into an abyss of dead magic.

It’s sometimes used as one of the reasons that people don’t outline — or worse, the reason they don’t like to edit their work. In fact, it’s used as a reason for a lot of things, this magic: the magic of the muse, the curse of writer’s block, the fickle fates of a day’s writing (sorry, just can’t make the words today, for the magic breath of the gods has not been breathed up my nethers and so my pallid flesh will not be animated to action).

I think when magic fuels you: that’s awesome.

But I think when magic hampers you: that’s really sad.

Because the magic isn’t supposed to hamstring you.

It’s supposed to fuel the work, not fuel your excuses.

If you don’t like to outline or do any kind of plotting or planning — more power to you*. But let that be because that’s how your process works, not because the magic spell is so frangible, so untenable, that to merely gaze upon it will cause it to shatter. If your story is so delicate, you’re probably in deep fucking trouble, friend. It’s not a baby rabbit. You can’t scare it to death.

But I think I have a solution for what feels to me like troublesome thinking, and it involves looking at your story as a different kind of magic altogether:

Look at it like a magic trick.

A magic trick isn’t an impromptu thing: you don’t merely get on stage and let the Muse barf inspiration for the trick into your brain-bucket. You conceive of it in a fit of inspiration, like with anything — but then you practice. You know the trick intimately before it’s ever performed on stage: you’re the magician, goddamnit. Of course you know how the trick is performed.

But that doesn’t remove the fun of the trick.

Because the fun of the trick is seeing the audience react.

The fun is in the awe they feel. Their ”wow” is more important than your “wow.”

Just because you know the trick doesn’t mean the magic is dead.

(* More seriously, I again want to make it clear that none of this is a condemnation of your process. Some folks outline. Some don’t. Some scry stories in pigeon guts. Whatever makes your grapefruit squirt. The point is when we rely on this kind of supernatural thinking as an excuse rather than as an empowerment.)


I left this comment to the post:

You point out two very different senses of magic; the experience of magic and the performance; amazement and conjuration. Artists are always conjurers for their audience, if they are any good. The question is, how important is it to some artists to be the audience of their own work? How important is the experience of creativity to us? Do we delight in the discovery? Or is it all plodding execution and performance?

We can take joy that our work is well received by an audience, but is that the most important thing to us? Is how we feel about our work conditioned by how it struck an audience? Is an audience’s experience of the work more important than our own?

If we are no longer amazed by the things we do, then it does seem something important may have died. And maybe it is more important that the magic lives on in an audience’s mind, but if its all drudgery for the creator why do we even bother? Just to fascinate others? Isn’t it important to like what we do independent of how it strikes an audience? Isn’t it important that we too find the magic of what we are doing and not just go through the motions of putting on a show?

Well, maybe not for everyone. But trading out our own experience of the magical for its execution is not an equal exchange. And perhaps its a mistake to simply dismiss how an artist sometimes needs the capacity to experience the magic of their own exploration. Sometimes its still important for us to witness what we do with innocent eyes…..

As you say, sometimes this is an excuse not to work, but then also sometimes its an empowerment. Sometimes its still the reason why we sit down long hours everyday. We do it for ourselves. We do it because we are charmed by the magic. It has not dulled to a tarnished familiar triviality. We are not yet jaded…..


And then I found these quotes on Brainpickings as I was waiting for the page to refresh. This is from an interview with Milton Glaser by Debbie Millman:

The story of how I decided to become an artist is this: When I was a very little boy, a cousin of mine came to my house with a paper bag. He asked me if I wanted to see a bird. I thought he had a bird in the bag. He stuck his hand in the bag, and I realized that he had drawn a bird on the side of a bag with a pencil. I was astonished! I perceived this as being miraculous. At that moment, I decided that was what I was going to do with my life. Create miracles.


I was eight years old, and I had rheumatic fever. I was at home and in bed for a year. In a certain sense, the only thing that kept me alive was this: Every day, my mother would bring me a wooden board and a pound of modeling clay, and I would create a little universe out of houses, tanks, warriors. At the end of the day, I would pound them into oblivion and look forward to the next day when I could recreate the world.


I think that, to some degree, this is part of my character as a designer: To keep moving and not get stuck in my own past. This is what I try very hard to do.

I think at that moment in my life, I found a peculiar path: To continually discard a lot of the things that I knew how to do in favor of finding out what I didn’t. I think this is the way you stay alive professionally.


That is a great feeling: when you feel the possibility of learning. It’s a terrible feeling to feel you can’t learn or have reached the end of your potential.


The discovery of uncharted territory; there is real magic in that……

That’s all for now!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Art and Magic

  1. Chuck responded to my comment with this:

    Those are totally valuable and viable questions.

    To be clear, though, I’m not suggesting some life of drudgery — I’m just suggesting that if your experience of the magic is actually hampering your actual storytelling or dinging your writing process by limiting you in some fashion, then it is better to be shut of those illusions rather than being slave to them.

    Writing with or without an outline, or writing with or without the sense your characters are “in control,” will always be a kind of magic. You’ll always be an explorer. There’s always creativity and creation and weirdness and uncertainty on every page. That’s just how it is, no matter how well-drawn your map is, no matter how workman-like your process.

    I think the post hopefully makes clear that if you’re empowered: excellent. If not: well, then, you need to do some real soul-searching if the magic hamstrings you rather than helps you run faster.

    True words!

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