Accept the Magic of Imagination

painting of a bell in rainbow clouds

Campanil Ascendiendo by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (used under Creative Commons license)

 

Ringing the Bell

When I was a kid at Saint Lucy’s Catholic Church, the altar boys used to ring a little golden bell when the priest raised the host. I watched from my wooden pew and wondered if that was the moment when the miracle happened, when the host changed from bread to flesh. Because otherwise why did they ring the bell?

They don’t ring it anymore. I know they used to because my ears still vibrate with its sound, but actually I had forgotten the bell until I went to a poetry reading at a church in Santa Cruz, and a poet read a poem about when he was an altar boy waiting for the time to ring the bell. The other altar boy, his rival, could ring the bell so beautifully that you knew it worked, that the bread for sure had transformed into the body of Christ. The action of the poem happens when it’s the speaker’s turn to ring, and you experience with him the build of anxiety as the priest raises the host, up, up, and finally at the apex he has to ring the bell, and it doesn’t make the magic sound but instead goes all wonky and wobbly. The poet gave a brilliant performance, and you really believed that he was the altar boy trying to ring the bell to transform the bread into body and failing, failing, failing, just like we all think we fail at the important things we try to do.

Maybe that’s why the Church stopped ringing the bell, because it makes people believe that something humans do is what’s changing the host, and the whole point is that it’s not what we do: that the ritual is not the magic, that God is the magic.

Now maybe you don’t believe in any god, or you don’t believe in the Catholic God, but please still listen to me because I’m not trying to convert you, I’m just making an analogy.

The RItual Is Not the Magic

It’s true that rituals for writing help us, but the ritual is not the magic. The ritual is a container for the magic: it may be necessary, but it is not sufficient (and there are many rituals and practices that can work). The magic comes from somewhere else. The magic comes from the Place. You can’t control it; you can only invite it. You can only make your house ready for it. And then you have to step back and accept that you’ve done your part. You have to relax and let the guest come in. At church, we hold up the bread, we ring the bell. But the miracle happens through no action of our own. The miracle comes from God, comes by grace, whether we deserve it or not.

The miracle of imagination is the same.

The Gift

Try this improv exercise with me.

Imagine a closed box, a gift for you. Notice its size, its shape. Is it wrapped? Does it have a ribbon? Hold it in your hands and feel its weight. Now imagine yourself opening the box. Find the gift inside.

What did you find? It’s yours to keep and use. I wish you the joy of it.

Who puts the gift in the box? Not you. The gift comes from the Place. We are surrounded and interpenetrated by love and support, always. You think you breathe all by yourself? No. The atmosphere breathes you: it’s the pressure of the air outside that pushes air into your lungs. Our own agency is nothing compared to the forces that continually support and help us.

Accept the Gift

Does the bread always change? Yes, because the change doesn’t depend on our poor skill at ringing the bell. Steven Pressfield says that this is his religion: that no matter how many times you open the box, there’s always something inside.

When you’re writing, remember this. You don’t have to “make it up;” you only have to accept what’s in the box and write it down. Sometimes you might want to refuse it, saying “I don’t know what’s in there,” or “I can’t think of anything,” but try not to be afraid. Remember that you don’t make the gift.

Imagination is not ourselves. The gift comes from the Place. All you have to do is accept it.

“I want these but don’t know how.”

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don't know how to finish yet.

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don’t know how to finish yet.

What do you do with the pieces you don’t yet have the skill to finish?

I used to leave them around in notebooks and never finish them. Half-abandoned, half-forgotten, they were a source of nebulous anxiety, though I vaguely planned to get back to them someday. Sometimes I’d remember one and think, “Hey, I know what to do with that now!” but usually I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since I started believing in myself enough to organize my writing, I have found a way to give those pieces a better chance at life. (I use Scrivener on my computer, but you can use this method with any computer’s file system or with paper folders and manuscripts.)

I keep my short stories organized in folders that correspond roughly to stages of completion, with later stages closer to the top (see image). For example, near the top is a folder for stories that are being submitted to markets, and below that is a folder for stories that are in beta. Below that come the folders of my finishing pipeline. But what I’m talking about today only requires a single folder, which I keep right below the finishing pipeline. It’s called “I want these but don’t know how.”

In it, I keep the stories I don’t yet know how to finish. The folder is right there, in the middle of my workspace, so every now and then I look into it and read through some of the stories, and every now and then I discover that I do know how to finish one of them. Or sometimes I’ve recently read something that gives me a new structure or technique I can try on one of the stories, and I try it. Maybe I still don’t know how to finish the story, but I learn a lot. Maybe what I learn helps me finish another story.

This folder is also important for its symbolic meaning. By using this folder, I declare, “These stories I’ve started are important to me, and I give them space in my life.” By using this folder I accept that I want something, even though I don’t know how to get it yet. By using this folder I take my work seriously, I act as though I believe in myself, and I thereby increase my confidence as a writer. I intend to write for my whole life, so I need systems that support that goal.

If you don’t have a place to keep the pieces you don’t yet know how to finish, you might try making a special folder where they can live. And if you have another method that works for you, I’d love to know about it! Please put a note in the comments (below).

P.S. I got the idea for this post because I just finished a story that used to be in “I want these but don’t know how.”

Get Great Titles from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Paul Simon

photo of the lake isle of Innisfree

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by Kenneth Allen. Part of the Geograph project. (Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Here’s a fun way to get titles. You can use this method to title a piece you’ve already written, or you can use the titles as prompts and re-title later if you write something that doesn’t fit.

Titles from Poems: The Method

  1. Find the text of a song or poem you like. Prose doesn’t usually work, but you might have luck with a very dense and image-rich block of prose, such as something by Dylan Thomas. If you can’t think of a text you want to use, just grab anything by Shakespeare.
  2. Look through the text and mark the interesting phrases. (This means phrases you like, phrases that sound like titles, phrases that stand out for no apparent reason, or phrases that give you ideas.)
  3. Pick one of the phrases and use it for a title. (Or be inspired in some other way, follow your inspiration, and come back to the titles later.)

Example: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I’ll do an example with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W.B. Yeats. Phrases I think could make good titles are marked like this. You will probably like different phrases, which shows what a good method this is.  (Note: Lately I am interested in longer, weirder titles such as James Tiptree, Jr.’s  And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which comes from John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Do you like any of those? Want to go through this poem yourself? Or, better yet, how about trying this method with a poem or song you love?

If you come up with a few titles you like, please post them in the comments below! (Don’t post an entire poem unless you own the rights or it is in the public domain.)

Then

Will you try an experiment with me?

Read this excerpt from a short story I’m working on:

“A pleasure,” I said, and he must have heard me, for he bowed his head. Then he turned and walked down the stairs.

Now compare:

“A pleasure,” I said, and he must have heard me, for he bowed his head. He turned and walked down the stairs.

Which version do you prefer? Do you think something different is happening in each version, or do the characters’ actions and reasons seem to be the same in both?

Next time you’re editing a piece and you come to a “then,” try taking it out and see what you think. I’ll bet in some cases that it will improve your piece by making it cleaner, and in others it will make your piece worse because it will make it mean the wrong thing. Unfortunately for my story, it seems to do both:

1. Style: This excerpt seems cleaner if I take out the “then.”

2. Meaning: With “then,” I read this passage as narrating two separate events: the characters interact, and one character leaves. Without “then,” the two events seem to be connected: It’s easier to interpret his leaving as caused by their interaction, rather than simply happening after it.

I want it to be clean (no “then”), but I also want the events to be unconnected (yes “then”). Probably the solution is to rewrite the whole section so that this question goes away.

I started writing this essay because some uses of “then” bother me. Jonathan Franzen has a whole essay arguing against the use of what he calls “comma-then.” I find myself marking certain uses of “then” when I beta read, even though I sometimes can’t figure out why they bug me.

I don’t want to make some kind of free floating writing rule about “then.” It’s very likely that the question must be solved anew for each story and each situation. Maybe for one story you’ll need a first-person narrator who frequently says “then” as part of his narrative voice. Maybe another story will be so clean after you take out all the “then”s that Hemingway’s ghost will come to your house and bless you. Maybe there are effects of “then” that I haven’t yet discovered.

Here’s what I say, which is what I always say: Try it. Write more. Keep going.

And I’ll see you Tuesday.