Patricia McKillip on writing magic

Bluebell path

In 2002, Philip Martin published The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature, containing writing advice from the likes of Peter Beagle, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Gregory Maguire, Donna Jo Napoli, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen, and others. Patricia McKillip also appeared in the volume, in the section on High Fantasy. Her advice for creating magic in fiction is both charming and wise.

"If you put a mage, sorceress, wizard, warlock, witch, or necromancer into fantasy," she wrote, "it's more than likely that, sooner or later, they will want to work some magic. Creating a spell can be as simple or as difficult as you want. You can write, 'Mpyxl made a love potion. Hormel drank it and fell in love." Or you can do research into herb lore and medieval recipes for spells and write: 'Mpyxl stirred five bay leaves, an owl's eye, a parsnip, six of Hormel's fingernails, and some powdered mugwort into some leftover barley soup. Hormel ate it and fell in love.'

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"Or you can consider love itself, and how Mpyxl must desire Hormel, how frustrated and rejected she must feel to be obliged to cast a spell over him, what in Hormel generates such overpowering emotions, why he refuses to fall in love with Mpyxl the usual way, and what causes people to fall in love with each other in the first place. Then you will find that Mpyxl herself is under a spell cast by Hormel, and that she must change before his eyes from someone he doesn't want to someone he desires beyond reason.

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"The language of such a spell would be far different from fingernails and barley soup. The Magic exists only in the language; the spell exists only in the reader's mind. The words themselves must create something out of nothing. To invent a convincing love potion you must, for a moment, make even the reader fall in love."

The Magic exists only in the language. This is true. But as Pat would have been the first to tell you, the spells cast by words in black ink on the page are powerful enchantments indeed.

Bluebells

For more insights into the magic of language and stories, I recommend the following posts: Briana Saussy on the art of making magic, David Abram on magic and magicians, N. Scott Momaday on the ancient magic of language, Jeanette Winterson on the magic of words, Robert Macfarlane on the magic of names, and Ben Okri on reclaiming the fire and sorcery. (For the full archive of posts that touch upon magic, go here.)

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Words: The passage above comes from  The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books, 2002); all rights reserved The quotes tucked into the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them) are from Patricia McKillip's novels The Alphabet of Thorn (2004), Od Magic (2005), The Book of Atrix Wolfe (1995), Winter Rose (1996), The Riddlemaster of Hed Trilogy (1979-1983), and Ombria in Shadow (2002).   

Pictures: The photographs were taken on our hill this week. It is faerieland here during the bluebell season, with a piskies' path that runs from the Dartmoor hills to the Catskill Mountains. 


On writing fantasy

An illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

Today I've gathered a selection of quotes on writing by Patricia A. McKillip, capturing the magic of her creative process but also the frustrations and the plain hard graft, and the manner in which she alchemized daily life into mythopoeic fiction. Her work has a rich vein of Romanticism (in the classic sense of that word), so let's start with this delightfully unromantic description of the Writing Life:

"I usually don’t think of 'writing' and 'joy; in the same sentence. Nalo Hopkinson once said something along the lines of 'writing a novel is like wrestling with a mattress.' I thought that was a bull’s eye description of the process.

"A novel is bigger than you are, it’s bulky, it’s hard to grasp, it threatens to fall over on you, it doesn’t go where you want it without shoves, prods, kicks and swearing. The joy might come when you’ve finally got the unwieldy thing where you want it. Or it might come much later, when you finally realize how close actually you came to doing what you set out to do. Most of the time, for me, it comes with the idea -- the wonderful vision in my head, the moment of falling in love with the possibility of what I can create. After that it’s pretty much uphill all the way to the end, when I’m never quite certain I’ve actually gotten there, except that I don’t have anything left to say."

The Golden Root by Warwick Goble

"Bards of Bone Plain was an exhausting book to write. It took a long time and very hard work, over the course of about four years. The original idea for it didn’t involve the kind of mirror imaging I ended up using. The central theme was simply to explore the idea that yes, things fantastical matter: fairy tales matter, symbols matter; they speak to us in very intimate ways, and if we need them they are there. That was the whole point of writing the poem about the 'Three Trials' and all that.‘

"I had envisioned a totally different kind of character, a bleaker character who really deserved the fate that he had. But he wouldn’t come out; I couldn’t make him do it. It’s like Connie Willis says: I can’t do that much darkness. Then I had an idea of moving through three different sections of background: the early one where they built the school, and then the building of the city (which would be kind of medieval), and then the modern city. At one point it stretched into three different books, and I thought, 'Nobody’s going to sit through all this to get to the modern city.' Still, it’s an idea I couldn’t give up easily. It was stubborn.

"The rewrite was deadly. At that point I had no faith in the novel whatsoever, but I was trying to do the rewriting just to make it an inch better than it was. There were so many problems! When I had 80 pages of it done, I handed it to my husband to read and he said, 'This is boring.' He was right; I thought it was boring too, but I wanted a second opinion. So I just started all over again, and finally I had this breakthrough.

And illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

"I was reading Martin Amis’s memoir about his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, and I thought, 'This is so modern! I want to do something like that.’ I think that’s where the modern plotline came from. Somehow, this poor guy who got skewered by this symbol, this poem -- for not taking it seriously, for not understanding fully, for not understanding how much it could mean to him -- he was punished. And he was the character who sort of wrapped all the details up for me, from the very beginning of the school to the sort of modern period, which lacked the distinct postwar signature of our 1920s and wasn’t quite modern (because then I’d have to deal with computers).

"My alternative timelines came out of desperation! I’d written the early chapter of the 'modern' story first, and then I thought, 'Well, what if I just fill in the gap to the past with this one main character who’s kind of the leitmotif of all the chapters?' (He ties all the other points of view together.) It finally started working at that point. It wasn’t the book that I had envisioned. But it’s the one that came out, and I love various details about it."

Brother and Sister by Warwick Goble

“Maybe a lot of the faerie in Atrix Wolf and Winter Rose comes from my move east [from San Franciso to the Catskills in upstate New York]. Instead of being surrounded by the landscapes in California -- vast distances and mountains and everything else – I’m surrounded by these little woods, and they’re definitely ‘fairytale’ woods, especially when you look at them in certain casts of light and can’t quite see what’s in them. That’s where the story begins, when you start wondering about what lies in these woods. Exploring that aspect of faerie is a consequence of living where I live." 

The Golden Ball by Warwick Gable

"Winter Rose was an enormously difficult novel, because I was trying to write about obsessive love, but it turned into a love story -- though I was fighting it all the way! I made the mistake of framing it around the 'Tam Lin' story, which of course is a love story. I didn’t realize it quick enough, so I spent the next year making it a love story. Faerieland in there was a very dangerous place to be. The characters there were out of the Wild Hunt, really not very nice people. It’s the wicked queen, who doesn’t really have any motivation, except that she wants to be wicked. One of the reasons I wanted to do the 'Tam Lin' story was that I did want to change the myth a bit. It’s a transformation tale, but it’s always the male who gets transformed. Janet has her child, and that’s her transformation. She’s very brave and courageous, but I wanted to write a story about a woman who had to transform herself, rather than rescue somebody else by his transformation. Instead of having a child, she bears herself in a certain way."

Hunting the White Hind by Warwick Goble

"The idea of faerieland fascinates me because it's one of those things, like mermaids and dragons, that doesn't really exist, but everyone knows about it anyway. Faerieland lies only in the eye of the beholder who is usually a fabricator of fantasy. So what good is it, this enchanted, fickle land which in some tales bodes little good to humans and, in others, is the land of peace and perpetual summer where everyone longs to be? Perhaps it's just a glimpse of our deepest wishes and greatest fears, the farthest boundaries of our imaginations. We go there because we can; we come back because we must. What we see there becomes our tales."

The Prince and Filadoro with the Snails

An illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

"In a crying need to get out of [the Catskill] mountains for a bit, I registered for a music class offered at Julliard [in New York City] to the community at large. To this day I wonder if Julliard realized that the Catskills were part of its local community. The subject was World Music, which I didn't know much about. It was held every Thursday evening from seven to nine, late September to early December. To get to it, I would drive for an hour and a quarter out of the Catskills, across the Hudson River, to another tiny town called Rhinecliff, which boasted a little train station with two tracks. I would board an Amtrak train there. After an hour and forty minutes, the train would pull into Grand Central Station, and I would step into an entirely different planet. The huge buildings, the noise, the smells, the languages, the music, as varied as the languages, offered at every street corner were mind-boggling, intoxicating. By day, I explored the city; in the evening I sat in a classroom listening to weird instruments, exotic music. Afterwards, I would reverse the journey, moving farther and farther out of the enormous, intense hothouse of civilization until the roads became narrow and solitary, mountains hid the river and the city lights, and I reached the strange point in my drive home where I felt I had somehow traveled so far that I had left the real world, real time behind. I had passed into the realm of Sleepy Hollow, the Otherworld, which was just a little farther than anyone should go. 

"The final class was held in the Indonesian Consulate so that we could learn about the Gamelan. I had also learned, on those Thursday explorations, enough about the subway system to find my way there and back again, which gave me no end of satisfaction. Later, I would put that journey from one tiny world into a huge, complex and noisy world, those details of bar and classroom and my amateur efforts at music, into a fantasy novel: Song for the Basilisk."

An illustration from The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble 6

"Winter Rose and Songs for the Basilisk have definite springs in real life, and yet for some reason they insist on being fantasy novels, instead of contemporary novels. That’s something even I don’t quite understand. The hardest thing of all is writing a contemporary novel with the power of a fantasy. That’s what I’d really like to do, but I don’t quite know how. Maybe I have to make them fantasies because I have a big imagination, and it won’t shut up."

The Knight and the Dragon by Warwick Goble

"I write fantasy because it's there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is a golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over and over again makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall of; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistent; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can't be transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grow larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is nothing really to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice."

An illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

The quotes above come from "An Interview Witb Patricia A. McKillip" by Deborah J. Brannon (A Green Man Review, October 2008); "Patricia A. McKillip: Fairy Tales Matter" (Locus Magazine, January, 2011); "Patricia A. McKillip: Springing Surprises" (Locus Magazine, July, 1996); Firebirds Rising, edited by Sharyn November (Firebird, 2006);  "What Inspires Me," Patricia McKillip's Guest of Honor speech, Wiscon 28, 2004; and The Faces of Fantasy by Patti Perret (Tor Books, 1996). All rights reserved.

The art above is by Warwick Goble (1862-1943), a prolific book artist during Britain's Golden Age of Illustration.


Ursula Le Guin on imagination

Belstone

In my reading life, I've been bouncing back and forth between fiction and memoir-tinged nonfiction lately, thinking about the difference between them (in terms of the writing craft), and about the tricksy place where the line between them falls. I was reminded of this passage from Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and so I'll share them with you:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

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Belstone 3

"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

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"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

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"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

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"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

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"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

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Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions, wading through "the river of words" via the Gaelic alphabit, is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.


On art, wilderness, and losing the way

In my book-bag

I always carry a book with me on my rambles through the hills with Tilly: not the same books that I read at home (nonfiction in the morning, fiction at night), but something I can read in daily increments on coffee breaks outdoors ... poetry perhaps, or volumes on art-making, or myth, or the natural world. The book in my tattered "walking bag" this week is Kent Nerburn's Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art. I can't remember who recommended it; but whoever it was, I'm grateful. It's giving me a lot to think about.

The passage below, for example, discusses that part of the creative process when artists get stuck or lose their way -- which is precisely where I'm at with a certain section of The Moon Wife, my novel-in-progress. I know what ought to happen next, but a vital scene is refusing to unfold, threatening to carry me off in a new direction from the one I'd planned. Matching stubbornness to stubbornness, neither me nor the scene is giving way; and I know very well what I should do now, but I needed these words to remind me:

Illustration by John D Batten"No matter what your art form, there is a moment in almost every project when you feel that your work has got away from you. The character you are developing seems false. The story you are writing seems flat and uninteresting. All the choices you have made seem wrong-headed or misdirected and you can see no clear path forward. You are lost in a creative wilderness and you don't know how to escape.

"All of us have known these moments. They are part of the creative process. But that does not make them easier to endure. To feel a vision turn to dust in your hands is a painful experience, and he doubt that sets in is not subject to rational analysis. Is this the moment, you wonder, when my vision has left me? Is this the time when I took on too much, when I went at things from a wrong direction, when I overreached my own capabilities?"

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There is no need for panic, writes Nerburn:

Illustration  by John D Batten"As the French poet Anna de Noailles said, 'It's at midnight that one has to believe in the sun.' But even more, it is when you are in darkness that the moments of magic can happen because these are the moments when you are freed from the shackles of expectations and set free in the fields of creative recovery....

"I have had characters get away from me in writing, sending my plot in directions that made me despair of all my plans and expectations, only to find in the end that the characters, having wrested the story from me, moved it in directions that were at once richer and more complex than I had ever imagined. Every artist who has been working long enough to have had successes and failures can tell similar stories. It is the nature of creation for works to grow and take on lives of their own, often defying the artist's most cherished intentions.

"When this happens, you need to have confidence you are not lost; you are just on the point of new discovery. Your work has climbed out of the shape of your original idea and begun to claim a life of its own. Einstein put it well when he said, 'No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.' "

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My husband Howard, working in theatre, often uses the term "the Dark Forest" to refer the time in the art-making process when the creation of a play (or story, or painting) reaches a crisis point: when the path disappears, the idea loses steam, the plot line tangles, that palette muddies, and you can see no way to move forward. This often occurs, just as Nerburn says, right before true magic happens: first there's the crisis, then a breakthrough, an unexpected solution, and the piece comes fully to life.

Howard kept a journal one year while directing a fairy tale play in Porto, Portugal; and somewhere around the middle of the project he wrote this:

Woods Thicker and Thicker by HJ Ford"Today I arrived in the middle of the Dark Forest, and the path has almost disappeared. It is scary now, and all the certainties have gone. The cast members are weary, and their ability to come up with interesting work has diminished. Even our opening meditation today felt tired. The Dark Forest. I knew I was heading into it, and, as always, the Forest has its own way of manifesting in each creative project. Perhaps the actors are getting stuck, unable to develop their parts. Perhaps our storytelling has become a little flat, or maybe I'm forgetting important, simple things, like the clear development of the hero's character throughout the play....

 "It's difficult to keep my original vision of the piece as I travel through the Dark Forest. I have to trust the vision I had at the start of the work, and that the ideas that have been set in motion will somehow come together. I know that I can't lose faith now, even though at this point in the creative process one often starts to question the show, the cast, and one's own ability.

"I can't turn around. I have to keep going, through this tough period, and find energy from somewhere! I'm reminded of the first day of the pilgrimage I took seven years ago, across the mountains of France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I cycled up route Napoleon late in the day, as the sun was setting, knowing that no matter how exhausted I was I had to push on to Roncesvalles. I could not turn back as I was too far along the path -- but if I did not get to the monastery before sundown, I would surely lose my way in the dark and cold; I could die of exposure lost in the Pyrenees. This is the feeling I have now: I'm exhausted, I don't know when the turning point will come, but I have to plough on."

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I'm definitely lost in the Dark Forest of my novel. It's an uncomfortable place to be, but I'm not panicking. I know these woods. And after all these years of working with words, I do know what I need to do: Follow the story. Trust the story.

Head into the dark unknown and just plough on. 

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Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn

Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. A previous post on the book is here. The poem in the picture captions is from Sands of the Well by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1996); all rights reserved by the Levetov estate. The poem goes out to all who are working on their own novels (or stories, or poems) today, the words "combining to make waves and ripples" in the great ocean of Story.

Pictures: The fairy tale drawings are by John D. Batten (1860-1932) and H.J. Ford (1860-1941).


Sheltering in books

The Princess and the Pea by Gennady Spirin

I've only just discovered Survival Lesson by Alice Hoffman (2013), a slim, wise, beautiful volume written after the author's treatment for breast cancer. Her advice for coping with fearsome passages of life includes turning to books for solace and escape -- a sentiment with which, as a fellow cancer survivor, I heartily concur. Revisit the stories you loved as a child, Hoffman writes:

Baba Yaga by Gennady Spirin" -- you'll love them even more now. Start with Andrew Lang's fairy books, books sorted by color. Red, Lilac, and Blue are my favorites. Sometimes I think we can learn everything we need to know about the world when we read fairy tales. Be careful, be fearless, be honest, leave a trail of crumbs to lead you home again.

"In a novel you'll find yourself in a world of possibilities. You'll find shelter there. I spent an entire summer reading Ray Bradbury. I was twelve, which can be a terrible year. It's the summer when you suddenly know you will never be a child again. Being an adult may not look so good. The world that awaits you is scary and hugh. This is when you want to stop time, be a kid, ride your bike. But everyone around you is growing up, and you have to, too.

"I remained in Bradbury's world for as long as possible. It was a place where it was possible to recognize good from evil, darkness from light. I was a cynical kid, and I didn't have much faith in the world, but I trusted Ray Bradbury. I took everything he said personally. Often I would read until the fireflies came out.

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin"I read because I wanted to escape sadness, which was a big theme in my family. My great-grandfather had been forced into the czar's army, where he served for twenty years, before he shot off his toes with a rifle so they would finally let him go. Because we were Russian, sadness came naturally to us. But so did reading. In my family, a book was a life raft.

"I've often wondered if I spent too much time inside of books. If perhaps I ended up getting lost in there. I feared that reading, and later writing, stopped me from living a full life in the real world. I still don't know the answer to this, but I'm not sure I would have gotten past being twelve without Ray Bradbury, and I know that imagining the plot for my novel The River King during a lengthy bone scan helped me get through that test. The hospital faded and I was walking through a small town where I knew everyone. I slipped into the river, past water lilies, past the muddy shore. Here was my life raft. A book."

Frog Song by Gennady Spirin

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

The art today is by the great Russian-American book artist Gennady Spirin. He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, studied at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art, and then worked for Soviet and European publishers before moving his family to the United States. Spirin's sumptuous watercolours -- reminiscent of traditional Russian folk art and paintings of the Northern Renaissance --  grace his numerous, award-winning books for children, including Boots and the Glass Mountain, The Children of Lir, The Frog Princess, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Fool and the Fish, Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput, Kashtanka, The Sea King’s Daughter, Perceval, and The Tale of the Fire Bird.

To learn more about the artist, go here.

Unicorn by Gennady Spirin

The passage above is quoted from Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Open Road, 2013). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.