Writing is not mysticism

For me, the whole process of writing is inevitably wrapped up in the discovery, invention, and revelation of knowledge. Writing calls something out of the darkness and into the light, and gives it a name. Writing, one might be tempted to say, is conjuration magic.

But do not mistake my meaning: for writing is not mysticism. When I say that writing calls something from the dark and brings it to the light, I intend a deliberate creative activity and not a mere vision which the writer passively witnesses and records. The revelation is an act of the writer, and not of someone unknown to the writer, someone behind a curtain (to whom we are commanded to pay no attention). As a writer I make definite decisions about what words, what sentences, what symbols, and so on, shall be used to tell the story.

It’s when words come together with other words to form sentences, paragraphs, arguments, ideas, stories, experiences, and events-in-time: there, the conjurer’s magic happens. What things become when they join together with other things is full of the unexpected. There, the writer might be as surprised as the reader by what creature was born from her page.

But again, this is still not mysticism. For it is possible to understand everything there is to understand about what emerges from this magic, whether we are using fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or even for that matter any form of expressive art including music, theatre, architecture, photography, dance, or painting. I can understand it in one sentence. The sentence is a question, and the question is: “Can you hear me?”

For writing, although it is an essentially solitary activity, is also a summoning. If it is a conjurer’s trick, the otherworldly creature that the writer hopes to conjure is a human being, a reader, a listener, a collaborator, a friend. Whatever else the writer might be saying, at the same time she also says “I am here! Is anyone else out there?” And maybe someone will answer back: “Yes, I can hear you! I am here!”. To me, that kind of answer, that kind of revelation, is just the most wonderful thing in the world.

The mark of the quality of writing may well be found in the kind of people that the writer hopes to summon. A poor writer may want nothing more than a passive audience: he wants people who will listen and read, and then uncritically praise him. (A different kind of poor writer is one who can’t tell the difference between constructive criticism and personal abuse.) A better writer wants to engage the audience in a dialogue: she wants others to read and hear her words, but she also wants to hear what they will write and say in reply. It might be praise – but it might also be contributions, criticisms, suggestions, discussions, implications, arguments and counter-arguments, interpretations, even satires and parodies.

This kind of dialogue is the magic that configures and summons the sacred.


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