A Little Magic


Magic. Such a small word. Just five letters, but full of so much. It’s a little cheesy, right? And a little cliché. And we use it so much that in many ways, like love or hate or awesome, it has lost much of its meaning as a word.

But as a concept magic is wide open.

I am a true believer. Not in fairies or ghosts or big foot. But I am a believer in magic and the power that it can give writing. And if you want to write magical realism (or fabulism or literary horror or all of the above,) you need to become a true believer too. There is a reason that these tropes still exist, a reason why every culture worldwide has their own fairy tales, their own legends, their own specific little creatures. From totoros to selkies to witches these stories are beautiful because they take us of out of the mundane, but also because they tell us something about the places they come from. About the people who write them and retell them. These are stories of outsiders and of others. Magic is the course of the underdog, the unexpected, the person everyone forgets.

Welcome Home, Petra Kaindel
Welcome Home, Petra Kaindel

We like to think of art and writing as being free of rules. But even Picasso knew how to paint realistically. You need to learn the rules before you can break them. And you need to have a reason for magic before you can wield it in your work. We don’t write about monsters in the closet or creatures emerging from the water because they are exciting (though they are) we write about them because it is the only way or the best we know to say what we need to. Writing is about being compelled forward. It is about doing it because you must, because you can’t not. And magical realism is even more this way. We all come to writing for our own reasons, with our own obsessions. So how to we channel those obsessions into the work?

Let’s look at an example from last week. In The Rememberer by Aimee Bender our narrator opens by telling us her boyfriend is going through reverse evolution. We believe her (at least I do) because she makes the rest of story so mundane, so typical, so believable.

“I keep him on the counter in a glass baking pan filled with salt water.”

But surprises us with little details, little moments of strangeness, that, while not magical reinforce the surrounding surreal qualities of the story.

“I drip tears into the pan, a sea of me.”

She uses the concept of Ben going through reverse evolution, turning into creature after creature, to symbolize her heartbreak over the dissolution of their relationship. But by reading the story as describing something real, rather than simply as an allegory, the story can stand two-fold and it becomes more interesting and new than your typical breakup story. Thus Aimee Bender tells us a story about two people using magic in such a way that we cannot imagine the story without it. It makes the magic inextricable from the bones of the plot. Nothing feels forced or unnecessary. The fantastical elements are as intrinsic to the plot as the narrator’s voice.

This is how magical realism can be wielded to the greatest effect. Not simply because it is cool or exciting, but because it the best way to say what needs to be said.

Julião Sarmento - Untitled (1994-5)
Julião Sarmento – Untitled (1994-5)

So what do you need to say? And how can you use magic to say it?
This week I’d like you to write two pieces, one very short, only 200 words, and one a bit longer, up to 750 words. One may be about the topic of your choosing (provided it stays within the genre of magical realism) for the other I’d like you to include a surreal event. This could be something akin to a natural disaster, or something smaller and more dreamlike, or something beyond those possibilities of your own design. You can choose which length to apply to the prompt, either is okay with me.

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