One day I went to get my hair cut in Los Angeles at a little place I’d found on La Cienega, across from a big newsstand. Either I was early or the barber was running late, but I ended up with a few minutes to kill. The only thing near the shop was a porn palace and an occult supply store. At the moment occult supplies seemed more appealing than the two and three-foot rubber latex dildoes on display through the open door, mysteriously standing on end, gently waving welcome as they swayed in the breeze.
The occult shop next door was a small storefront, worn glass-topped counters inside filled with the usual mixture of herbs, bones, fang and claw, silvery athame daggers, ceremonial bells, wall shelves filled with books on Wiccan witchcraft to Satanism, and everything magical in between. Two blonde young women stood at the counter talking to the owner or manager, in their early twenties, looked like out-of-towners rather than true practitioners, enchanted and a little scared by their dip into forbidden waters.
The man behind the counted took full advantage of their wide-eyed wonder to enjoy the attention. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, gray hair and bearded, he looked more like an aging hippie than a mystic sage, but good enough for the girls, who hung on his every word.
“There are five laws of magic,” he said as convincingly as Vincent Price at his best. “To want, to will, to know, to dare...and to keep silent.”
They sighed in awe as he explained what he meant by each. You had to want the result badly enough to act, you had to will it into being, you had to know how to do it, dare to do it and not blab to everyone what you’re doing every step of the way until what you want is a reality.
All in all, the rules of writing.
I’ve always considered writing to be like magic -- a mighty power capable of great transformation, but risky if misused. Other comparisons apply -- more than one witch or writer has been burned at the stake for their work; many have been damned by their peers or society for doing what they believed in. Neither is particularly rewarding, except in rare cases. Both are solitary, except when performed with others, in a coven or writing workshop.
Writing is also filled with obscure rituals and regulations that govern your performance. Are some of the rules of grammar any less mystifying that which night to gather ingredients of a spell? Is the sense of power in mastering their use any less exciting? I remember reading fairy tales as a child, then science fiction and fantasy, and as the words of my favorite tales unlocked mysteries about life and the universe to me in veiled metaphor, I felt no less empowered than the sorcerer’s apprentice opening his master’s book of spells and waving his magic wand.
Years later, I’ve found a whole new magic in writing, more from the perspective of the grizzled mage than apprentice, but with experience comes a whole new appreciation of the power of words and more importantly, of story. I have thought back on that day in L.A. many times over the years, reminded myself of the rules of magic as I hesitate to make the leap into a new book or story, or felt lost on the path once begun.
I reaffirm my purpose, my desire to do the thing, remind myself why I started in the first place, how I started it, and push myself to move forward until the way is smooth again. Complaining perhaps, working out ideas as I go on fellow writers or fiends, but refraining from doing what I did once -- telling the whole story to people before it is written down. Keep silent -- there is one true telling of any tale, and if you don’t capture it in its fullness before you present it to an audience, you risk losing the impetus, the energy to write it all out properly. So make it magic, make it whatever it takes to do it. If ritual helps you to write, do it. I put on soft music, light candles, wear loose comfy clothes and cut off the phone. It works for me to date my muse, for you it may be loud disco and flashing lights.
I recently told an aspiring writer that writing is like having a lover -- you get what you put into the relationship. And that is true of magic as well. Commit to the act, put your heart and soul into it, whether ethereal or aesthetic, or you’ll never make your mark on the world. No one ever accomplished anything by just wishing for it, not even magic.
If I've learned anything by now, it's that both take work, and it’s hard work and only hard work that brings rewards in anything.