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Finding the Magic

August 3, 2011

In last week’s blog, Sandy Cody wrote about using the beginning of her novel and its inciting incident to develop plot. She’s writing about the craft of writing fiction.  I love advice about craft because it gives a writer something concrete to hang her hat on and, as writers, we need that.  The other side of craft is what Carl Sessions Stepp in his book Writing as Craft and Magic calls “magic” and that part is equally important. 

In her wonderful biography Louisa May Alcott (2010), Susan Cheever writes “there is a mystery to what brings sparkle and power to something as simple as a line of words on a page.”  This doesn’t always mean that the work a writer favors has that indefinable magic; sometimes we can be pretty clueless when we’re producing something magical.   For example, Alcott cared most (at least at first) about her “blood and thunder” tales but they brought her limited recognition and, reading them today, they don’t exactly stand the test of time.  By contrast she was unenthusiastic about starting her domestic novel concerning four sisters growing up poor during the Civil War.  She was pressured by her editor and overpowering philosopher father to attempt the truth-based novel.  As she embarked on the task she wrote “May prove interesting, though I doubt it” in her journal.   As always in need of income to support her family, she took a stab at the project and . . . voila!  . . . she produced her breakthrough novel – the one that would bring her the 19th century equivalent of rock-star fame.  In the words of Cheever, the novel (actually part of a trilogy) “is the mother of the modern memoir.”  Why so much fame for this novel?  And why was Alcott so clueless about what she had produced?

First of all, it was a breakthrough because it was so simple told, so true to life.  And it does stand the test of time; Little Women has inspired more women writers than perhaps any other American novel. Perhaps Alcott wanted to veer from writing something so close to the truth, yet once she began writing the book it came easily to her.  Sometimes a writer may want to avoid what cuts too close to the bone.  The words reveal too much and are too important — maybe so important that the writer shies away.

Cheever writes, “Writers often write their best when they are feeling their worst.  Sometimes subjects they would rather avoid elicit their finest prose.  Writers rarely know what alchemy of time, place, and mood will find their truest voice.  If they write every day, it’s because they do not know which days are the ones that count. Louisa May Alcott was no exception.”

Another reason to write every day.  Because we don’t know which days the magic will occur!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 7:27 AM

    Good advice, Gretchen, especially that last line.

  2. Sharen Ford permalink*
    August 4, 2011 12:59 PM

    I loved this, Gretchen. LMA (or rather Jo) was certainly my inspiration, and I shall be using your words to help me get back to my writing.

  3. Gretchen Haertsch permalink*
    August 6, 2011 7:25 AM

    So good to hear this from you, Sharen! Susan Cheever’s biography of Alcott is wonderful — I highly recommend it, especially for writers like us who are big fans of Alcott. By the end of the book I felt like I knew Alcott in a different way and understood her better. I did my graduate thesis on Alcott and her domestic novels so I’m pretty well-versed on her life, but this book was a revelation. And yes, you must get back to your writing post haste!

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