The Real and the Magical and Everything In Between

Friday, October 25th, 2013

dragon flightSo I’ve been taking a magical realism course at a local writing center. Once a week, I get to hang out with a group of about eight other writers and, led by a really great instructor, we discuss reading assignments like Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” (seriously, bookmark it for when you have five or seven minutes. It’s short but powerful.) and workshop each other’s stories.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, magical realism is a style of writing that incorporates magical elements but grounds them in the real world, where they’re not necessarily treated as extraordinary, but used to push the story forward and reveal/bring about change in the characters.

So to get us to started during our first class, we did this really great exercise (want to try it?) that involved us thinking of a magical element and pair it with a character.

Hence, I’m currently working on a short story about a graffiti artist who creates paintings as an offering to a sea dragon, but he fears for his life because the sea dragon keeps washing his work away, each time causing more and more danger to the artist and his town, and he can’t figure out what it is the dragon really wants from him.

Crazy, right? And fun. Although I’ve always loved reading magical realism, this is the first time I’ve tried writing it. The way it’s challenging me has shed some light on why and how I write.

When I’m working on a story or a scene, the moment it clicks for me is when it starts to feel real. Real enough that I can believe the character or the situation or whatever it is they’re feeling. If I look back at my last few works, they were all grounded in things I knew to be true—like my grandfather’s kidnapping, or an abandoned property my parents once owned—and having that as a starting point gave me permission to imagine everything and anything else.

We talk a lot about truth in fiction not needing to rely on facts. How as long as it feels real and stays loyal to some aspect of our human experience, there’s truth in it.

Working on this story, I find myself starting from a place so far beyond reality, I know it only exists on the page. It’s forcing me to redefine my criteria for truth, to let go of the idea that for something to feel real, I have to think it could actually happen.

Maybe the real magic is in the leap, in that moment when what’s most extraordinary isn’t something like an all-knowing toaster but the way a town reacts to it. And it’s not just in this one style of writing. In all fiction, there’s the real and the magical and everything in between.

Have you ever written magical realism? 

photo by: lecates

Why I Write Before I Wake

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

I am not a morning person, but when I write before sunrise I feel a connection to the story that I can rarely attain any other time of day.

The house is quiet. The world beyond my window and behind the computer screen is barely stirring. Most importantly, I’m not fully awake yet. A part of my brain is still dreaming. Its guard isn’t up. Thoughts that I might not even know I had are still out playing, vulnerable and exposed and ready to be plucked and put to paper. Aware, my mind is too logical, too much of a cynic, but when its barely wakening it’s not tethered to a world of absolutes. It dares to explore the grays of truth and language and metaphor, risks breaking the rules for the thrill of leaping over creative boundaries.

Nothing matters more than a world built by words in these moments. I write like I’m in a dream, and then later, I edit with my eyes open.

Some nights I set my alarm with the giddy anticipation of a teenager who’s just made a date with her biggest crush. I can’t wait to see the story again. Other times it’s a struggle; this week I actually sat up in bed, tucked myself back in, and slept. I resigned myself to having lost that battle and obsessed about it, sticky with guilt, all day.

Then night came, and a new morning.

The sun doesn’t care if I show up or not. But the days seem brighter when I do.

photo by: Axel-D

3 Ways the Olympics Reminds Me of the Writing Community

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

This past week and a half, my world has revolved around the Olympic games. I’m not ashamed to admit that I plan my workday around beach volleyball and diving and synchronized swimming, or my nights around gymnastics finals and more beach volleyball.

Poor E has actually suggested we go out a few times in the evening, and I’ve looked at him like he’s crazy: Go to the movies? But Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are playing tonight!


I’ll go as long as there’s a bar and a TV playing images of women flying through the air in questionably high-cut leotards and too much glitter on their eyelids.

I get like this every two years (thank goodness for the Winter Olympics—four years is seriously too long to wait). I can’t put my finger on exactly why I love the games so much, but in many ways, this year’s have reminded of our online writing community:

1. It’s a mile marker. Where were you when you watched the 1992 Barcelona games? The 2008 Beijing games? Because they only happen every four years, I remember each Olympics vividly; they seem to encapsulate certain eras in my life. Four years seems like a good amount of time to set a huge, life-defining goal and work towards it. Every Olympics we’re reminded of this by athletes who train tirelessly for four years only to have it pay off—or fall apart—in less than a second or with hundredths of a point. Win or lose, they inspire us to dream big, train one day at a time, and keep going even when reality brings heartbreaking disappointments.

2. It’s the stories that really get to me. Yes, I know pulling on our heartstrings is NBC’s intention, in which case I’m the easiest target ever. They understand the power of stories. They know, like all great writers know, that no one will care about a character’s journey if they don’t care about the character first. And while I have my favorite sports, I haven’t cheered louder than when I’ve cheered for an athlete who’s overcome some big struggle to win gold. I’ve gone from I couldn’t care less about the Men’s 400 m final to OMG Kirani James has to win this first gold EVER for Grenada because he has the biggest heart and he deserves this! in about three-hundredths of a second flat. Is there a medal for epic softie?

3. It’s the camaraderie that makes it all worthwhile. Yes, the athletes are competing against one another. Yes, some have been completely ungraceful when winning silver, of all things. But then you get a moment like this:

“Give me a hug, man. That was ridiculous!” — Sam Mikulak, congratulating fellow gymnasts even when he was no longer in place for a medal.

And all faith is restored in the world. That, my friends, is a beautiful heart and a pure love for the craft.

The Art of the Bound Book

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

When we think of book fairs, we usually think of authors, of stories, of the craft of writing and the signing of books. This weekend I went to a different kind of book fair: one that celebrated the physical book itself. No surprise that it was a completely hands-on experience. Guided by several bookmakers from the Austin Book Workers, I bound my own mini book, created book art, and even set some type.

While I had a crafts day with paper and ink, my husband took pictures documenting the whole thing. (Well, not the whole thing. It was a multi-sensory experience—imagine two artists’ studios filled with that musky book scent we all love so much.)

A part of me felt guilty for folding the pages of this book, so I made sure to handle it with care. The design was a fanning of the pages into folded hearts.

The book I chose was the Magna Carta; I loved the added richness of the patterned endsheets and how the edges of the pages were pink, which seemed appropriate for the heart design.











The end result:

I think I’ll put this on my desk and use the slots to display important notes or the occasional handwritten letter I receive.

I meandered over to the letterpress area and admired a table full of moveable type.

I loved the heaviness of the moveable type. Each letter had real weight; it was cold and sunk into my palm as I held it.

I chose to typeset my name and for once was glad I had a long one…I was enjoying the experience too much to have it go by quickly.

Tom (the owner of this beautiful letterpress) built a plate from my type and slid it into the machine. I just did the easy part; I pressed down on the handle.


I titled this picture, “Hooray, letterpress!” Yes, I was that excited.




















Even though the majority of books are no longer bound by hand, getting to know the process from start to finish was a wonderful way to appreciate the craft that goes into actual books. We mostly talk about the craft of writing, but a physical book is a work of art that we hold in our hands. We hold it close to us, we smell it. We admire its cover and the feel of the paper between our fingertips. We let it take up space along the walls of our home and next to our beds at night.

So this weekend, though nobody ever said it, the questions “Will this all go away soon? What will become of printed books?” hung in the air. Of course I don’t have the answer to that. I myself have a Kindle and I could write a whole post about why I only read certain things on it (but that’s just me).

What I did realize is that those of us who prefer paper books aren’t just sentimental and old-fashioned. It’s about much more than emotions; it’s about feeling an experience as completely as possible with touch, smell, and sight.

What Writers Can Learn From Mad Men & Their Dirty Little Words

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

This post was five seasons in the making, fermenting over the years as I’ve watched AMC’s Mad Men and been left speechless, over and over, by how well-written it is.

A warning: although I’m a couple episodes behind this season, this post may contain spoilers for those of you who haven’t caught up yet, either.

But there’s a moment in a recent episode of Mad Men that I just have to write about. Not just because the writing’s perfect, but because it shows what makes great writing. It’s all in the choices we make. The writers could’ve chosen to go one way. They went another. And that (as Robert Frost would say) has made all the difference.

To set it up, Sally, Don Draper’s pre-teen daughter, is tagging along to a gala in which her father is receiving an award. Don’s partner, Roger Sterling, is going solo, so he takes it upon himself to be Sally’s date. It’s adorable, and innocent, and throughout the night as Roger teases her about how she’s had too many “drinks,” how she needs to help him remember people’s names,  and how pretty she looks, it’s clear that Sally’s enjoying it. What little girl doesn’t want this kind of attention? She’s at that age where she’s anxious to be a woman, but too young to truly understand everything that comes along with it. She basks in the illusion of being the apple of Roger’s eye.

But of course there are other women at this party, and one in particular who clearly has her eyes on Roger. They drink, they flirt, they end up sneaking away to an empty room, where conveniently enough, there is a lone chair for Roger to sit back on and enjoy as the woman pleasures him. Poor Sally wanders off and catches them, then quietly sneaks away undetected and dumbfounded.

That evening, while everyone’s asleep, she calls a friend, her one true confidant. Since she’s staying with her dad in Manhattan, her friend asks how the city is. Sally answers with only one word.

“Dirty,” she says. And the episode ends there.

Most shows would’ve had that conversation play out very differently. They would’ve had Sally tell her friend about what she saw, and how it made her feel. But in one word the writers of Mad Men not only got it across, but they kept me thinking about it after the show was over. Days and weeks later.

Because they chose not to tell us everything, they left me with so much to think about. I admire this kind of writing because these choices aren’t easy to make. We wonder if we’re giving the reader (or viewer) enough when we go the subtle route. We worry that they’ll draw the wrong conclusion. If we don’t draw them a map, will they get to where we want them to go? But if we do, won’t it be a boring, unpredictable journey for them?

Great writing is carefully crafted to leave just the right amount of hints. But even then, not everyone will interpret them the same way. That’s part of the beauty of writing and being read: the work is a breathing thing, it’ll take on a life of its own (many lives) depending on who’s reading.

As writers we can only control how the story’s told, not how it’s read. We have to make a choice to focus on what we can control: the writing (always the writing).

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