“Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word ‘spell.’ As the Roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word ‘spell, which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on a new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over the entity, to summon it forth. To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell, to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled.”
– David Abram in “The Spell of the Sensuous.”
The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is rather false. Consider the sound-bite phrases and misleading comments in the current Presidential campaign alone that, once said, become gospel. Consider perjury in a courtroom, verbal bullying in a school, highly messaged government-speak, dear john letters, exaggerations on product labels and advertising, and phrases from religious books that are taken out of context. The pen and the voice really are mightier than the sword, the stick, or the stone.
In my Sun Singer’s Travels blog, I recently posted “What the hell are these important writers talking about?” Primarily, this was a rant about the obscure (and possibly gibberish) discussions between some writers and some interviewers that make no sense whatsoever to most readers and natural writers. By natural writers, I mean those who discover their stories as they write and, while they usually know the ins and outs of style and technique, they don’t look upon words as requiring a doctoral dissertation to set down on the page in a story.
If a writer creates elaborate outlines, s/he also may write organically while putting words on the page if s/he uses the outline as a rough guide rather than a recipe to be followed precisely. Personally, I think outlines get in the way of the story, though that’s simply my approach.
Hoodoo Reading the Bones
Traditional conjurers (also called hoodoo practitioners or root doctors) often use a form of divination called “reading he bones” to obtain answers to questions for themselves or their clients. Possum and chicken bones are often used; others (as the picture shows) add other objects such as stones, nuts and shells.
While some conjurers paint or number the bones, assign a meaning to each one–like the meanings assigned to individual Tarot cards–others throw the bones into a small circle drawn in the dirt (see picture here) and listen for the voices of their ancestors who were also conjurers. As with Tarot card readers who are advanced enough to forget the descriptions of each card that they read in a book, conjurers reading the bones may variously say they’re using their intuition, tapping into their inner selves, or hearing the voices of the “old ones” in their lineage.
In short, they use the bones as they view them on the ground as catalysts for channeling information from outside themselves. You can’t do this unless you can step away from the logical “what-ifs” that come to mind when you ask the bones a question. Too much logic destroys a reading because the conjurer is thinking of typical speculative answers to the question (my missing spouse stayed late at work, got in a car wreck, ran away with a co-worker, forgot to tell me s/he had a dinner meeting, etc.) rather than listening for the ancestors or intuition to speak.
Writing with no outline–or a few sketchy ideas–is often called “discovery writing” because the writer discovers what the characters are going to do and say while writing rather than creating an outline or a list of scenes in advance. Many of us have a general idea what we’re going to do before we start writing. While writing “Conjure Woman’s Car,” for example, I knew that my main character was an old-style conjure woman living with her cat in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s. I also knew that the Klan was going to do something bad and she was going to respond with hoodoo (folk magic).
Other than that, the story evolved as I told it. In a sense, my muse, my intuition, and even the developing characters “decided” what was going to happen next. When I finished a scene or a chapter, suddenly the thing that was going to happen next came to mind. I supported my intuition by reading a lot about conjurers, spells and related blues songs. Quite often, I’d learn what was going to happen next in my story by the “coincidental” reading of a certain conjuring practice or a historical KKK tactic.
I like to think that when a writer is using discovery writing, s/he is following a practice very similar to the traditional conjurer who throws the ones and listens for the voices of her ancestors for the answer. The conjure woman asks a question and allows the process to create the answer. The discovery writer asks “What If,” listens for the voice of his “muse” and or his unconscious mind and allows the writing process to create the story.
We are, in this way, attempting to cast a spell in the sense David Abram suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. No, we are not using words to “force” our readers to write us large checks or leave town or change their political beliefs. We’re using words to cast a spell called a story that claims the reader’s imagination from the first word through “the end.”
When the short story or novel comes out well, we’re often praised for our imaginations. That’s okay, but really, our ability is simply to listen and record what we hear. When the story or novel doesn’t turn out well, we probably stepped in the way of the natural process and tried to plan or micro-manage the action down one road or another where it didn’t belong.
At best, we’re conjurers who know as our experience grows how to establish a process that works. Those who read the bones know that they get better results when they wash and dry the bones before throwing them on an animal hide or into a circle. They know not to touch the bones with their hands but to use a stick. Likewise, writers know what conditions make it easier for them to write: some listen to music; others like the background sounds of a natural setting or a coffee shop. Whatever conjurers and writers typically do when they work evolves into rituals that support hearing the true answer to the question or hearing where the story needs to go.
Answers and stories live and breathe on their own. If we have a talent, it’s being able to keep out of the way.