Storytelling, dreams, and magic

Life in Truth (as opposed to the “life actual” world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.” – Jane Yolen in “Touch Magic”

MRbloghop2016When we wake up from a dream, we’re aware of the fact that we didn’t realize we were dreaming while we were dreaming, but accepted what was happening as real no matter how improbable it seems in the light of day. Daydreams are somewhat the same. We’re imagining surfing in Hawaii or climbing Mt. Everest when somebody says, “you look like you’re a thousand miles away.”

Authors hope readers will react to their books like this. We want the reader to step into the story and, as the words flow forward along the pages, believe a little or a lot that the story is real. When a book is compelling, readers are often startled when the phone rings or somebody knocks on the front door and they find themselves back in “life actual” in somewhat the same way they react when they wake up from a compelling dream.

It’s said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that when stories contain human interest and a semblance of truth, readers will temporarily suspend their judgement about the implausibility of the plot, setting and characters. Readers willingly suspend their disbelief and see the novel, short story, play or movie as life actual rather than life in truth.

A general fiction author will take us to a real place, or at least a realistic place, in our own comfortable domain of life actual (sometimes called “consensual reality”) and tell us a story that could happen (or might have happened) in the “real world.” (I put “real world” in quotation marks because both Quantum physicists and spiritual gurus have called into question whether the world we perceive as real is real.)

Contemporary fantasy authors will take you to a hidden place within the world we know where magical events occur. The Harry Potter series is a good example of this. Most of the magic within Rowling’s books was confined to Hogwarts and other magical locations. The consensual reality at Hogwarts was different from the consensual reality in London, and both readers and wizards knew that they were traveling between parts of the world with different rules.

perception2Magical realism authors bring magic into the world we know. In a magical realism story, the magic is part of the characters’ everyday life and is accepted as just as real and viable as the cars they drive and the pots and pans in their kitchens.  The characters don’t see magic as something with the world “maybe” attached to it whether that magic comes from the land, from ancestors or spirits, or from the spell casting or innate abilities of the people involved.

The authors of general fiction (or realistic genres), contemporary fantasy, and magical realism all want readers to suspend their natural disbelief in the reality presented in the novel, and accept it as real in the same way they accept dreams and daydreams as real. In some ways, readers are like those who go up on stage during a hypnotist’s or magician’s performance and say, “Yes, I’m willing to be hypnotized” or “Yes, I’m willing to be fooled by your illusions.”

Perception is Reality

Storytellers, hypnotists and stage magicians (illusionists) can place you into somewhat of a dream state in which you accept what’s happening as real because we believe that perception is reality in one or more of these ways:

  • Psychologists might say you see the same reality as everyone else, but are impacted by it differently because of how you feel about it or yourself.
  • Quantum physicists might say that reality is more than we perceive with our physical senses and that our thoughts or our presence impact it in ways we may not realize.
  • Those who study and accept what used to be called “new age” belief systems will say that our perception and our thoughts create the reality we experience and that we can be taught how to do this consciously.
  • And others will say that our perception of what is real can changed temporarily due to hypnosis, strong emotions or other traumas, alcohol or drugs, or some other life actual cause.

When it comes down to it, most authors don’t think about “perception is reality” while they’re writing. Learning one’s craft brings authors the techniques they need to tell a page-turning story that readers perceive as real while they’re reading it. Most of us want to be tricked one way or another when we watch a hypnotist’s or a stage magician’s performance. We don’t usually think about being tricked or enchanted or hypnotized when we pick up a novel, but that’s what happens if the story on that novel’s pages is well told.

Magical Realism or Just Plain Realism?

I see the world as a child of the new age. I’ve had arguments with publishers about whether my novels and short stories should be called general fiction or magical realism because I believe everything in my stories is real. But, publishers, bookstores and readers tend to like seeing the genre labels because those labels help them choose the ways they like being hypnotized or enchanted (in a magical sense) by an author.

What do you see?
What do you see?

I’ve always written about the world I perceive. Until others pointed it out, I didn’t realize I was writing magical realism. I had to ask, “What makes my stories fit into that genre?” Publishers, editors and writing gurus kept telling me, “You and your characters. . .”

  1. View the spell for creating a pillar of fire or jinxing a troublesome neighbor as no different than a recipe for mac and cheese.
  2. Assume haints and other spirits are just as likely to be in the forest as deer and raccoons.
  3. Give myths and legends just as much credence as recorded history–or suggest they’re more accurate
  4. Think trees, rocks, storms and the land itself are conscious.

I said, “Yes, of course I perceive everything that way. Doesn’t everyone?”

As it turned out, most other people don’t share my perception of reality in their day-to-day lives; however, enough of them like being lured into short stories and novels with that kind of perception to make magical realism a popular genre.

I think I was the last to know.

The world as we know it draws lines between our dreams and our waking hours, between illusion and five-senses perception, between magic and non-magic, and between life actual and life in truth. Magical realism takes away all those lines.


This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button for a list of other blogs in the hop. Links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

Magical Realism: betwixt and between

MRbloghop2015In folklore, mythology and fantasy, and real or acted-out rites of passage, the boundaries where worlds meet are variously considered volatile, dangerous and rich in possibilities. Why is a bride carried over the threshold? Yes, it’s traditional, but it harkens back to the notion that a doorway was a dangerous boundary.

Myths and superstitions have flourished around the doorways, thresholds, crossroads, the littoral between ocean and beach, the lines where forests and meadows meet, dusk and dawn, and other dividing lines between realities.

You’ll find these “uncertain places”—as Lisa Goldstein calls them in her fantasy by that name—referred to as “neither here nor there” and “betwixt and between.”

herothousandfacesIn his groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes that in the hero’s journey, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Strategic points in this journey occur where worlds and realities meet.

Even in a contemporary fantasy such as the Harry Potter series, the magic of Hogwarts is distinguished from the unknown and potentially darker magic of the forest. However, as Luke in Star Wars and Harry in Rowling’s series learn, the hero doesn’t grow within, much less advance on the physical part of his/her journey without going into the swamp, the dark forest, or the unknown world outside the city gates.

Magical Realism

Magical realism usually focuses upon the boundaries between the worlds of the known and the unknown. The stories combine the natural and the supernatural in a straightforward manner and without commentary or judgement as equally real. Characters dance back and forth across the “uncertain places” as the stories progress.

In a fantasy novel, the characters approach and enter supernatural worlds while noting they’re stepping into realms that are acknowledged as magical, different or strange. In a magical realism novel, events or places that readers may consider supernatural are, by contrast, accepted by the characters as no more or less real than the everyday science and technology world in place at the time when the novel is set.

MamaDayGloria Naylor’s novel “Mama Day” is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of realms. Her first novels, The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills took a realistic approach. However, in writing Mama Day, Naylor said, “I needed to find a way structurally to have you walk a thin line between that which is real and that which is not real.”

New York City in this novel represents the real. The fictional Willow Springs, on an island near the Georgia and South Carolina border represents what—in our consensual everyday reality—is not real. Writing in Challenging Realities: Magical Realism in Contemporary American Women’s Fiction, Maria Ruth Noriega Sanchez says that Naylor’s novel is an “extraordinary exploration of the intangible and the power of belief that brings into question the limits or reality and truth.”

Naylor’s approach to magic in Mama Day can be seen in my favorite passage from the novel: “She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four.”

If this were written in a realistic novel, Naylor would have produced something more like this: “She could purportedly walk through a lightning storm without being touched; imagine grabbing a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; or appear to use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. In her dreams, she turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four in her mind’s eye.”

waterforchocolateRealism demands the qualifying words and phrases. Magic realism omits them and keeps the reader guessing and unsettled about what is really happening in the uncertain realms that are betwixt and between.

In this passage from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, “Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame,” the reader finds no “as if,” “as though,” or other qualifiers to indicate the event is figurative—because it isn’t. How you react to that as a reader depends on how you see the world and/or on how well the author has enchanted you to see things differently while reading the book.

In Mark Helprin’a Winter’s Tale, Peter Lake is riding Athansor, a guardian angel in the form of a horse: “They got up steam and proceeded calmly to the north – where there seemed to be no people, but only mountains, lakes, reedy winterstalecoversnow-filled steppes, and winter gods who played with storms and stars.” Here again, the winter gods are mentioned as matter of factly as the mountains and lakes.

When initiates go through a ritual, they begin with the everyday world and end up transformed in some way. The place where these two stages meet is often called “liminality.” Here the initiate is not quite who s/he was and not quite who s/he will become.

Early studies in this area were done by Arnold van Gennep, who coined the word, in his 1909 book Rites de Passage. Folklore, myth, fairytales and stories following the “hero’s journey” typically involve plots ritesofpassageand scenes that are similar to rites of passage. The protagonist is buffeted by storms, monsters, magic forces, conscious landscapes and other dangers during his/her physical and inner journey to the intended destination.

Magical realism lives at that liminal point, leaving the reader with one foot over the threshold and one foot in the comfortable world s/he knows. Unsettling as this can be, that’s the genre’s greatest strength—a cauldron of worlds where stories simmer and readers become part of the spell.

You may also like: Just starting out? Beware of Magical Realism


This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.

Dreams, Inspirations and Trees

Welcome to the Malcolm’s Round Table edition for the Sleigh Bells and Inkwells Blog Hop


Muir Woods - NPS photo

“When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?” –   Seneca

I love forests, especially coniferous forests.

Two of my earliest memories of forests are polar opposites. I saw the towering redwoods of Muir Woods and rode through an Oregon forest fire before I was in the first grade. Forest imprinting, I think: those early moments when I first experienced the beauty and wisdom of trees as well as the pain of their destruction.

The blue-grey aura of a tree is larger than the tree.

When one walks through a forest, s/he cannot help but touch the overlapping souls of the redwoods, firs or cedars gathered there. When I stop by the woods on a snowy evening or come to myself in a dark wood, I think of John Muir saying that “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

In a forest, I am within the spirits of the trees and within myself. At Yule, the ancient traditions bring the deity into the house with the greenery, creating a sanctuary of scents and spirits around the decorated tree, the boughs lying along the mantel, the wreaths greeting and guarding at doorways and the holly in the center of the table. As a child sneaking through the darkened living room on Christmas Eve, I strongly felt the watchful presence of the blue spruce waiting for the happy morning. I still do.

limber pine

As I wondered what I should write for a Sleigh Bells and Inkwells post, trees came to mind as the perfect subject. I wasn’t surprised. Trees have always found a way to live in my writing.

The cast of characters in my novels isn’t limited to the two-legged creatures—Gem, Robert, David, Siobhan—who walk between the pages. My favorite trees have made sure they also had roles to play. The Sun Singer features spruce, whitebark pine and a grandfather oak. Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey contains multiple worlds of cottonwood, boxelder, lodgepole pine, cypress and rowan. Sarabande includes cottonwood and a limber pine next to the River of Sky. My love of trees fills my stories, even in the action sequences such as this one in “Sarabande:”

Sarabande wedged herself between two branches of a floating cottonwood deadfall as the Mni Sose [the Missouri River] approached a bridge at the western edge of a reservoir. The relative calm she had experienced while passing the high canyons and breaks topped by Ponderosa Pine slipped away as the water eddied into twisted shapes beneath the cloud draped moon. She felt watched. The tree caught briefly on the bridge pier closest to the center of the river. Then she saw the silhouette of Danny Jenks’s truck. The velvet drapery of spider webs between the piers transformed into a trot line. When she screamed, one of the hooks caught inside her mouth and was jerked tight, piercing her cheek. She was pulled away from her river and raised up through a tender breeze that carried in its heart the cries of owls and nighthawks.

For 43 years, one book has always remained accessible on the bookshelves in all the towns I’ve lived in since it was published: Tallahassee, Syracuse, San Francisco, Waukegan, Zion (IL), Indianapolis, Rome (GA), Smyrna (GA), Marietta (GA), Norcross (GA), Jefferson (GA), and it is simply called Trees. Andreas Feinniger’s cover photograph reminds me that even though the aura of a “dead” tree is mostly gone, the tree remains wise, and bids those who come and go to sit and lean against its old trunk and listen.

When I find myself in the presence of redwoods on a foggy morning, subalpine fir around a lake on a sunny high country afternoon, or a snowy woods that are, as Robert Frost wrote, “lovely, dark and deep,” I am always called to stay even though I, too, still have promises to keep on my writer’s journey.

Thank you for stopping by my figurative forest today. Now, to continue your festive blog hop journey, click here to visit author T. K. Thorne.

Your trip also includes posts by:

Smoky Zeidel

Patricia Damery

Debra Brenegan

Anne K. Albert

Elizabeth Clark-Stern

Collin Kelley

Sharon Heath

Melinda Clayton

Ramey Channell

Leah Shelleda

How to tell the difference between a blog hop and the bunny hop

This post is presented as a public service after a barrage of text messages coming in to the Malcolm’s Round Table International Headquarters indicated that a lot of people were scared. The problem arose over the letters BH. Today, they stand for blog hop.
Years ago, they stood for bunny hop. But now: In a text message, BH 2nite? led many people to believe they were supposed to meet up on the dance floor. After Googling Bunny Hop, people stated (for the record) that they’d rather be caught dead than caught doing the bunny hop.

Quite understandable.

Even during the heyday of the bunny hop in the 1950s, most of the guys leaning up against the walls of the gym where most high school hops (dances) were held screamed “oh no!” whenever the bunny hop got started.

It snaked all around the dance floor picking up wallflowers as it went. At my high school, it was always led, started or planned by the feisty lady who led the pep rallies and the cheerleading squad. I think she was a Navy SEAL with a smile.

Okay, here it is

Bunny: Snakes around a high school dance floor.

Blog: Snakes around the Internet.

Bunny: Imprints the addictive music in your head for weeks and for the rest of your life maybe, returning in your dreams to haunt you.

Blog: Brings you (hopefully) an exciting series of posts as you hop from blog to blog hearing only the music of your choice from your MP3 player.


Bunny: Forced you to grab the butt (often appropriately) of the person ahead of you in line (see picture) while tapping the floor with one foot, then the other, then leaping backward, then forward.

Blog: According to the Federal government, blog hops are coverened by a section in the code that proclaims: Mama don’t allow no butt grabbing around here.

Bunny: Sometimes people got hurt.

Blog: Casualty free for years.

For a shining example of a blog hop with more class than this post, stop by on Friday, December 16th for the Sleigh Bells and Inkwells Blog Hop, featuring a baker’s dozen writers who will knock your socks off without forcing you to dance or remember frightening music.