I don’t talk about it much here, but my primary mode of writing is fiction. Except a month ago, I was convinced that I was going to give it up forever.
See, I was going through a really rough spot with my literary agent. Although he’d initially told me my novel only needed some minor polishing, he’d been sending me editorial letter after editorial letter for over a year. He’d started asking for changes that didn’t make sense, suggesting solutions without telling me what problems they were supposed to solve. Any writer is familiar with the inner critic–that little voice that whispers “this idea is dumb and YOU’RE dumb for having it!” when you’re trying to get a draft onto paper–and mine was growing increasingly loud. “Your agent won’t like this,” the voice kept saying. “Don’t bother putting that in, he’ll just make you take it out!” It was getting harder and harder to write.
And this wasn’t even the first problem I’d ever had with an agent. 10 years ago, while still a naive student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I’d let an incompetent agent sweet-talk me into signing with her and then watched her run my writing career into the ground. (Her actual words when I fired her: “I hope you don’t think your book didn’t sell because of anything that I did.”) I eventually formed a micropress to put out my first novel and Booklist gave it a nice review, but I was left wounded and wary. So when things started going south with my new agent and my second novel, I expected the worst.
I tried to address my agent’s concerns in his fourth editorial letter, but eventually I started to burn out, and my manuscript had lain untouched for weeks when I began to feel like I just wanted to give up writing fiction altogether. I hadn’t actually enjoyed it for months. Maybe it just wasn’t worth it anymore. On the morning that I decided to fire my agent and give up, I parked my car at work and sat inside crying for almost an hour. Telling stories had been an integral part of myself for decades. Giving it up felt like carving a part of myself out and throwing it away.
But then some interesting things began to happen.
That morning, after my cry, I went into the office to find a message waiting for me from one of my MFA classmates. “You probably don’t remember me,” it said, “but I’m in LA and I was wondering if you want to start a writing group.”
I stared at the message, astounded. My writing group had dissolved a few months earlier, when half of its members moved to the Pacific Northwest. “Of course,” I replied. “I’d love to.” We made plans.
A few days later, I heard from another old classmate–this time, someone from my undergraduate days. We’d been in a fiction workshop together and I’d always admired her pink hair and fey demeanor. She had Lyme Disease and it had destroyed her vocal cords, so she only spoke in a whisper. One day, in workshop, she told us that she’d had a burgeoning career as a professional singer when she got sick. She’d been cutting an album and auditioning for Broadway shows. The unfairness of it–the massive, horrific unfairness–had always stuck with me, and I still thought of her from time to time well into my 30s.
Well, the message she sent me was a Facebook invite to like her band, for which she’s the lead singer.
She still has no vocal cords. The band is called Erosian Exile, a name that comes from her sense of being exiled from her creative passion and her efforts to find her way back to it. I listened to a couple of songs. Her voice is whispery, but she’s definitely singing.
If she could sing without any vocal cords, I thought, then maybe I could find my way back from my own exile. But I still couldn’t bring myself to open the manuscript.
Finally, I received my third sign that it wasn’t time to give up on my fiction. Jason Mankey, the Patheos Pagan editor, asked us if anyone wanted to review T. Thorn Coyle’s new book on sigil magic, and I volunteered. But when the book arrived, I saw that it wasn’t just on sigil magic–it was on sigil magic for writers and artists.
All right, all right, I thought to the universe. Sheesh, I get the message.
So I formed a plan. I’d read the book, work the magic, and then open that goddamn file on my computer.
I’ll admit, I finished the book with mixed feelings. Coyle’s magical practices, as always, are solid. Early in the book, she describes a process for building and refining your intention for spellwork–something that, as an anxious, chronically second-guessing person, I always struggle with–and I found it transformative. What do I truly want and need from my writing? To produce good work? To get published? To receive praise? To feel satisfied? After going through Coyle’s process, I was able to hone my intention until it resonated deeply. I plan to use the process for all my big spellwork in the future, whether or not I’m working with sigils or doing writing-related magic.
Her sigil techniques are eye-opening, too. When I first learned sigil magic, I learned the crossing-out method, which she discusses. However, by taking us through her process for creating a sigil, she demonstrates some methods that had never occurred to me to try. For instance, if you’ve chosen to leave vowels in and you’re left with an overabundance of letters, you may find that one word or phrase is left more or less intact–and that phrase on its own can act as your sigil. Looking at her example, it occurred to me that the intact word or phrase will most likely be at the beginning of any intention (since you cross out repeating letters), which speaks to the importance of starting your intention off strong. “I create” (I creat) will make a bigger impact than “I want to create” (I want o cre).
Although I loved the magical theory, though, Coyle’s writing advice is strange and dogmatic. For instance, twice in the book she claims that a morning ritual is essential to a creative life:
If I’m in the habit of getting out of bed upon waking and doing some practices that center me, and then sitting down to write with a cup of tea, that shows my willingness to create. This habit bolsters my will. If, on the other hand, upon waking, I check Facebook, or immediately start answering emails in order to put out fires that arose in the night, I signal that I’m not in touch with a willingness to write, or paint, or engage in other creative acts. My wish to create is just a thought, not backed up by action. I have no will to create.
No matter when we schedule our creative time, what we do in the morning is key to our success (128).
Witchcraft and other magical practices can be powerful and even life-changing. But those of us who use them can overcomplicate our lives by convincing ourselves that we’re powerless to accomplish a goal without this or that accompanying ritual. I’ve been around writers for my entire adult life–as an undergraduate creative writing major, a student at Iowa, a member of a writing group made up of published writers–and I can assure you that the vast majority of successful writers do what they do without a formal centering practice in the morning. (Well, the poets at Iowa did have some sort of morning ritual, but it usually occurred around 2 a.m. and involved big snowdrifts of cocaine.) Personally, the most fruitful writing periods in my own life have have happened to coincide with the periods during which I was doing the least amount of meditative and magical work. Everyone’s different.
If a morning ritual helps your creative process, then obviously that’s what you should be doing. But if you truly enjoy starting the day with Facebook, or you can’t afford to just let those fires burn while you ignore your email–or, say, if your kid runs into your bedroom at 5 a.m. and won’t get out of your face until she’s at preschool–then don’t let the purists tell you that you’re undermining your entire day’s creative work by not doing what they do.
Also troubling was Coyle’s dismissal of “writer’s block”–her scare quotes, not mine. She writes that writer’s block “is really just a term we use instead of talking about our insecurity and fear” (89). I found it baffling that Coyle felt comfortable making a claim like this. Any serious writer knows that writer’s block can occur for many different reasons. For me personally, it most often signals that I’m hurrying to start a project without letting the idea percolate enough, or that I’m forcing a story in a direction that’s not working, or making a character do something that doesn’t fit their personality or motivation. Sometimes a mild case just means that I’ve been sitting too long and I need to take a walk (after all, walking is proven to spur creativity). Of course fear, insecurity, despair, burnout, rejection, and other emotional states can frequently bring it on–see, for example, my entire situation above–but telling aspiring writers that writer’s block is just another word for fear can lead them on a wild goose chase, trying to track down the source of that supposed fear when really the problem is that their plot doesn’t make sense.
I finished Coyle’s book feeling like it would have been much stronger as a shorter work, perhaps an essay or book chapter; most of the content echoes her other writings and doesn’t deal directly with sigils or creating. But while I’d advise novice writers to take her writing advice with a massive grain of salt (and read classic guides to writing like Bird By Bird, On Writing, or The Triggering Town while they’re at it), the magic really is effective.
When I finished the book, I took the intention I’d crafted and set to work creating and charging my sigil. Shortly after, I told a Facebook group I’m in about my writing problems and a friend of mine told me she’d send me a picture of a puppy if I opened the manuscript file. I did, and we started sending each other cute animal pictures in exchange for meeting our daily writing quotas. I plowed through that manuscript, finished my revisions in three weeks, and sent it to my agent with a firm email telling him that this was the final draft.
Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from him. Will he like the changes? Will editors be into the book? Will it get published? Will it sell? Of course there’s no way to know. The publishing industry is a beast that’s far outside of my control. While I wait, I’m taking a break from fiction to work on the latest issue of my zine and do research for a novel that’s on deck. I’m trying not to think about it too much.
But when the time comes to go back to it? You bet I’ll have my sigil ready.
Featured image: Jewish amulet texts from Jewish Magic and Superstition by Joshua Trachtenberg, public domain