core magic, art’s caprice

Diablogue is an ugly word. Like most words that have come out of the e-era.

Blog, for instance. Doesn’t that just sound like some horrible squelching sound you hear much, much too close for comfort in the shadows while you’re running for dear life amid the gaping quagmires of the Forbidden Moor?

First Guy Waiting for a Bus: “I blog occasionally.”

Second Guy Waiting for a Bus: “I’m sorry. I glup sometimes when I’m not feeling well.”

[Exeunt, pursued by a shoggoth]

That’s an aside.

Such words, while horrible, are useful. I mention diablogue because I am officially in one. Jenna St. Hilaire of A Light Inside has continued our running—er, diablogue—on How Not to Write. In her latest contribution, Jenna picked up my idea of reading great writers as the key to great writing, and took a more personal angle:

[T]here’s one thing that seems to me at least as important as keeping current with the newly published. For myself, I consider it more important and feel compelled to give the majority of my reading time to it, even when–especially when–I am absorbed in the writing process. That one crucial need is to re-read, repeatedly and obsessively, the stories that have mattered the most to me.

If I become a published novelist, this will be my secret to success: that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Austen’s books, Narnia and That Hideous Strength, Little White Horse, and Speaker for the Dead. I’ve read them until I can almost play back whole sections of the text in my mind, till the worlds are my homes-away-from-home and the characters are my close friends and the authors’ voices have irreversibly influenced my own.

There is, Jenna says, a ‘core magic’ to stories that speaks to the heart of the reader, that touches a place of passion and wonder, and opens the imagination to a revelation of beauty. Jenna returns to books that created in her that ‘state of wonder’ (to use Glenn Gould’s phrase), because ‘those books did for me what I want mine to do for others.’

One point on which Jenna and I entirely agree is that there must be a wider aim writing fiction than simply catering to the existing market. To a certain extent, if we want to write at all we have to pay attention to what the market is doing. (Grim and terrible things lately.) But we none of us write alone. We write in symphony, as it were, with the writers of the past—literature’s, and our own.

Why do these stories move us? What is it about this book, and not another, that strikes us? Why, at that moment of reading, was my spirit caught in sudden ecstasy, or overwhelming sorrow, or both?

I remember standing in the Art Institute of Chicago and glimpsing, over the shoulders of several tourists, Van Gogh’s self portrait. It was a punch in the emotional gut. I celebrate the Eucharist and keep Shabbat, but that moment still remains one of the most poignantly lucid spiritual experiences of my life.


A similar moment occurred when I walked down the green road to Ixopo among the hills, lovely beyond any singing of it. When I sat beside Asher Lev and watched the Brooklyn Crucifixion flood the canvas beneath the quick strokes of his brush. When I sat with Sam and Frodo on the spur of the mountain at the end of all things, and was glad to be with them. When a gentle hand pushed me back through the mirror and found myself once again in my father’s library. When Dobby died in my arms.


We don’t know. As a literary critic, it’s hard for me to admit that. It implies that some things simply cannot be analyzed. We can talk about it—we love to talk about it—and argue and assess and rate and review—but we have been changed in a way we can’t quite understand. Perhaps we never will. That is the caprice of art, its mystique. It’s the longing to understand that caprice that drives us to create art ourselves. This is one area—and there are many—that writing holds in common with all Art.

There is a fine line, and it’s growing finer, between writing what is true, what is beautiful, what is Art, and writing what can sell, what a voracious market devours. So much of what the market produces leaves those of us questing for truth through beauty nauseated and weary.

That does not rid us of our obligation to speak creative words into the world, to reach toward that state of wonder. It may, in face, exacerbate it—Tolkien and Lewis famously started writing fiction because of their disgust with the 1930’s-1940’s literary scene. We return, as Jenna rightly suggests, to those places where we have seen ‘’a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’, because we want to redraw them, to re-imagine them, to help others see the same. [Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1947)]

I’m reminded of Rowan Williams’s observation that story ‘is particularly powerful in springing us from the traps we set ourselves; getting us out of the clichés in which we imprison ourselves; taking us into another world or several other worlds. A world where we don’t yet know the end of our story and where the categories and conventions we’ve been taking for granted don’t automatically apply.’

As artists and as storytellers, we are called to break the structures of the surrounding world—even of our own industry—to challenge those truisms that everyone in our generation just accepts without thinking, to write stores that move and entrance and lead us into worlds where the ending is uncertain, the questions anguishing, but beauty is powerful and hope is real.

Call me an idealist if you will, but even though I know how aggressive the publishing industry has become, how much it’s becoming media instead of art, I still think that there will be room for those who write from that place of passion, who write out of that centre, that vision, and whose writings create wonder and hope in the hearts of others.

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in this business.

Previous Conversation:

A Light Inside: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Paradoxes: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
A Light Inside: How Not to Write

6 thoughts on “core magic, art’s caprice

  1. Sweet.

    There are so many good thoughts in this that it’s hard to pick out a few and respond to them. But I agree that “So much of what the market produces leaves those of us questing for truth through beauty nauseated and weary.” That makes me think of the post-Twilight vampire boom. I loved Twilight, despite the imperfect writing, because it gave me something of that “fleeting glimpse of joy.” That joy didn’t have anything to do with vampires, and the other vampire stuff I’ve seen looks–from the descriptions, anyway–too sickening to bear.

    “It’s the longing to understand that caprice that drives us to create art ourselves.”

    True, true. It’s chasing dreams and rainbows, but that’s what we do.

    Loved your “similar moments.” I could sympathize with at least three of them.

    Also, the ending paragraph and line. Well said. I think that as long as the industry seeks what will sell, it will be looking for the books that offer the spiritual experience, the wonder and hope. Those are few and far between compared to the books that sell merely because they’re thrilling or funny or romantic, but they’re there.

    You wrapped a lot of things up well, but I’ll think about a potential response.

  2. Thanks, Jenna. Of course, there’s much more to say and many more directions to go. I’ll look forward to reading your next contribution to this.

  3. You’re welcome. And I’m thinking. Might have something Monday.

    P.S. I forgot to note in my previous comment that “Exeunt, pursued by a shoggoth” made me laugh out loud. Also, I love Frank and Ernest.

  4. Pingback: writing theory, part 1 « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

  5. Pingback: writing theory, part 2 « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s