What I Write About When I Write About Magic

I didn’t mean to be a writer who writes about magic. I have, though, lived my life assuming the possibility of magic. The world, after all, is wondrous and strange. It is incongruous, grimy, chaotic and odd. And that oddness permeates the air that we breathe, and the things that we touch and learn about, and even our very skin. It is the oddness that I cannot ignore and I cannot shake. It draws me again and again, to writing stories.

For example:

When I was a little girl, I had a recurring dream that I turned into a fish. In my dream, I wandered towards the nearest lake, and waded up to my knees, then my hips, then my chest. In my dream, my skin greened, then cooled, then became shiny and slick. I slid into the water, and, with a flick of my tail, swam away, leaving my abandoned nightgown floating midway between the surface and the sand. In my dream I thought fishy thoughts and sang fishy songs and dreamed fishy dreams. When I would wake up in the morning, my nightgown – quite damp – would be in a heap on the floor, and my lips would be rounded, holding an imagined bubble midway between my mouth and the air.

Was I a girl dreaming that I was a fish, or was I a fish dreaming that I was a girl?
Did I truly wade into the green water and slip away in a glint of fin and scale?

Was it enough to believe that I was a fish in order to be a fish?

I used to think it was. We believe a thing, and it is, you see. There is, I feel, a poetry to believing. And I believed then as I believe now. I was a poet from the first.

A few years ago, I started writing a book that would later be called The Mostly True Story of Jack. I was not intending to write a book about magic. Indeed, I was not intending to write a book at all. Instead, in my daily writing practice, I encountered – quite unexpectedly – a boy and his mother in a rental car, hurdling down a narrow road in rural Iowa, watching as the land stretched and rippled from the road to the sky, like a great, green quilt.

The land is magic in Iowa. This is common knowledge. Ask anyone you like.
The boy in the car, though, was an arrestingly singular fellow – his dark hair, his wide, sober eyes, his mouth pressed into a thin, long line – and I couldn’t look away.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am no one,” the boy replied. And he meant it too. This intrigued me. How could it not?

The boy was alone. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be alone!)
The boy was invisible. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be invisible!)

I had no interest in writing a novel, but compassion made me pause. I cared about this boy, you see. I cared a lot. So I built him a world.

I wrote about Jack. I observed him and followed him. And Jack, in turn, followed me. I saw Jack as he was, and Jack saw me, as I am. (And, quite frankly, I think at times he wasn’t impressed.)

There is a strange thing that happens to people as they slog through that arduous process of novel-making. The skin of the world we live in presses against the skin of the world we create. I built a world to act as a home for Jack. I created a story to give him people to love him, a place to hold him, an opportunity for heroism. Jack, in his way, turned his magic on me, and all sorts of strange, and odd and wondrous things started happening in my life. Things that I did not expect. The world I built permeated the world in which I live. And magic abounds.

When I write about magic, I write about belief. When I write about magic, I write about possibility. When I write about magic, I write about hope and courage and philosophy and faith and friendship and this great, teeming, beautiful, unknowable Earth, this boundless universe, this beating heart. I write about all of these things together.

When I write about magic, I am more fully in the world.

We live in a world that is tricky, sinister, inexplicable, gorgeous and wonderfully, wonderfully odd. Aren’t we lucky?

(This essay originally appeared in the Little, Brown Book Buzz e-newsletter. If you’re interested in subscribing, click here.)