Some Thoughts on Writing
by Phil Hine
Write, and find ecstasy in writing.
Liber Al vel Legis
I've been writing for occult (and other) magazines and journals now for nearly 17 (shudder!) years, so I think I'm in a good position to discuss the dynamics of writing - which is what this paper is about.
1. WHY WRITE?
Many years ago, I was discussing the magical work I was doing at the time with a colleague, and she suggested that I write a short paper for the group we were in about it. "I don't think I can" I replied, somewhat nervously, whereupon she said that if I was so much "into" this particular magical work, I should be able to write something about it, if only to ensure that it didn't remain 'vague' in my own mind.
This, I found, was sound advice. Writing is an excellent way of showing to yourself that you have fully assimilated a subject.
This brings up a second point - writing Training Material for others. This is another of the ways that I began to write - taking specific subjects and areas that I was familiar with, and writing a short outline for the benefit of other people, who were just beginning to get into the subject, to use.
Anyone who has read books on magic will surely have noticed that most exercises and experiences are written in "the third person" - totally divorced from any particular context or the author's own experience. Whilst this can give magical writings a very 'authoritative' feel to them (especially if the author is trying to convey the feeling of furthering a tradition), it misses out the undeniable fact that magic is about Personal Experience. Any practising magician's personal experiences are therefore valid, regardless of whether you've read zillions of books, can quote Kenneth Grant to back up your argument, or are considered an 'authority' or not.
2. WRITING TRAINING MATERIAL
Magical training material should be short, succinct, and to the point. An effective start can be to take a subject you plan to write on, and try and break it down into a number of salient points. Try and put yourself in the position of the person who will be reading it. This will help you to avoid some of the common pitfalls of writing about practical magic. These are:
Magicians, as a class, have a tendency to waffle on and on until the reader is completely lost. Avoid waffling by giving clear examples of what you mean, but only if you really feel a point needs elaborating. It's useful to bear in mind that Training-oriented material will be backed up by discussion, so this is where you can elaborate. The 'Handout' is used to reinforce discussion and so only needs to look at the basic points.
It's also useful to bear in mind that if you're writing a training paper, you'll be presumably photocopying it, and so brevity keeps your costs down!
Pitching writing at the appropriate level
It's easy to either assume that your readers know everything about what you're saying, or to assume that they know nothing, so that you end up either sounding 'mysterious' or patronising. Striking a balance and being informative comes with practice. Introducing a paper with a definition, or a quote from someone else (which you can then expand on) can be helpful.
My booklet, Chaos Servitors: A User Guide began life as an A4 sheet which started with a quote from Liber Null, for example.
EXERCISE: WRITING A TRAINING PAPER
Take an area of practical magic which you are familiar with. If possible, find an explanation of this area by someone else, and condense it into a single sheet of A4. Then show it to (a) someone who is familiar with the subject, and (b) someone who is unfamiliar with the subject, and get feedback on it.
3. MAGICAL REPORTS
Writing a Magical Report is an extension of this process. Here, you're not only describing a particular technique, but also saying:
- Why you decided to use it
- How you used it
- What you discovered when using it
- What (if any) conclusions you have come to
There are numerous examples of this type of writing in the various Subject Areas of this website. Magical Reports are very useful to other magicians, as you are setting practical techniques within the context of your own, unique, life experience. It's often a lot easier to understand the wider applications of a particular magical technique or approach if you read someone else's account of how they used it. I often find that I'm inspired to try something out after reading such a report.
Reports are also useful in that they involve varying degrees of self-disclosure, particularly if they are related to personal issues & problems which come up during one's work. Reading each other's reports helps us understand each other - which is very important in groups & orders, when people can be in the order for years and yet know little of what "makes each other tick" unless they have worked together.
When I did my first degree, an Essay was at least 2,000 words, plus footnotes, diagrams, bibliography, etc. Creative thinking, arguing and discussion on the page was encouraged. So this was how I thought essays should be written. When I did my second degree, I was somewhat horrified to learn that an 'essay' was as many facts as you could get on the page in 45 minutes to satisfy an examiner, so I had to change my style.
In general terms, an essay is an in-depth examination of a particular subject, where your own ideas can be backed up by quotes, research, discussion, arguments, examples, diagrams, etc and followed up, if necessary, by a bibliography and list of reading material. The standard structural format for an essay is:
i.e. what the essay is about - setting the scene, as it were.
i.e. the issues that are under discussion
i.e. some kind of 'rounding up' of the discussion, and summing up.
An effective approach to writing essays is, again, to start with a list of points that you want to cover. This is a good time to note any books or articles which will help you flesh out your article.
Quotes can be very useful in illustrating a particular point or expanding on an issue. However, it's easy to over-use quotes and some occult articles that I have seen are little more than three or four quotes of Kenneth Grant/Terence McKenna/Aleister Crowley, etc, with very little input from the writer. This gives the impression that the writer actually has little to say.
It's often the case that the impetus to write something comes from reading someone else's work. This is okay, and a good deal of magical writing is actually a restatement of someone else's work. If you find that you want to base an essay on someone else's ideas, it's a matter of courtesy to say so. Explaining another author's ideas in your own words is a good approach, as an alternative to quoting them extensively. The occult world is very small, and if you're basing your own writing on that of someone else, it's a safe bet (unless you are very careful) that, at some point, they'll find out about it.
If you're writing an essay for circulation within a group/mailing list etc., it's useful to mention other member's who's work has influenced yours. Not only is this a matter of courtesy, it also enables anyone who reads your essay to talk to them as well, and it shows those who have influenced you how you have taken their ideas on board.
5. WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO WRITE?
People rarely write out of a void - there is usually something that motivates you to set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. At this point then, I'll examine different sources of motivation.
"I could say that better than..."
This feeling has spurred me to write on a number of occasions, one memorable occasion being after reading Adrian Savage's Introduction to Chaos Magic which purported to introduce Chaos Magic without mentioning anything which I felt was important to Chaos Magic.
"I haven't time to go into ... I'll write you an explanation of it".
This motivation, together with that mentioned above, spurred me to collect together the first version of Condensed Chaos.
"Why hasn't anyone looked at ... in depth"
Spotting what seems to you to be a glaring omission in the available literature on a subject can be a very effective spur to write. You can think of yourself as "opening up a field of debate" - throwing out your own ideas and seeing what emerges.
"That's a load of donkey-poop, I'm going to answer back"
A very good spur for writing is strong disagreement with what someone else has written. The downside to this can be seen in occult magazines where an article written as a 'reply' to an original leads to a counter-reply, a counter-counter reply, and then a protracted argument in the letters column for months afterwards.
"These are my ideas - let me have some feedback"
Writing in the hope that you will get feedback is very idealistic. You might get some, but don't count on it. I'll go into Feedback as a section in it's own right later.
6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Writing requires practice. Make lists. Write sample outlines for essays. Keep notes & fragments in a box or on disk - you might start something & not finish it, but you can always come back to it in the future.
Be prepared to read things out to your friends and, as William S. Burroughs put it, look at what you've written, tear it into small pieces and sneak them into someone else's garbage.
Let writing become an addiction - a buzz. If you don't enjoy writing, then you'll find it difficult to do. It's a buzz seeing your name in print, and it's an even bigger buzz to get paid for your efforts. Look at writing by authors who you admire and who inspire you - see if you can identify what it is about their style that turns you on. Your own initial efforts might read very similar to an author you admire. William Gibson once said that he had to discipline himself not to write in the same manner as William S. Burroughs.
7. GETTING INTO PRINT
At any time, there seems to be more occult magazines around than there are writers to fill their pages. Most 'zine editors welcome submissions, particularly the ones that are issued frequently. Some magazines will, on enquiry, send you a 'style sheet' which explains the preferred format for submissions. It's often annoying for writers, but editors do not, on the whole, acknowledge submissions, and you won't tend to know whether you're article's been accepted until it appears in the magazine. This is an area where you have to be patient and diplomatic, 'cos nothing pisses editors off more than printing an article which turns up, around the same time, in another 'zine.
Most magazines tend to have a 'house style' of writing - in some cases, quite deliberately, and in others, implicitly. Sometimes, style is dictated by the audience to which the 'zine is aimed at. For example, I used to write for two quite different 'zines, Nox, and Moonshine. Nox was aimed at "practitioners of the Left-Hand Path" whilst Moonshine was a more general "pagan" journal. What Nox readers wouldn't have batted an eye at wouldn't go down very well in Moonshine, as I found when I submitted an article on Satan in the latter. Writing for two completely distinct magazines can be very useful as it gives you a 'feel' for creating different approaches to writing.
It's common practice for Occultists to write under a pseudonym - or several, for that matter. This can be advantageous, particularly if you don't want to be immediately associated with your writing. You can use Pseudonyms to create 'writing personas' - which can, in time, become characters in their own right. This can be as much of a magical exercise as anything else, particularly if people mistake you for someone else. Or proclaim that "x" (your pseudonym) is a better writer than you are!
Feedback for writing is difficult to get. One way of getting it is to be deliberately provocative and outspoken, and even then, it's difficult to get a reaction out of most people. There is a common fear on the part of fledgling writers that someone "out there" is going to leap up and demolish their argument in print, or accost them personally and take them to task for daring to write what they have. If anyone actually does this, then put them instantly on your Yule card list! This sort of Feedback is actually very rare, but shows that the individual has read your work and been moved to act by it. Yes, there may be people who will say "that's crap" but unless they can say exactly why they think this, then you can safely assume that they are merely jealous. Believe me, the number of people who can give you critical feedback are few and far between.
Appreciative Feedback is just as rare. People will say "I liked your article" but it can be difficult to get out of them exactly why they liked it. What really matters is that you like what you write. if you don't like what ends up on the page, it's safe to assume that other people won't like it either.
You don't need a typewriter or computer to write - but they are helpful. A good dictionary is helpful, and books of quotations and phrases can be useful too. A small notebook for jotting down quotes and phrases that catch your eye can be useful, as can a tape recorder or dictaphone for catching fleeting ideas before they disappear. I often get ideas late at night, and I find that if I don't get them down in some form, they are often 'gone' by the next morning.
WHEN TO WRITE
Writing takes Time. Personally, I find that if I am not in the 'right frame of mind' for writing, then the results will be poor (i.e. I don't like what I've written). If you think of writing as a 'chore' or something that you don't want to do, but you've said you'll do it, so you're going to .... it will be all the more difficult to do.
Starting a writing project can be difficult - I mean, how do you actually start the report, essay, or whatever. This is where the practice of making lists, dividing a subject into sections, etc, is helpful. Lists can be vague - even if you don't have any clear ideas about what you want to achieve by writing, you can always make notes on what you want to avoid doing.
LET THINGS SIMMER
I often find that ideas need to simmer in my head for a while before I attempt to write them down. Talking through (and around) your ideas with someone else can be very helpful, and I generally find that I work through a process of simmering - talking - and then eventually writing. Some ideas are easier to 'cohere' than others. With practice, you will find that you can identify the appropriate mood for writing about a particular subject.
COURSES IN WRITING
Most Adult Education Centres do evening courses in Creative Writing, and there are Correspondence Courses available too.
This essay wouldn't be complete without looking at some Magical aids to writing.
Servitors can be very useful 'assistants'. My servitor Eureka became, over time, very helpful in stimulating creativity for new ideas & writings. and servitors can be very useful when dealing with 'unconscious' processes such as structuring language and forming links between blocks of information.
Sigils, as glyphs or mantras can also be used to stimulate creativity - when writing Condensed Chaos, I used a power-word that I had found in a free-form pathworking to relax and focus myself as I prepared to do some writing. I have also used sigils to clear away "Writer's Block" - something which everyone, no matter how experienced, suffers from, at time to time.
WRITING AS EARTHING
Writing can be an excellent way of 'earthing' yourself following a particular phase of magical work. As I have said previously, if you can write clearly about your magical work, it shows you have assimilated it fully. Most magicians are communicators of some sort, and unless you are an artist or musician, writing is the most common avenue for communicating experiences into the world.
- The Adding Machine - William S. Burroughs