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December 12, 2006

The Mysticism of Writing

By Sarah

Manhattan Once again, I am at the end of writing another book. It is twilight in my world, silent and still. After a mad rush of ideas and outlining and writing and revising, here I am - me, my characters and my manuscript - trying to come to terms with what's about to happen next. Pressing that send button and shooting them to Manhattan where they'll come under the cold, sharp eye of my agent and then (unless my agent balks) the weary scrutiny of my editor.

This is what it must be like to put a teenager on the bus to college, I think. Starting with the 2 a.m. awakenings and culminating with the morning fights to get up and go, there have been moments in this long, painful process where - in both child rearing and book writing - I have desperately wanted to be rid of the responsibility. And now I can't say goodbye.

It's odd and, I'm afraid, slightly mad, the way I've come to care for Genie and Hugh and Nick and Patty and Todd and even Connie. (A royal bitch, if there ever was one.) I dream about them, really. I wonder what will happen when the book ends and they go on to lead their various lives, how their own kids (whom they don't yet have) and other life crises will bring them together and, in turn, wrench them apart. What I've done in The Sleeping Beauty Proposal- what all writers do in their books - is barge in on characters lives and then leave. In a way, it's very rude.

Honestly, writing fiction and selling it is, really, the most bizarre profession.

Also, a mystical one.


Consider, first, the signs. While writing a book I often trip across signs - major or insignificant - that seem to serve as mystical guideposts indicating whether I'm on the right track. I have yet toSigns  figure out if they portend success.

For example, the day I switched a plot element in which a character, a single woman, went from buying a house to buying a condo, was the day I later picked up a magazine heralding how single women were buying condominiums. I invented a character who worked for Henicker Real Estate - a company I completely made up. Went to get my mail and found some junk from Henicker Insurance. On and on. There were signs in BUBBLES UNBOUND and there were signs in SECRET LIVES and, later, THE CINDERELLA PACT. Sure, I might be more attune to my surroundings. I might be looking for signs. But I don't think so. I think something else is going on. I think writing is one way - like painting or composing music or meditating - of tapping into that big, wild ooze of a mystical muse.


The second mystical thing about writing: the subconscious. It's true, the subconscious is working for us all the time. Greg Brady might not have had any success studying for a Spanish test by listening to a record in his sleep, but I swear that long after the computer's off, my brain is mulling over the manuscript. My brain is communicating to my fingers story elements of which I am totally unaware.

Roses_1 That vase of roses Genie received halfway through the book was meant as an innocent diversion, a way to bring in another character and give the character something to do so I could hang a bit of dialogue. Also, to add some intrigue regarding who had sent them. They weren't in the outline. They weren't important. They were merely a device. Two drafts later, they were key to building a whole new relationship. I found that other characters had been discussing roses and I hadn't even noticed. Why, roses were all over the place.

I swear, I had nothing to do with it.


Every book is a trip down the yellow brick road, one filled with witches and apple-throwing trees andYellow_brick_road  flying monkeys. And at the end, inevitably, I find all I had to do was click my heels three times and I would have been home. Why is that?

It took me the longest time in the Cinderella Pact to reach the point where my main character, who was writing an advice column under an assumed identity, was forced to take her own advice. Simple. Direct. In the back of my mind all along. But did I write it that way the first time or even the third? No. And then, struggling to make the pieces all fit, it came to me and the thing is, I knew that's what I originally thought when I first conceived of the character. Does that make sense? Probably not. You had to be there.


Divine I've become convinced that there are some artists who channel it. There is no way Shakespeare, a mere mortal, wrote so well the agonies and follies of human beings without the Divine handing him crib notes. I'm not saying Sir Francis Bacon was his ghost writer. I'm saying Shakespeare was drawing it down from something higher. I think this is also true of J.K. Rowling. Yes, she works hard, possibly feverishly. Yet, there's a touch to her work that leads me to believe that, like Shakespeare, Harry Potter is not entirely from an Earthly realm.

As I'm slogging along, sometimes hammering out a manuscript word by word, I think of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. It comes easy to Bob, I can tell. Again, not that he doesn't (didn't) work hard, not that he didn't practice or intently study Woody Guthrie, et al. But, like Shakespeare, like Rowling, there's a touch of something higher to his work. Whereas I just know my man Bruce is slogging it out like the rest of us, working his butt off in an attempt to reach the level of his hero Dylan. A level I'm not sure he'll ever achieve.

I guess that's the final, most humbling, lesson about the mystical aspect of writing. For some of us no matter how hard we work at our craft, we will never be more than a Salieri to someone else's Mozart.

As for me, I should be so lucky.


(Author's note: Idiot that I am, I orginally had Salieri's name wrong. Thanks to Ursula, my idiocy's been pointed out and I've corrected it. I plead "writer's brain." I don't know if that's an official medical term, but I'm sticking with it - sarah)


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To quote Mel Brooks' lyrics in "The Twelve Chairs," "Hope for the best, expect the worst. You may be Tolstoy, or Fanny Hurst."

Barbara Samuel and Jennifer Crusie use a term borrowed (and gender changed) from Stephen King: The girls in the basement know what the book needs and send it up, then it's up to the writer to figure out where it goes and what it means.

I do not write, I read. So from where I sit this is a fantastic post. It is interesting to read how a writer gets ideas for characters, plots etc. and puts it all together for me, the reader to enjoy.

What an awesome post.

And I mean that in the way of the breathtaking, not the way of the "totally, ya know, cool".

What a treat for us to take a short walk along the path to another great book.

By the way, our Book Club does a "Best We Read This Year" session at our December meeting - two of us chose The Cinderella Pact." Awesome. In the cool way this time.

Jeez, if the book is as good as the blog, I am anticipating it even more.

Dylan and Springsteen both have their place. I admire them both. And J.K. Rowling. And you.

Sarah, that was just lovely.

Terrific post, Sarah. I love the signs; it's pretty amazing how well we end up tapping into something around us without even realizing. It's one of the things I love most about writing. Looking forward to the book.

All I have to say is that when Steven King starts talking about women in basements, I get scared.

You're right, Laura. The Boss has his place - preferably next to me, naked. No. Did I say that?

Sarah, I am in awe. If I could write about my own processes even half as well as you write about writing . . . yeah, I'll be half a Moliere to your Mozart any day. I can't wait to read Sleeping Beauty, especially now!

Bruce, huh? And here I thought you were partial to Geo. Clooney. Don't tell me your daydreams include more than one object of lust; at this time of year that would be, well, naughty even if nice. . .

BTW, after plying Sarah with wine, I finally obtained her permission to read SBP. It is Spectacular!


What an excellent post! Yes, everbody does have their own place, in the grand scheme of things, and yours is obviously writing. Whereas mine is reading.

Debby ~ seriously, when was the last time you read Tolstoy or Homer? I am STILL reading the Iliad...gads!

Sarah, I never saw in print a closer description to the peculiar process that writing is. I think of paranoid schizophrenics, thinking everything they hear on the radio or on a billboard is directed to them . . . even junk mail from Henicker Insurance.

I bet it's brilliant.

Also, our ex-babysitter still hasn't returned her purloined copy of THE CINDERELLA PACT, so I might have to send out a SWAT team for it. She has called to say she's laughing out loud a lot.

Harley, I cite you frequently when people in my office ask about the aluminum foil hat that I have on my bookshelf.

There is nothing in that sentence that is untrue.

Thanks, Harley. Now that I have a diagnosis, I feel much better.

Charlie did not have to ply me with wine. There was, uhm, other stuff he had to do.

Beautiful post, Sarah, and very true, at least about the good parts of writing. It's easy enough to appreciate the magic now that your book is DONE. Where's all the stuff about how you look at the page and it might as well be Sanskrit? ;-)

Listen - if there was plying and wine, there better have been more than reading going on.

I think what you mean is Salieri to Mozart. Moliere was a writer and a genius for himself.

Ohmigod, Urula, you're right. I'm brain dead.


I dunno, I kinda liked the Moliere-Mozart reference. I thought it worked on a different level.

Kudos, Sarah. May the magic continue through the coming season. And I'm not talking about revisions.

Mary Alice

I can't remember how I first got here, but I've been lurking around for weeks. This post was fabulous, beginning to end. I loved going along for the journey. Although, I'm a bit exhausted now!

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