Where does ‘it’ come from?


Silk’s Post #82 – I can’t get ‘it’ out of my mind. That indefinable spark-soul-groove-magnet thing we’ve been talking about that captures readers and audiences and won’t let them go.

Won’t let them go to sleep. Keeps them enthralled, even when they know they should be doing something else – starting dinner, paying bills, uncrossing their legs and taking a ‘comfort break’, writing their own book. Something about a book with ‘it’ makes them turn the page, then another and another, read just one more chapter.

‘It’ seduces readers one sentence, one page, one scene, one vision at a time.

I’m not talking about the kind of writer’s tricks the how-to books like to teach, like tasty hook-outs at the ends of chapters – though Joe had a great observation about the addictive effects of great storytelling coupled with ‘technical writing’ (by which I assume he does not mean software manuals). All the storytelling building blocks must be there – plot, structure, character, pacing, action, dialogue, setting, arcs, blah blah blah. These are hard enough to learn, and a life’s work to get truly good at. Yet they’re not magic. We can name and define them, observe them at work, analyze them, practice them. They’re not ‘it’.

We know when we’re experiencing ‘it’, but I don’t think it’s something easily detected and deconstructed. It’s like an invisible force, something glimpsed in our peripheral vision. We can only observe ‘it’ by the tracks it leaves in our minds, like the unseen wildlife that leaves impressions on the trail. We hear a rustle of motion beside us, but never actually catch sight of its maker.

So are we chasing ghosts? Some of the most powerful forces in nature and the mind are invisible. Magnetism. Gravity. Chemistry. Memory. The rise of life itself. The workings of the cosmos that operate on a scale so big, or so small, that we can’t see them at all, and the only way we know they exist is through mathematical formulae. I believe the force of our storytelling ‘it’ belongs to this invisible realm of secrets that scientists and artists are compelled to explore.

But the tantalizing question for a writer is: where does ‘it’ come from? And can it be learned?

You might think my answer is a cop out. But it’s the best one I can come up with for now, and it’s as good a working hypothesis as any: I think ‘it’ comes from the heart – the writer’s heart. I know, I know, that’s an answer with another question embedded in it. Now we have to define ‘heart’. Another invisible force that reveals itself through the art it creates and the love it makes.

Jose Lara photo

So I’ll borrow a story from, of all places, The Economist, to illustrate. It’s a haunting and inspiring obituary for Gabriel Garcia Marquez – “Latin America’s literary colossus” as he’s described – who wrote such classics as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. He died on April 17, 2014.

The obituary is titled “The magician in his labyrinth”

“In July 1965 Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Gabo to all who revered him later – decided to lock himself away in a house on Calle de La Loma in Mexico City. He ordered his wife to sell the car and get credit from the butcher. For 15 months, using only his index fingers, he typed for six hours a day in a room he called ‘The Cave of the Mafia’. He survived on a diet of good Scotch and constant cigarettes. At five in the afternoon he would emerge into the fading light with his eyes wide, as though he had discoursed with the dead.

100-years“Inside the four walls of that room lay the immense delta of the Magdalena river, the grey frothy sea of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the suffocating swamps of the Cienaga, the interminable geometries of the banana plantations, and a long railway line that ran into the farthest territories of his heart. It ended at the village of Aracataca, now renamed by him Macondo, where his maternal grandparents had brought him up amid prospectors, fornicators, gypsies, scoundrels and virginal girls bent over their sewing frames …

“One Hundred Years of Solitude, the fruit of his self-imprisonment, sold 50 million copies in more than 30 languages.”

And won a Nobel Prize.

Marquez’ style was dubbed ‘magical realism’ by critics. His books brought the beautiful but painfully violent history of Latin America alive through stories that are “populated by the ghosts of the disappeared”.

The obituary tells us that writing was difficult for Marquez … “the words came as painfully as kidney stones. Nonetheless, there was nothing else he had wanted to do in life. He burned ‘to write so I would not die’.”

That is what I mean by a writer’s heart. If we want to find ‘it’, I believe this is where we should look. If we want to learn to create ‘it’, I think these are the words from Marquez that we should pay attention to:

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”


7 thoughts on “Where does ‘it’ come from?

  1. ‘It’ comes from the heart from the soul from the universe from some undefinable place beyond the ordinary human mind from a mystery from magic. I don’t think we can define it. We can only hope we are lucky enough to have it arise from within us, and to get out of the way when it does.
    Nice piece Silk. Floored by what Gabo did. I didn’t know about that, and I hang my head in shame and say I’ve not read his books and did not know he was the author of that final famous quote.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I think we’re on the same track as seekers of “it”. Maybe someday science will explain everything. More likely, magic will elude mathematics.

  2. Thanks Silk for catching this tribute to one of my favorite authors. You make a credible connection between the ‘it’ and Gabo. You are on to something and good for you to continue this thread.

    • Thanks Helga. Pursuing writing is such a see-saw between the functional and practical job of “getting it done” and the esoteric dreamscape of imagination. I think contemplation of the challenging, but perhaps unknowable, “it” factor is good for the soul once in a while!

  3. As an all too amateur jazz musician, I think that looking at the IT in other arts can tell us something. Jazz is the mirror image of writing, in that you start to play without knowing what will happen, and whatever comes out is your music, no edits, no re-writes. They now have so-called “complete” collections of some albums or sessions, including out-takes and do-overs, by such greats as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and others. Even artists like these have to play a tune half a dozen (or more) times before they, and the record producers, decide which one has IT. You don’t know until it happens, or, in some cases, until you’ve gone over your work. It’s just something that comes out of you that touches something in others that even they can’t define. I’ve heard a lot of John Coltrane’s out-takes of tunes that he made famous, and they don’t have IT. You can tell that he’s trying to connect with IT but not doing it, but then there’s that one take that floors everyone. It’s just something that comes out of you. I suspect that you can’t really do anything to make that connection, you just have to be open to it, or not get in the way of IT. This is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time.

    • Jerry, this is a magnificent analogy. As part of my “jazz appreciation course” in college (which wasn’t a course at all, but was my then boyfriend’s obsessive mission to turn me into a jazz fan – it worked, by the way), I was dropped right into the river of free jazz one night (baptism-style) at a multi-hour concert in the Village Vanguard, which featured John Coltrane AND Ornette Coleman, plus what seemed like a cast of thousands. The concert was about 4 solid hours of collective improvisation with absolutely no break: not only was there no intermission, there was never a silent moment onstage between numbers, but a kind of loose continuation of sound linking compositions in which some musicians walked off stage while others walked on and picked up where they’d left off. At one point I think there were about 20 musicians onstage, but my count (and other parts of this memory) may be slightly off due to the intoxication level in the room, which smelled like a 4-alarm fire in a grow op. Jeez, those were the days.

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