Craft: Magic Books by Donna Steiner

There are several sure-fire things I do when I feel stuck and can’t write as fluidly as I’d like. Walking almost always works. Whether it’s simply walking down my road or doing mindless circles at the college track or roaming near Lake Ontario, putting one foot in front of the other and allowing my mind to both wander and focus, relax and pay attention, often prompts ideas. Listening to music, for me, is unproductive as far as getting-words-down-on-the-page, but often puts me into the “zone” – the intellectual/emotional space – that will incite writing. Looking and listening, then, are helpful. Movement is helpful.

If those reliable catalysts aren’t clicking, however, I sometimes resort to my magic books.  I have three of them. Two are poetry and one is prose written by a poet. I will not divulge the books’ titles or their authors – but even if I did, it’s unlikely that my magic books would also be yours. Every writer, I would posit, needs to find his or her own.

Perhaps I should clarify. These aren’t books about magic, although there’s no reason such a book could not also serve as one’s magic book. They are magic because whenever I open them, I find something that helps me write. Often a single word is the trigger, although it could be a phrase, a line, or an entire poem or paragraph. Rarely is it an idea – I’m not looking for subject matter – although occasionally it could be a mood or might be what I’ll call word-feel. That is, these writers nudge me into a place where words feel good in the mouth, feel delectable or delicious, whether murmured, spoken strongly aloud, or simply thought to one’s self.

I keep these books nearby – within arms’ reach in my study – but try not to overuse them.  That is, when I’ve simply stalled or am tired, I don’t grab the magic book. When I’m feeling mentally lazy, I don’t touch them. They are not easy fixes, in other words. They are sacred – to be used if and when I need them. And when I feel that need, I open one randomly – to whatever page I happen upon – and begin reading. If I’m lucky – and I am often lucky in this respect, which is why these have become MAGIC BOOKS – it usually only takes a minute or two to be sparked. And then I put the book down and I write.

Prompts for using magic books:

  • Just open to a page randomly and start reading until a word triggers something for you.
  • Make a list of five words that you find by opening to five separate pages and jotting down the first delectable word you see on each page. Then try to write something that connects those dots.
  • Steal a line and use it as the first line of your new piece. Later, go back and either alter that first line or give credit to the writer you’ve stolen from.
  • Find a word in the magic book that you would NEVER use in your own writing. Use it.
Donna Steiner, Columnist

Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems.  Her essay chapbook, Elements, was released in 2013 by Sweet Publications.

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  • How wonderful to consider certain books to be magic! Interesting that of your three magic books, two are books of poetry, and the third is prose written by a poet! Poetry is becoming a lost language. You know, the only people who read poetry anymore (teachers of poetry don’t count because they HAVE TO read it) are other poets. I think you must write some poetry too. Most people don’t think, “Hmm. I’d like to read something. Maybe a nice book of poetry?” The last book I really became excited about, and had to tell every reader I knew (not many people are even readers these days) was prose, and it was first published in 1942, Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night.” I just happened to stumble across a reference to it, and my interest was piqued. So why do we write poetry, and how did we become story tellers, Donna? I look back at nursery rhymes and fairy tales as part of my inspiration to do so. My mother told me that my favorite nursery rhyme was one called “Bobby Shafto.” Do you know it? I found out later it is not so much a nursery rhyme as an Irish song. It has this ineffable sadness about it, speaking between the lines of a journey, a lover left behind, and loss: “Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,/Silver buckles at his knee; /He’ll come back and marry me,/Bonny Bobby Shafto!” When I was an undergraduate studying English poetry, I found I loved another simple poem with the same themes, and that is, really, also a song: “Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow?/The small raine down can raine./Cryst that my love were in my armes/And I in my bedde again.” Believe it or not, I think these poems connect to, and I can hear the same wistful longing in, the first line of a book of prose that begins: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Don’t you, too?