Storytelling, Music, & Natural Magic

I’ve been listening to the songs and stories of an extraordinary composer/singer/guitarist, Mark Knopfler. His songs are often stories of ordinary people — doing their work, loving, suffering, singing — maybe remembered and maybe not, but usually caught in the grip of something bigger than they are. I kept going back to listen. There is something uniquely satisfying and heart-touching about his music, his songs, especially the more recent ones. He has made the art of songwriting into the art of telling powerful stories. As a writer, I feel a need to understand why his songs are so powerful.

The key skill set I noticed:

Mastery: The music, both rhythm and melody distinctly fits the words. I can’t guess which comes first, but suspect Knopfler goes back and forth between them as he composes. Neither one is just tacked on to the other. In written storytelling, you may have good illustrations to enrich and inform the imagination of the readers; in songs the music enriches and informs the emotion of the listeners. Imagination and emotion are tightly inter-related. In either case the music or picture must be superb — and therein lies the requirement for mastery, for years and years of developing a skill to the highest point of art.

Acute observation: Seeing clearly, telling it like it is, including details that show character and feeling and make it both vivid and memorable.

Empathy: Truly understanding the people and their feelings from the inside, not just the outside. This is a kind of nonjudgmental acceptance, which leads to —

Compassion: “Sympathy” means “I hear and feel sorry for you.” “Empathy” means “I feel your feelings with you.” “Compassion” means “I hear, feel, and love you. I make no judgement about your goodness or badness — just knowing who you really are and loving you.” I remember something I learned from participating in healing — everyone at their very core wishes to give and receive love — it is what we are. We all have roots in the same ground and that ground is something we call love.

You don’t have to believe me about this — just learn to meditate and do healing, and sooner or later you will discover this truth for yourself. And sometimes when we make that connection, miracles happen.

We wrap other things around that core, thinking it needs to be protected while really it is the strong, eternal center of us. But we create all those other things — fear, anger, barriers, judgments, denial, and more — to protect something that never needed protection. That loving part of ourselves and others is what we experience as compassion when we consciously become aware of that connection. The songs, the stories become healing.

Inclusion: starting with the thread of one person, one feeling, and weaving that into something larger so it speaks for and to many. Ultimately the song may bring in the earth, the sky, the sea, the stars. The part fits into the whole quite neatly, inextricably.

The last two things on the list above are what makes Knopfler’s music truly exceptional. He didn’t start out that way. Yes, he had empathy, he has extraordinary musical talent, and he loves music enough to do the incredible years of practice with the devotion that leads to mastery. Talent is something you are born with, but mastery like this and compassion only comes through years of devotion. If you listen to what he’s saying, both in interviews and in the music, you can hear that his music is a means for communion (not just communication, but communion) with others — and with deeper parts of himself. And that touches other hearts as well. People respond, even when they may not know what they are responding to.

I understand now why so many of the comments on his YouTube recordings simply say, “I love you.” Of course, many of the comments focus on the music. Yes, he is a master guitarist and they say so, but he isn’t the only master guitarist around even though you’d think he was from his fans. Although I’ve heard him discribed as having a “golden voice” yet his voice seems quite ordinary to me — his delivery is low key and almost conversational, but the energy his voice carries is far from ordinary.

I suspect his fans are hearing/feeling that special something more — the genuine love and compassion he seems to have for people, especially for the outliers of our society who live on an edge. A few of the many examples: the lost ones (Telegraph Road and Sonny Liston), the unique ones (Jerimiah Dickson), transcendent human love (Our Shangri La and If This Is Goodbye) and the geniuses (like himself) who are so focussed on one thing, one form of self-expression that it consumes their lives (Monteleone and The Sky and Piper to the End).

(Disclosure: Writing this is surprisingly difficult. It comes out a phrase at a time, not all at once in a rush the way things do when I really understand them. So. Clearly I don’t fully get it. Sometimes a thought dissolves under my fingers as I try to type it. I find myself saving this every few words so the thoughts won’t escape.)

All right, with all of this I still haven’t said what I set out to say about writing stories — what the big take-away for myself as a writer is. Marzipan’s Adventures — she is just a young faery cat in another world, which is linked to both Earth and to Faery. But for the story to be whole, it has to show how she fits into her own beloved world. It needs to show the vastness and grandeur and possibilities of that tiny world and the connectedness of the web of relationships in it. In a way, her story represents that world with its universe fitting neatly into the multiverse. And it has to show it, mostly in the details and the little moments, not tell it.

Marzipan’s actions need to show those interactions with her neighbors, both humna and creutairean, and with Didean, the world herself. (Humna are part Earth human, part Faery. Creutairean are part Earth animal, part Faery being. In fact, humna are creutairean too, and the humna are the only ones who don’t know this and who think they are different, This little blindness comes from the Earth human part of them, which tends to see differences rather than common ground.) (Sorry, I got side-tracked there but I’ll leave it in just in case you needed to know.)

The story itself, the plot as it were, has to carry all of these details and insights almost invisibly. If an author is preachy-teachy, he or she evokes resistance — and boredom. But if, as explained in Magical Writing the storyteller just slides things in with no fuss, the reader is more likely to just take it in as they gallop along with the plot, which is the obstensible reason for the story. But the plot is just a vehicle for the real story.

So, to some extent good storytelling seems to me to be about seeing reality compassionately and sharing that vision so we all better understand how we are connected to and can support each other.

I wonder if Knopfler knows what he is doing? He wouldn’t have to… it might just be the way he naturally has grown into the world. He spent some time being a social worker and that would have enriched both his view and his understanding of people. Or he might have just figured it out for himself — he’s an intelligent man. Listening to him in the documenteries talking about his craft, he knows. He sees how in songwriting, composing in bits and pieces, fragments and fictions, he often is telling the story of the person, of the society, of the history (and perhaps the future) of the world. For all I know, he may be telling the story of the multiverse.

ALL storytellers in all of the multiverse may be doing the same.

I just had a thought-concept; I wonder if I can say it clearly? What if we who tell stories in the multiverse — and perhaps we all do — no, wait! What if living is the real story? What if we are showing the Multiverse who She is and what She shall become with every moment of our lives?

After all, we are all one piece with the trees and stones and creatures.

Magical Writing

As you probably know, I’m writing a storybook (or several) about magic and faery and cats and things like that. But the thing about a sometime-healer writing about magic is that one already knows that magic is real. So the question arises:

How do you write about magic that is natural and real and potent when fictional magic is usually so much more flashy and… um… misleading?

Having Marzipan’s story pushing at the back of my eyes I knew I’d have to try — and, as is quite common with magic, once a person sets an intention or asks a question, the magic itself immediately starts trying to teach us. It uses magical means, of course. An untrained observer might call them co-incidence or synchronicity or even (and this is less likely to be said) a chronosynclastic infundibulum. Whatever. Let’s ramble through some ideas here.

Magical Realism

The Writers’ Workshoppe decided (at just the right time) to offer a class in writing “magical realism”. One important thing I learned in the class was that you could offer some outrageous magic if it was firmly embedded in a lot of detailed reality. You just have to slide the magic and “fantasy” in between the realism with enough down-to-earth detail that it goes almost unnoticed — and the next bit of fantasy can be even more magical and it too will just slide right into the mind without jarring it too much. Do you know why that is?

This is because humans (and sometimes others) participate in magic all the time, and we’re accustomed to just letting it slide by without notice. In fact, we pretend to ourselves that it either didn’t happen or it happened some other “logical” way. So we don’t notice how it sneaks up on us in reality or in a story — embedded in detail and factual information. (This part and the following is my own experience — not the class.)

Think about it: you remember that you want to phone a friend that you haven’t talked to in quite a while. A few minutes later, the friend phones you. Coincidence. Yeah, sure. It can’t be telepathy because telepathy isn’t real. So this is the fantasy we mostly live in — the belief that magic is not real. We’re habituated to that fantasy so we find all sorts of excuses to convince ourselves that telepathy doesn’t happen. We invent words to cover it up — words like coincidence, lucky break, fortuity, synchronicity, and other words of that ilk. It can’t be magic, not our own innate magic. It’s just the way the cookie accidentally crumbles. No?

So in your magical story you begin the shift with small details, like perhaps a yellow flower slowly turning red as a character watches, and you don’t make a big drama with exclamation points and amazed expressions about it. You just move smoothly right on by. A little later you slip another detail in. It’s not important enough to stop and think too much about it. The reader just accepts it… and moves on. This is preparing the ground of the unconscious, imagining mind — the dreamer, the mystic, the magician within — to accept the seeds gently dropped and accept them again later on when they sprout and blossom more vividly.

Magic isn’t something you turn on and off. Your awareness of it may be awake or asleep, but dreaming or storytelling or being the story, the magic is what holds it together. But they (I’m writing about faery magic, remember, and natural magic as well) had a lot more to teach me than just how to sneak up on magic.

Logic

Things need to make sense — even in magic. Logic is important. Take the “humna” (half faery and half human) in Marzipan’s stories. Faery, as we know (!) exists and vibrates at a different and higher frequency than we do, just like ultra-violet light shines at a frequency that we don’t normally see — our eyes are not built for it. We also know that there is a thing called “entrainment” that happens naturally. If you take two fine crystal glasses and set them beside each other and then gently strike one so it begins ringing, soon the other one is ringing as well. The second glass is entrained with the first because the first is actively vibrating the air, which carries the vibration to the other glass and sets it to ringing the same note. (This also happens in the chakra system, but we’ll talk about the results of that another time, if I remember to do it.)

So faery vibrates at a faster (higher) frequency than we humans do. If we spend time with them in the natural world, our vibration entrains a little to become higher as well — and it gradually changes our DNA so that we become more faery ourselves. This is just natural magic. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Logical. Plausible. It especially makes sense if you consider the Japanese notion of “forest bathing” that recognizes that we feel much more relaxed and healthy if we spend peaceful time in a forest. Trees. Dryads. Think about it. (Here’s another thing to write about later — the modern thing in some ethically and scientifically advanced cities is to build apartments with lush gardens on the roof and in large balconies outside the windows— what would that do to the people who live in them?) There is much to consider on this topic, including scientific studies that show that hyperactive children who spend some time in parks or natural place become calmer and cope with life better. It’s all about being in a different frequency/vibration that is smoothly peaceful and not a jangling cacophony. This all has logic if you accept the basic premises and the comparisons. In fact, it’s so logical that I’ve more than half convinced myself that this is how humans become a little (or a lot) faery.

The Writer’s Medicine Bag

Another useful concept about writing that I came across recently was about medicine bags and the power objects in them. (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten where I read this.) (Ten months later I found it — it was Ursula K. Le Guin that wrote about it in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction which is something every writer needs to read, even if they reject it.) She talks about how every medicine bag contains power objects, and together the objects contain more potency than each one alone. The objects blend together and reinforce each other — or conflict and weaken one another.

As a writer, consider this: how is your story or thesis or novel a medicine bag imbued with the power to transform, to have a magical effect on the reader? How is each character a power object within that collective whole? If you think of them as a tribe, who serves which function in the society? How do they work together to get where they want to go? Is there any power object in the bag that conflicts with the overall goal? Can the power objects (people, places, things, ideas) find a resolution to any conflicts they have? And how do the power objects themselves change as a result of causing transformation around them — or, looked at in another way, how do their own transformations create metamorphoses in others like glasses vibrating together?

These questions need to be answered — at least in our own minds if not in the story. The author actually needs to understand what’s going on even if the characters are mystified.

Image. I, mage.

Transformation is vital. The other day a few people and I had a short discussion about what makes Sir Terry Pratchett’s books so awesome — and I don’t use that word lightly. To me, it’s all about transformation. The characters in the stories (mostly) grow.

This made me think a lot about what a “better person” is and why it’s important to be one — and a TON of stuff about writing and a writer’s responsibility to the rest of the world, especially when things are such a mess as they are now. Part of Sir Terry Pratchett’s brilliance is that he showed us a path without ever “teaching” or “preaching” but by a sort of osmosis. I suspect he hoped we’d be smart enough to figure it out for ourselves, which is really the only way to truly learn something.

The Writer As Magician

Are you aware that in writing or storytelling, you are practicing magic? Magic is basically about changing things without physically lifting or moving or carving them. What you are doing when telling a story is changing the world with ideas and mental images. An idea is like a virus — contagious. A virus drifts from one person to another, changing them, often without the recipients’ awareness or conscious consent. A virus may also cause a mutation — and that mutation may be different in each host, depending on the condition they are already in. I suspect that the idea-viruses may sometimes also travel by telepathy via vibrations on a plane we don’t yet understand, but I can’t prove that and don’t need to — we can just be hypothetical here.

So you, as a writer/storyteller put ideas out into the world where others may catch and even change them from your original intention. What is the Path that you or I, as writers, are showing? Does it lead to a better world or worse? What is our intention here? Do we know? Are we, as ordinary magical people working on that intention ourselves in our own lives?

What is the effect we intend to have on the world?