When I was a kid, magic was essential to my inner world. I read fantasy books full of witches and magicians and children with innate powers over the elements. I read about magic rings and wishing stones. I read about fairies and their glamours, about dragons and djinns.
In The Real World, there was no such thing as magic, unless it was black magic and sorcery, which was evil and must be avoided at all costs. Or so I was told.
But magic isn’t like that. And it isn’t a flashy, sparks-flying wand duel. It’s not turning into an animal or flying on a broom. It’s more like alchemy.
Alchemy, in the medieval sense, isn’t something I was familiar with as a kid, and I’m by no means an expert now. The loose-ish way I’m using it here is combining disparate elements to make something new and valuable. The medieval alchemists sought to make gold out of baser materials. Carl Jung interpreted alchemy as the steps toward individuation, or wholeness of the self.
I think art is alchemy. Or maybe I should say, art can be alchemy.
I didn’t truly begin to practice art as magic until I found my Material. I was writing long before that. But the pieces I wrote weren’t necessarily alchemy. I was honing craft, I was learning, but I wasn’t transforming. And that’s what alchemy is: transformation.
By Material, I mean those themes and ideas that are the closest and deepest heart of the artist’s lived experience. The places that are the most in need of exploration and healing. Maureen Murdock wrote about the Heroine’s Journey as not an external experience, but an internal one: journeying ever deeper within to recover the parts of ourselves we have discarded to survive in hostile environments.
The trick is, we can’t know our Material unless we know (1) who we are and (2) what has happened to us.
Maybe this seems elementary. Silly. “I lived my life; I know what happened to me!” But do you? Do you really know what happened, and the significance of those events? Do you know what parts you have buried deep down in the dark of your subconscious?
Who we are is at the root of our actions and reactions. Who we are is shaped by what we has happened to us. That is our Material. Until we find it out, we cannot use it.
There are so many reasons we might not know ourselves.
The mind protects us from pain. It hides memories. It shades the past with rose-gold sparkle. It denies that we have suffered, that we could have suffered at the hands of friends or family, because those people love us and would never hurt us. It conceals identities that are unsafe to live outwardly.
Capitalism rushes us ever onward without a moment to rest or reflect. And if we do have moments, the endless data stream that is the internet clamors for attention. We have families, children, spouses. We have jobs, households, obligations.
I think a lot of people might find their Material sooner than I found mine. Some people probably find it even later in life.
Once I found my Material, I put it into my alchemical chalice: into words on the page. Blending, my Material and my skill flowed together into writing that was urgent, aware, responsive, authentic. I had something to say. I had a perspective. I wasn’t writing just to tell a story. I needed to write this.
The story on the page was big and beautiful and upsetting and terrible and glorious. The story made demands. I had to explore deep, difficult emotions. I had to take parts of myself and infuse them into the story: alchemy. In using my Material, I was creating the most true thing I had ever written. In using my Material, I was healing myself.
That is the second alchemy, the second magic. That when artists use their Material to create, brokenness in them begins to become whole. We make ourselves when we make our art.
Then, perhaps, we present the creation, the byproduct of our alchemy, to others. Our creations can engage them in an alchemical process of their own. And this is the third alchemy.
I think alchemical art sings louder, shines brighter in general. But it doesn’t necessarily speak to all people. I’ve read a lot of books. There are plenty out there that are not magic. And by that I mean, in which I do not find myself, in which I do not make myself more whole. That doesn’t make them bad art or even bad books. The artist may have found magic. Someone else may find magic. But paths to wholeness, though they may overlap, are not identical. This also is beautiful.
The northern hemisphere turns to autumn, transforming itself in preparation for the long dark of winter. If we live with the rhythm of the seasons, we prepare to turn inward toward our own inner dark. What will we find there? What parts of ourselves will we recover? What alchemy will we perform?
What magic we make will also make us.