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Magic Words

Writing for transformation

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Words have tremendous power: they have the ability to uplift or shatter, create or destroy. From spells to songs, speeches to stories, words are constantly used as subtle instruments for change. The act of writing can help us consciously use our words to transmute old hurts, difficult pasts or unexpressed emotions into something new, whether via journaling for our eyes only, or through weaving our experiences into works of fiction, altering the outcome to whatever we please. I’m not suggesting that authors have a God complex, but speaking as – at the very least – a control freak, this is a satisfying exercise indeed.

We are often left feeling quite different after consuming a powerful book or listening to the lyrics of a special song, and if we think there is no such thing as time-travel, we are underestimating how the right words can take us to a different time and space entirely. Real ‘magic words’ are hiding in plain sight in every well-written book on our shelves, or inside our heads, waiting to be ‘cast’ onto the page. Transformational power is at the hands of the author, and we can use that power for good, or ill, depending on our whims.

Like many writers, I’ve been intrinsically aware of the ability to use words as a tool to transform and resolve. We write diaries during childhood and adolescence, choosing a safe place to carefully open our hearts and spill our secret thoughts and wishes onto the page. Angry, sad, thrilled, hopeful…our ‘Dear Diary’ is often the only one who sees it all, without judgement, and allows us the opportunity to look back through the pages and observe patterns that would ordinarily elude us. It’s no surprise that many therapeutic and creative techniques encourage the use of journaling to create essential shifts, in our art and in our lives, our relationships with ourselves and others, our pasts and futures.

As a nonfiction author and rock biographer, one of my privileges is to work with other people’s stories — often stories no one has previously bothered to find out, preferring the ‘myths’, so there is a process of reframing, and carving out a new place in history for them to sit within. As well as the main players, I speak to members of the ‘supporting cast’, to fill gaps and spark obscurer memories that may have otherwise been lost to time, substance abuse or just crowded out by more intense moments. (If you’re a music biographer, always speak to the roadies, the techs, the engineers and tape ops. They remember what others forget, and were often, although not always, sober.)

As a fuller picture emerges, I can then effectively and responsibly alter perceptions, dissolving rumours and Chinese whispers as I present the story the way the artist wants to tell it. That may be peppered with untruths or, at best, warped memories. I can only write what I’m told in good faith: I use my intuition but it is everyone’s prerogative to present themselves as they see fit — this is showbusiness, the business of show, after all. Still, like all responsible writers, I strive to balance the story and record what I trust to be the closest to reality – such as it is – and this may mean revealing an inconvenient truth in the process.

This is how we, as writers, can work backwards in time, reaching deep into the dark soil of the past, pulling up an old story and looking at it anew, perhaps changing people’s perceptions of an occurrence – or a person – as we go. Readers can time-travel too: whether we are devouring the biography of an ancient queen or have discovered our grandfather’s diary in the loft, when we give our undivided attention – and the writing is truly engaging – we start to see through the eyes of another, to a different time and place. From whichever perspective we find ourselves taking, when we hold stories up to the light, let them breathe and share their gifts with a new audience, reconsiderations are prompted and transformations begin. And, as any alchemist knows, transformation is a magical act.

This is one of the things I love most about writing nonfiction and bringing, I hope, some justice and a new appreciation to underestimated cultural figures, such as Poly Styrene, The Slits, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson. But using words to create inner shifts by way of fiction writing is another kind of conjury altogether, and I discovered this when I started writing my debut novel Shine On, Marquee Moon.

I’d not written fiction since my schooldays, although by the time I was in my early thirties, an idea was brewing in the back of my mind. The ingredients included my own experiences touring with bands, a fascination with the occult and a dramatic former relationship with an addict — as well as a general cornucopia of strange ex-boyfriends. My initial thought at first was simply that all of this would make for a good story and could be fun to write. But once I’d started writing in earnest I realised that the process wasn’t just enjoyable, even cathartic — although it was certainly both of those things. It was actually proving to be transformative, and not just in terms of how it made me feel, but what it showed me that I could do. Yes, by writing our experiences, we get them out of our systems, but by tweaking, twisting and reshaping them, we can actually change our perceptions of those experiences. The potential of this is profoundly liberating.

I was taking situations and memories that had caused pain, looking at them properly for the first time in years, writing my way through them, understanding them in new ways and – this is the magic part – changing how they unfolded. I could also change how the character that most represented me responded. In real life maybe I didn’t get away, but here, in the world of my book, things could develop quite differently. I conjured characters from toxic people I’d previously wished I could forget — now I was laughing at their ridiculousness, and relishing using them as raw material. I dug deep and pulled situations into new shapes, relocated them, remoulded them and gave them a different colour and sheen until they became new situations in their own right. I started to detach, even forget, the original heartaches as the joy of using my imagination took over. I started to view past difficulties with more compassion and perspective. In short, the process of writing fiction removed the sting of old hurts — they simply lost their grip. I created new stings for the story, but these were separate to me. I was in control of these ones.

I think it is partly that sense of control that makes the practice of writing so edifying; even if you are working with nonfiction material, it is ultimately you who decides how things are arranged, presented — you are the director. While magic itself is about transformation, it too is very much about control: we as a species have long turned to magic and old customs in a bid to feel more in charge of our surroundings and our lives. The practice of magic and that of writing, for me, are quite intertwined from this point of view.

Through writing we can change reality, take control of our memories and shift our perceptions. And if you believe that perception creates our reality, you’ll know that utilising the right ‘magic’ words can heal and empower a past self and inspire a future one, redirect your life — and maybe someone else’s.

Write how it was – how it is – if you wish. But also write how it could be. You are the wizard; your pen is your wand. Your imagination and your experiences are the ingredients you’ll be throwing into that creative cauldron and your intention can take you – and the reader – anywhere you wish to go. All this without having to leave your room. If that isn’t some kind of sorcery, I’m not sure what is.

Zoë Howe has written acclaimed biographies of artists including Poly Styrene, The Slits, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Dr Feelgood and Stevie Nicks, and her novel Shine On, Marquee Moon was shortlisted for the Virginia prize for fiction.

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