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Magical Realism and The Creative Act


I'm not fond of the term 'magical realism'. The nature of reality is a most mysterious thing and the use of the adjective 'magical' is almost redundant but 'realism' alone would not be apt. I prefer 'Surrealism', “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. (Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont).

Whatever you choose to call it, this genre has a greater freedom than others, in that it does not bind you to what is conventionally regarded as reality. If the people who passed you by on a crowded street had the heads of jackals, that would be fine. If time was an object, hewn from granite by a family of blind masons, who all had red hair, that would be perfectly acceptable too.

A key element for all writing, but particularly surrealism, is imagination. Everyone has it, but sadly it is undernourished, even discouraged, in general education and in the strictures of employment. 

I have tried to develop my own imagination in a few ways. The first, and most obvious one, is to use dreams. I don't mean that you should write from dreams, as they often have a certain flatness to them that does not make for very interesting reading, but you can pick memorable images or incidents. 

In my novella 'Warfilm' I used a few. The idea that the Second World War was a film, came from a dream and turned into the jumping-off point for the story. The image of coming out of the sea holding a shoe, was oneiric, as was talking to a man over a fence which separated two identical places.

Another technique is to grasp at trickles that bubble up from the subconscious, without giving them any thought or trying to assign them meaning. You can hang whatever meaning you like on them later.  It is as if a subterranean river runs beneath cities and occasionally bursts through fissures, probably due to gaseous build-up from rotting matter. You lean over and drink the brackish water. On the river below is a boat, crewed by one lonely man who is most likely playing chess with the devil and falsifying his position.

The above three sentences are an example of pataphor, which is another helpful way to play with the imagination. The concept of pataphor was thought up by Pablo Lopez, based upon Jarry's 'Pataphysics'. It is basically the metaphor of a metaphor. You can keep extending until the original object of description is lost and a new reality is stumbled upon.

When surrounded by a myriad of options, limitations can be useful. I like to set myself an arbitrary rule when starting something. I once wrote a collection of short stories. The rule was that I could think of each story for as long as I wanted, without writing anything down. When I started to write, I had to finish the story in one sitting without interruption. If the pen left the paper once, the manuscript had to be immediately destroyed by fire, and the idea abandoned. I lost a few stories that way. With 'Warfilm' the rule was to be as succinct as I could. To describe without description. For the piece I am working on at the moment, each chapter must be inspired by one of the pictures hanging on my living room wall.

Of course, when the writing has acquired enough momentum to cross a certain threshold, the rules can be jettisoned with glee. 

Another important point in the surrealist genre, with its greater improbability factor, is logical underpinning. The human brain seems to have evolved with a sensitivity to symmetry, an analog of the exterior world, and the need to identify agency. 

Borges said (I paraphrase) that you could convince readers of any implausibility as long as you provided them with a logical framework with which they could justify it.

This point was driven home to me when I received some editorial comment on 'Warfilm'. It was suggested that I make more of the amnesia I had only fleetingly mentioned, to make some of Franz's strange situations more palatable. It was positive criticism and helped to improve the story.

Humour is a requisite too, not necessarily to make the reader laugh but to show that the writer does not take herself/himself too seriously. What does anyone really know? Marcel Duchamp, who I much admire, said in 'The Creative Act':

"The artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing."


"All in all the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

I think this applies just as well to writing as it does to the plastic arts.

The reader and writer are three halves of one whole. 

Tom Newton lives on a mountain in Woodstock, New York with his wife and daughter. His interests lie in psychology, art, music, science, mythology, history, and meaninglessness. He has spent many years working in the film industry as a prop man, while pursuing a parallel career as  a musician, sound engineer, and mastering engineer. He was a participant in London's punk music scene in the late seventies. He has always wanted to be a painter. Find out more about him on his website, and find him on Facebook here.

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