The Tales We Tell Ourselves

I’m a chronic daydreamer.

Most of us probably are—especially you fellow writers who are reading this. What is plotting, after all, but daydreaming with direction? And you non-writers, ever sing at the Grammies in the car or compete on Iron Chef while you’re cooking dinner?

If you said yes, you’re probably a daydreamer. That, or you’re far more busy-and-important than I realized, and congrats to you.

So, should you see me at the gym, huffing as a trot around the track, know that I’m winning the Boston Marathon or fleeing demons with Sam and Dean Winchester.

I’ll break up the fight, boys! … if I can just get around this bend in the track fast enough!

But the funny thing about all these imaginary lives we paint for ourselves is that, done with intent, is called visualization, a sports, creative, or general self-help practice that, “seek[s] to affect the outer world by changing one’s thoughts and expectations.” (Incidentally, this definition sounds uncannily like Aleister Crowley‘s definition of magic, which he defines as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Don’t ask me how I know these things.)

Our daydreams arguably have the power to change our lives.

That’s pretty intense, so here’s some LOLcat positive thinking:

Keep dreaming, kitty.

While you probably can’t imagine yourself into singing at the Grammies, especially if, like me, you can barely warble along in tune. But you can visualize yourself learning to sing stronger, taking voice lessons (preferably with a deaf kindergarten teacher), and singing proudly (or just loudly) in church. Or you visualize yourself learning to chop onions with gusto rather than that tentative mushing-gesture so many of us make with our dull knives.

For me, it’s the dream of writing a strong query letter and getting my book sold. I’ve been visualizing this image so hard it’s a wonder it’s not projected on my living room wall.

Last night, though, the image of a stack of replies from agents that just have “HAHA NO” written on them in red crayon and yet another trunk manuscript. Followed rapidly by full-time work at some corporate store and a life of waiting to get home so I can watch more of Sam and Dean Winchester and then go to the gym to imagine myself chasing demons with them.

I have a pretty vivid imagination.

It seems that if positive thinking can help us reach our goals, negative thinking can stop us from dreaming at all. So how do we stop our daydreaming from turning into pipe dreams? How do we stop the negative visualization once it starts?

I have to stop obsessing about the negative immediately, or I get sucked into a whirlpool of depression and blame that’s as ugly as it is unpleasant. (It usually looks like tears and the binge-eating of M&Ms. Crying while eating: not a happy combination.) I have to distract myself, and this typcally involves picking up a book to distract myself or even picking up my own book to remind me that it’s not that bad.

After all, the best possible outcome (international bestseller à la  J. K. Rowling) is just as likely as the worst possible outcome (living in a ditch with a possum who spurns my love). And I might as well dream for the best.

“When I think something nice is going to happen I seem to fly right up on the wings of anticipation; and then the first thing I realize I drop down to earth with a thud. But really, Marilla, the flying part IS glorious as long as it lasts. . . it’s like soaring through a sunset. I think it almost pays for the thud.” Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

How about you, readers? How do you stop yourself from imagining the worst? What’s your happiest daydream? How do you get there?

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Magic: Empowering or Addictive?

Why has the addiction to magic become a theme in books and television?

The obvious example is Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In season six, magic becomes a clear metaphor for drugs, and Willow is the down-and-out addict. With episode titles like “Smashed,” “Wrecked,” and “Gone,” I don’t think you could argue that the show isn’t drawing a comparison between the high gained from using magic and the high achieved from drugs.

You see it elsewhere, too. I’m in the middle of The Fires of Heaven, book 5 of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and several characters are exhibiting signs of magical addiction. Jordan builds it right into the world: the more of the One Power you draw, the more you want to draw, until you still or kill yourself. That’s pretty grim. And if you ask me, at this point in the series, Egwene is exhibiting all the early signs of addition. She can’t get enough of using the power, she constantly wants to learn more, she’s abusing the little authority she has, and she’s reckless in using her power and her authority. (And if you give me any spoilers from the rest of the series, I’ll thump you, because I’m actually quite enjoying this series this go-round.)

Look at the Harry Potter series, too. At some point in one of the books—and I’m kicking myself because I can’t find the quote—someone says that Dumbledore could have done the things Voldemort did, but wouldn’t. Voldemort and Dumbledore perhaps have equally strong abilities, but Voldemort became addicted to his own power. Dumbledore drifted that way a bit in his youth, but he never actually let the magic overwhelm his humanity.

So why does this happen? Why has addiction to magic become a trope?

1. Magic is your basic mind-altering substance. Magic is the ability to use your will to alter the world around you. It’s the ultimate trip—one minute you’re in a club full of goofy guys hitting on you, the next you’re in a room full of dancing sheep and soap bubbles that won’t pop. The world around you is foreign, beautiful, and titillating… and under your control.

2. Magic gives formerly “weak” characters power. Characters like Willow Rosenberg, Egwene al’Vere, and Tom Riddle typically come from middling or even weak backgrounds. Magic gives the no-name character a name, a gift that makes her special and even better than other characters. It’s a cheap trick, though, giving a character a gift that makes him suddenly better than all the rest, with no consequences. It probably follows that…

3. Magic is power, so addiction to magic is addiction to power. That formerly weak character finds herself in an authority position, able to do things that no other character can. It goes to her head. Suddenly Tom Riddle, insignificant orphan, finds himself able to scare those around him, and the next thing you know, he’s Moldy-Voldy, able to make other wizards tremble with a mere look. Willow finds herself the most powerful witch in the world, so powerful she could destroy it just to end its pain. That has to feel good, rather like waking up and discovering you’re a god.

DeviantArt image by Forbis

4. Magic is somehow tied to sexual liberation. Okay, I know we talk about Freud quite a bit around here, but before you run screaming, hear me out. Willow only becomes extremely powerful after meeting her fellow-witch girlfriend Tara. The relaxation of her sexual inhibitions is almost directly related to the increase of her powers. Egwene thought she would grow up and marry Rand, but as she sees the world and realizes her powers, she also realizes that she doesn’t love him “that” way. She gets progressively more powerful as she severs ties to her old self and allows herself to develop new, womanly loves.

5. More accurately, though, magic is tied to self-actualization. As a character discovers herself, she discovers her power. Magic is a metaphor for our own internal strength, and just as we can run away with vanity or self-loathing, we can be overcome by the allure of our own magical power.

I think this last bit is true. Magic is part of a person, not a drug—and perhaps the idea of magic as a mind-altering, negative substance is why you can find Neo-Pagans upset at Whedon’s metaphor. And it’s disturbing to think about: our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.

So what do you think, readers? Why do writers love the magic addiction trope? What are some other reasons characters might get addicted to magic?