REVIEW: Into the Magic Shop

Crisply written, full of surprising turns and excellent questions, Into the Magic Shop is both a memoir and an approachable introduction to how our brains work.

James Doty brings two things to the conversation:

  1. His knowledge of the brain as a neurosurgeon
  2. One heck of a life story to tell

James’ mostly absent father drank their money away and disappeared for days. His mother suffered from severe depression, spending most of her time in bed. Then one day, he walked into a magic shop, looking for a trick thumb, met Ruth, and his life changed.

Ruth taught James the most useful magic trick: How to relax both his mind and body. Now we call it mindfulness.

Because Doty learned to manage his thoughts and emotions, to come up with a focused intention for what he wanted to do with his life, he grabbed life and shaped it into something of his own devising. But not without some serious bumps.

He wished for money and success and all its trappings, only to find himself surrounded by riches but not much more. He’s at the top of his game, but considered an asshole.

It is a story about values. About how what we think we value sometimes is what holds us captive. The lesson I appreciate the most is that, it is only when we set ourselves a clear intention that we get where we want to go.

Doty offers a fascinating and thought-provoking journey. Through science and powerful argument, he explains how and why relaxation technique, meditation, opening the heart and setting clear intentions are not just good for you. They are magical powers which, if we all embraced, might make the world a beautiful place.

How actors use these principles

Since Stanislavski, actors learned that the process of relaxation is a key tool to performing on stage. Actors use their minds and bodies as a means to enter into the  character they are playing.

In a process I call “steeping tea” (news reporters call it “gathering string”), actors focus their thoughts to actually change their minds to be more like the character’s. They might:

  • Write a journal for the character for the year.
  • Research on the time period or place where the character lived.
  • Write the story of key chapters in the person’s life.
  • Imagine in as much detail as possible, moments from the story that aren’t included. The moment before they enter a scene, for example. Or a story from their childhood that still pings at them today.
  • And much more…

Then they throw it all away.

The body and the mind are linked quite closely. By using either the mind or the body, they are finding ways to become the character. When they get up on stage, they trust that the “experience” of being that character is in them. They are like a pot of hot water that has been steeped into tea.

How can writers use this?

Writing is a kind of performance. Where an actor is trying to discover how to play a character, as writer you play every role, and cinematographer, set designer and so on.

Exercises like these — the exploration you do explore a situation– can help you take your writing up a notch. That is, use your mind and even your body, to get into the worlds of your characters and the scene you are creating.

You might:

  • Find a song that suits the mood and rhythm of a scene you are writing.
  • Write the “moment before” for each character.
  • Stand up and act out the scene from each character’s point of view.

Close your eyes. Put yourself there mentally. Put yourself there physically. Then see what comes out of your pen.

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In the grand theme of things

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If a story is merely a collection of events told in sequential order we’d all be novelists and screen writers. But that just ain’t so.

A well told story captures our collective imagination, wins our hearts, changes minds and introduces us to characters we fall in love with or fear (and all those emotions in between).

As writers, isn’t that what we strive for? But how do we get ‘there’?

Hold that question and bear with me for a moment. I promise not to growl or maul you.

When a reader opens a novel to that first page, they are looking for something to connect with. That is, they want to see something of themselves reflected the pages.

If they wanted to meet a someone who waxes poetical about themselves for hours on end, they’d go to a party, a bar, or join some kind of group. Who among us hasn’t listened to a friend’s opera about… the latest boyfriend who dumped them, the reason they’re not a superstar, how well ‘designed’ their life is, the trivia of their days or pets.

But walking into the arms of a story is something we do for ourselves, not the good of humanity.

You or your character may have an interesting life, but that alone will not feed your readers. They need sustenance. Something in it for them. (Because enjoying a story really is a selfish activity, isn’t it?).

So, how does the writer get ‘there’? Through that writing tool known as ‘universal theme.’

The universal theme is the thing that everyone can connect to. The glue that holds your story together, because everyone can see themselves reflected there. It’s what your story is ‘about’ under the surface of events. It’s what takes all of those events and gives them meaning.

A writer doesn’t just select a theme and write about it (unless it’s really obvious, like in action thrillers or murder mysteries). It comes out of that digging you do as you first begin writing. It is like an uncovering process, searching for that special nugget of glue that will hold your story together. Once found, it serves as a tool to make decisions about what stays and what goes. What to emphasize, what to gloss over.

The place to look for your theme is in the struggle of the main character.

What’s your struggle?

A story about a woman fretting over ending her marriage may be struggling with:

  • How much of a life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the family?
  • What exactly is abusive behaviour? Where is the line drawn between abuse and character traits

A person who loses all of their family in a car crash may struggle with:

  • How do we learn to live with what we can never come to terms with?

Someone lying in a hospital waiting to die might struggle with:

  • What does it mean to live?
  • What does it mean to live a life that matters?
  • What is a ‘good death’?

A man who meets the love of his life online, and after years of messaging, talking and netsex finally meets her to discover she is truly ugly (and not at all like her photos). He might be struggling with:

  • What is beauty, really?

Notice how the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ are not in there (e.g., is my husband an abuser?). This is important, because by stating the struggle in universal terms, you take the question out of the character’s corner. Your character’s struggle must be experienced looking out, not in.

A universal theme is one that is timeless and all people can relate to. It is about the challenge of being stuck in a body and  having to relate to people and the world around us. In other words, being human. That is why it’s ‘universal.’ The more universal your theme, the broader the reach of your work. It means the difference between words strung together and the work of an artist.

A theme is a frame (or a filter, or a lense) that allows you to look at an individual scene and ask yourself, “How is this interaction an exploration of my theme?” If the scene has no relation to the theme, either you need to revise it or out it goes.

A theme also handily keeps your characters out of self pity or self loathing. It gives them a way to look out at the world, not at their navals. The point is to find the meaning of the struggle, not to indulge in it.

Now, keep in mind that your character may not be conscious of the universality of their struggle. In fact, that can be part of the story! Say, when a person’s obsessions or drug of choice is ruining their life or the lives of those around them.

The first theme you uncover may not be the one that works for your story. It can take some trial and error to figure it out. But when you do find it you’ll know it. It’ll ping at you. Suddenly, your work and all of the individual scenes will make sense. You’ll know what is detritus and where to look for gold. You know what else? It will also give your story a great chance of reaching into your reader’s hearts and taking them on a thrilling ride.