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The Magic of Writing

Predictions (or manifestations?) by Diana Wynne Jones: 1974, mid '77, '82, late '83, early '84, and '87.


This is a set of snippets from Reflections: on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones, 2012. This book, her last, will fascinate writers (or wannabes)--her views on the craft, on character development, on mythic layering behind surface events, on Tolkienesque foreshadowing and echoes, and on the delusion that writing's a neat, sane process when the truth is a white-hot altered state.

If you haven't read her sharp, funny, erudite, unclassifiable novels, try

It turns out that when Jones says "the magic of writing", she means it. Jones refused to pigeonhole her books as realism, surrealism, fantasy or science fiction--because she lived in a magical world. Let's follow one sample thread: how her writing-trance often predicted (or perhaps, she worried, even caused) events she pictured so feverishly. Writer as wizard!

And what if non-writers do it too--wish up the madness we see? Except minus the paper trail.

--Chris Wayan

from Foreword by Neil Gaiman (Reflections p. xii); undated

...She was polite, unless she was being gloriously rude, and she was, I suppose, relatively normal, if you were able to ignore the swirls and eddies of improbability that bubbled and crashed around her. And believe me, they did: Diana would talk about her "travel jinx," and I thought she was exaggerating until we had to fly to America on the same plane. The plane we were meant to fly on was taken out of commission after the door fell off, and it took many hours to get another plane. Diana accepted this as a normal part of the usual business of travel. Doors fell off planes. Sunken islands rose up beneath you if you were in boats. Cars simply and inexplicably ceased to function. Trains with Diana on them went to places they had never been before and technically could not have gone...

--Neil Gaiman

from The Halloween Worms (Reflections pp. 61-2); events of 1974 and 1982

This is a true story, even though it came out of a book. You see, what I write in my books and think I have made up has a creepy way of coming true. I noticed it first over The Ogre Downstairs. When I wrote that book, we were living in a new house with a flat roof and almost no stairs. The roof turned out to dissolve in rain, the lavatories every so often flushed boiling water, and we had an electric fountain in the living room, because the builders had got confused about which were electric cables and which were heating pipes. I was so sick of that house that I invented a quite different one for The Ogre Downstairs--a tall, thin house with lots and lots of stairs.

Now I live in a tall, thin house with lots and lots of stairs. I didn't do it on purpose. It came about by accident, in an awful hurry. But the house is almost exactly like the house I put in that book. After that, things out of other books started coming true too. It was quite frightening. Imagine meeting the most sinister baddie you have ever invented (or thought you had invented), and hearing him say exactly the things you had put in the book for him to say. That happened. I asked other writers whether anything like this had ever happened to them. "Oh, yes," they said. "Isn't it creepy?" It was.

I decided that in the next book I wrote I would put in so many things from real life that it couldn't come true because it had happened anyway. Ha, ha. I decided to write about my schooldays.

The book was called Witch Week. It takes place in a very old-fashioned school at Halloween...

[Six pages follow--how she wrote into Witch Week her childhood memories of harsh school staff and sickening dinners. She found herself changing one detail--instead of "fishes' eyes in glue" and "dead daffodils and mashed caterpillar" for dinner, her character's served "worms in custard"--well, seafood cocktail, but that's what her character calls it, and thinks of it. Soon after Witch Week came out, Diana was talked into a reunion. It got relocated to a school, at Halloween, where they served, yes, worms in custard. As it turned out, bad worms. She spent all night puking. While little witches knocked on the door shouting "Trick or treat!" Ha, ha. Don't write about your schooldays--Ed.]

from The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy (pp. 82-83); events c. mid-1977

But the most striking example is Drowned Ammet, in my Dalemark quartet. The story more or less ends with an island rising up magically out of the sea and breaking a huge sailing ship in two, then greening over, growing grass and so forth, in an incredibly short time. Theres also an element of terrorism: the hero tries to plant a bomb in a procession.

This came true when somebody asked me to christen a boat. I was terribly flattered to have been asked, and then there I was with these enthusiastic, nice people and their boat, which was most fortunately a catamaran, so it was in two pieces already. They handed me two little bottles of airline champagne and said: "Would you pour one--don't break it, please!--over each of the hulls, and would you please invoke the gods?"

I asked them if they were sure they didn't want me to break the bottles. Boat builders had told me that it was terribly bad luck if you didn't break the bottles. I asked them twice and they still said they were sure.

So I did as they asked, and then we all got onto the boat and started sailing. We sailed for about five minutes--it really wasn't very long--before an island came up out of the sea, covered with grass, and we found we were completely stranded, miles from anywhere, sitting on top of this trickling grassy mound, with acres of sea all around.

We finally ended up knee deep in mud, floundering onto shore, whereupon we were politely arrested by some very superior soldiers because we had accidentally landed in a military training area. They thought we might be terrorists!

I thought, Oh my goodness, all the elements of this book are coming together. I did however catch my train home.

from Lecture Two: Negatives and Positives in Children's Literature (Reflections pp. 157-8); events of late 1983 & winter 1984

There is one bizarre and creepy fact about my books which never gets onto the backs of jackets or into reviews--that is that they come true. This usually happens after I have written them... Sometimes, however, the book comes true while I am actually writing it, and this can be quite upsetting. Fire and Hemlock was one of those. One of the many things that happened while I was writing it was that an eccentric bachelor friend from Sussex University, who stayed with us while he was lecturing in Bristol, insisted on my driving him to some stone circles in our neighborhood. There, he began having mystic experiences, while I kept getting hung up astride the electric fences that crisscrossed the site. My outcries, he said, were disturbing the vibes, so he sent me to the local pub to wait for him. As soon as I got there, the landlady and the other customers began talking about these same stone circles and related the local story about their origins. This story is called "The Wicked Wedding": the bride, who is an evil woman, chooses a young man to marry, but at the wedding, the devil comes, kills the young bridegroom, and marries the lady himself. This is the story behind Fire and Hemlock and, believe it or not, I had never heard it before--I thought I'd made it up.

Well, after various other strange experiences, my eccentric friend went back to Sussex and I finished the book. I then started, immediately, to write Archer's Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter's night and discovered a baby. He found it a very moving experience--but I felt acutely responsible. It is all very well my books coming true on me--it is a risk I take--but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke. The trouble is, a book demands that certain incidents are present in it, and to deny this is to spoil the book...

from Something About the Author (Reflections pp. 297-8); 1987

... Another thing that stops me living a quiet life is my travel jinx. This is hereditary: my mother has it and so does my son Colin. Mine works mostly on trains. Usually the engine breaks, but once an old man jumped off a moving train I was on and sent every train schedule in the country haywire for that day.

And my books have developed an uncanny way of coming true. The most startling example of this was last year, when I was writing the end of A Tale of Time City. At the very moment when I was writing about all the buildings in Time City falling down, the roof of my study fell in, leaving most of it open to the sky.

Perhaps I don't need a quiet life as much as I think I do.

photo of author Diana Wynne Jones with her dog Caspian, 1984.
Diana with her faithful dog Caspian, who inspired Dogsbody,1984


Jones jokes in order to trivialize and normalize it, but she seems to have been a functional witch without conscious control over her gift, who worried she was CAUSING these babies in the snow. Did she need to worry? She may have just foreseen them, or at most steered herself toward such scenes (among her possible futures) by writing and visualizing. If that's a meaningful distinction. I'm mired in linear time too--I don't know how to write intelligently about time-branches. English, feh. All those tenses for linear time, none for sideways... except the ol' woulda coulda shoulda. And they're all negative--what didn't happen.

What DWJ manifested, particularly her constant travel & bureaucratic troubles, weren't wishes or benefits. Yet if you assume she foresaw not caused, it stops looking like self-sabotage. If she'd mined appalling events in her life AFTER the fact, her use of them wouldn't bother us--writers all try to squeeze life's lemons into literary lemonade. It's only the order of events that's creepy. Reverse them? Problem gone! Sorta.

Except... after you've mined your Probable-Possible Future, why not steer away from it, so it ONLY happens in your book?

"Probable-Possible, my black hen
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
She doesn't lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she's unable to Postulate How."

---The Space Child's Mother Goose, Frederic Winsor

Jones sensed and commented on her own magic, but seems to have lacked a multidimensional time-theory giving her confidence that she COULD steer away from trouble after she'd mined it for fiction... picturing a peaceful journey just before deciding just when to order plane tickets, so she'd by witch-luck get a seat on a plane whose door won't fall off, even if one plane on her route was an accident waiting to happen. Maybe she just was unable to Postulate How.

But she left us a lot of fascinating eggs. And this record of their gestation. A fantasy writer forced to believe in magic because she kept causing it... inadvertently.

BOOK NOTE: if you're curious, try Jeffrey Kripal's Mutants and Mystics, on science fiction writers (mostly American men in the mid-20th century) who fictionalized their real paranormal experiences. His cases aren't quite like DWJ--more often, their tales incorporate past events, not ones summoned by writing. But that's equally challenging to the mainstream view of fantasy. And reality. Fascinating and funny. Also, see Clifton, on Marc Clifton, a midcentury SF writer overlooked by Kripal, whose fiction directly rises from a lifelong empathic/telepathic sense.

LISTS AND LINKS: writers & writing - book-inspired dreams - meditation & altered states - prayers & wishes - magic & mages - shamanism - prediction (mostly dreams) - ESP in general - telekinesis or manifestation - Diana Wynne Jones - It's not only Jones: Jo Equinity misses her old horse, and tries Summoning Shadow - Wayan, writing of a broken axle, discovers that What You Imagine Happens - Years before the Titanic sank, Morgan Robertson wrote of The Titan - The life of DWJ's teacher, Tolkien, hinged on a weird accident echoing his own writing: see Beren and Luthien

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