On Reading Nate Staniforth’s ‘Here Is Real Magic’ and Realizing Life As You Live It

I was doing this interview to get a scholarship for college, it was me and something like four or five faculty members in a conference room, and I can’t remember whether they asked me if I had a philosophy of life or if I volunteered it, but I remember quoting Our Town:

Does anyone ever realize life while they live it… every, every minute?

Saints and poets maybe, they do some.

I’d actually learned that quote not from Our Town (though, like most young people interested in theater, I would eventually help stage the play) but from the novelization of My So-Called Life — which I did not mention.

I also don’t remember mentioning that one of the reasons I wanted to work in the arts — or more specifically, make art — was so I could realize life every, every minute. It seemed too much like comparing myself to a saint or a poet, and I was neither.

But I was ambitious, and I was a hard worker, and I was, for lack of a better term, a chaser of dreams.

I bought Nate Staniforth’s Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World for three reasons:

  1. I’d recently moved to Cedar Rapids and I wanted to start building a relationship with my new local bookstore.
  2. It had a blurb from Lev Grossman on the cover, and you already know how I feel about The Magicians.
  3. I was curious whether Staniforth’s definition of magic was the same as mine.

Here’s how I defined “magic,” when I wrote about visiting Disneyland:

I don’t believe in magic but I do believe that people can create magic, which is to say they can imbue items or people or experiences with meaning. They can imagine, to borrow what seems to be the theme, something more—and then it exists.

The magic, to me, isn’t in the action; I know enough about how stage magic works that I can look at something like the opening scene of Now You See It and think “they just forced the seven of diamonds.” The magic is in the reaction; in hearing a theater full of people take a quick breath when the seven of diamonds is revealed.

Or, to go back to the Disneyland example: Snow White’s Wishing Well isn’t magic, but the people who believe in magic (or want to create magic) have made it so by the way we respond. Dropping coins, making wishes, saying prayers. Leaving the grotto feeling hopeful or happy — or like we’ve participated in something larger than ourselves.

Here Is Real Magic, as the subtitle suggests, isn’t really about magic. It’s about wonder. Staniforth writes about two different kinds of wonder: the kind that can take hold of an audience, which falls in line with my definition of creating magic, and the kind that can take hold of the self.

As a musician, I am well aware that you can create the type of performance that delights an audience without necessarily feeling that delight yourself, but it’s hard to create a truly captivating moment without also being equally captivated. It’s the balance between what you’ve rehearsed and what you make new; discipline and connection. The moment when you are singing with someone else (or with a choir) and your voices blend to the point where you can’t tell where you end and your partner begins. The moment when you are listening to the audience as intently as they are listening to you.

But even that, as Staniforth knows and as I know and as anyone who does any kind of creative work over a period of time knows, isn’t enough to maintain your own personal sense of wonder. At some point you’re no longer realizing life as you live it, every, every minute, and you have to go find life again.

It took me until this past year to put a name to what “finding life again” felt like, and you’re going to laugh when I tell this story because it’s so obvious, but here we go:

I bought Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven’s Prophecy tarot deck after reading The Raven Cycle, and here’s where you go if you want to read my thoughts on The Raven Cycle, but when I started using the deck I had the same feeling you get when you’re a child and someone gives you a new toy to explore or take apart or turn into stories.

And I hadn’t had a new toy in forever. I’d occasionally try to go back to old toys, like replaying SNES games, but I’d get bored. That wasn’t play anymore, and this was.

Before I get a bunch of comments on how tarot isn’t a toy, I want to say that I agree with you. It isn’t! But it is play. It’s creative interaction. It’s self-directed and generative and it teaches you something new and helps you grow — and, by the definition above, can be magic.

I didn’t fully put together that “finding life again” meant play until I got my bike. I felt that same strong sense memory of getting a new toy — and although bikes aren’t toys either, they are self-directed and generative and they teach you something new and etc. etc. etc.

So I started looking for other ways to play, and it was interesting to learn what did and didn’t qualify. Caring for my succulents is a little too passive to be play. Cooking can sometimes be play, but sometimes it’s just chores. Singing and dancing are often play, but it’s a little more complicated when you get into the performance end of things because then you start switching over into trying to make something specific, which is why writing can also sometimes be play but sometimes it’s more of that goal-oriented, dream-chasing trying to make art, which is equally captivating but not regenerative in the same way that play is — because play isn’t working towards a desired outcome. It’s just seeing what happens.

(This is where I should sidebar and say that yes, sometimes “just seeing what happens” can result in art, but there’s a difference between play and performance — there’s a lot more vulnerability in performance, for starters — and if you want to read more about that, go get a copy of my novel The Biographies of Ordinary People.)

This is why walking or biking a new trail feels like play, which brings me — finally — to the photo at the top of this post. Finding an empty frame placed on the side of a lake felt like a discovery (even though I in no way discovered it) and the fact that the frame was empty made me imagine everything that could go inside it — the lake, of course, but I could also bring friends here and show them the frame and we could take photos of ourselves through the frame, and I could come back in a month and see what the trees looked like with leaves on them — and suddenly I was connected to this piece of art and interacting with it, and it was wonderful. ❤

This Week in Self-Publishing: The Third BargainBooksy Promo

This Week (technically the past two weeks)

Books sold: 10 ebooks (Amazon)

Money earned: $27.03

Money spent: $0


Books sold: 371 ebooks, 147 paperbacks

Volume 2 pre-orders: 28

Money earned (book sales): $1,469.85

Money earned (Patreon): $6,909

Money spent: $6,622.57

I skipped last week’s update because I had zero sales, zero expenses, and no news to report; this week I still have zero expenses, but I had a bunch of sales because I ran a BargainBooksy promotion on Saturday, March 17.

My previous BargainBooksy promotions had both been Sunday promotions, under the theory that people are more likely to make decisions on Sunday and Monday (I don’t know about you, but Saturdays are generally rest days for me, and Sunday/Monday are action days). Here’s a quick recap of the results:

First BargainBooksy promo (July 16):

Cost: $35

Sales: 28

Net royalties: $75.18

Net profit: $47.18

Highest Amazon ranking: #16,507 overall, #120 in litfic sagas

Second BargainBooksy promo (August 27):

Cost: $35

Sales: 14

Net royalties: $37.38

Net profit: $2.38

Highest Amazon ranking: #31,807 overall, #226 in litfic sagas

Third BargainBooksy promo (March 17):

Cost: $35

Sales: 9 so far (my Amazon KDP report claims I got 9 sales on March 17 and none on March 18, which doesn’t match the sales ranking graph from Author Central; maybe the other sales will record later this week?)

Net royalties: $24.66 so far

Net profit: -$10.34

Highest Amazon ranking:  #39,163 overall, and I know it hit at least the #300s in litfic sagas

It does look like my BargainBooksy promos are showing diminishing returns, although I’ll be interested to see whether I did have some sales on March 18 that haven’t yet been recorded on KDP. My Author Central graph, which you can view at the top of the post, suggests I should have made another 8 or 9 sales on Sunday, so… where are they?

If it turns out that I made zero sales on Sunday but my author ranking remained in the 30,000s  because nobody was buying books that day (remember, Amazon is constantly comparing you to all of the other books being sold in real time) then it won’t be a terrible loss. The biggest reason I ran the BargainBooksy promo was to get new readers who would then pre-order Volume 2, after all — and my pre-orders did go up this week. Still, I’d like to break even on the cost of the promo, so I’m hoping I get a few more sales!

I sent Volume 2 to designer Veronica Ewing to start the “turn it into a paperback” process this week. We have a lot more time to get this done than we did last year, and (I hope) a lot less work; the interior design will follow the template Veronica created for Volume 1, so we don’t have to have a second conversation about layouts and typefaces.

I also asked Veronica to make a few changes to Volume 1; we need to edit the copyright page to reflect the new ebook ISBN, now that Pronoun is defunct (seriously, the fact that we all lost our ISBNs was one of the worst parts of the Pronoun shutdown), there’s one typo in the text that I want to fix, and I need to edit the back cover copy to include the Library Journal Self-E Selection honor.

This is where I want to add “and any other honors The Biographies of Ordinary People might receive in the next few months,” because AWARDS SEASON is starting, but I also don’t want to sound overconfident or presumptuous or jinxy.

Here’s a list of all the places I submitted Biographies Volume 1:

I got my IndieReader Discovery Award Verdict this week (it’s like the BookLife Critic’s Report, they review all of the books before they announce the winners, no doubt to get the extra publicity that comes when excited authors like me share their reviews), and my verdict included “The rather unassuming title doesn’t do justice to the beautifully written story of this typical American family.” So… no matter what happens with these awards, I can still tell people that IndieReader thought my writing was beautiful. ❤


This Week in Self-Publishing: Volume 2 Is Available on NetGalley!

This Week

Books sold: 1 ebook (Google Play), 1 ebook (iBooks)

Money earned: $4.87

Money spent: $1,155


Books sold: 361 ebooks, 147 paperbacks

Money earned (book sales): $1,442.82

Money earned (Patreon): $6,909

Money spent: $6,622.57

Let’s add one more metric to the list: 25 pre-orders.

So this was a big spending week for me; I sent The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 to Kirkus, Foreword Clarion, and BlueInk to be reviewed. The Kirkus review cost $425, and the Foreword Clarion/BlueInk two-review package cost $695.

I also spent $35 to set up another Bargain Booksy promotion for Volume 1, in the hopes that readers will buy the first book and then GET EXCITED ABOUT THE SEQUEL.

If you are currently excited about the sequel AND you have a NetGalley account, you can read/review Volume 2 RIGHT NOW. (You can also read/review Volume 1, if you want.)

That’s all the update I can give at the moment because I am very busy singing in the chorus of Revival Theatre Company’s production of Ragtime — which opens this Thursday — but as soon as that is done I will be going FULL SPEED into book promotion and paperback production. More news coming soon! ❤

This Week in Self-Publishing: Volume 2 Is Available for Pre-Order!

This Week

Books sold: 0

Money earned: $0

Money spent: $0


Books sold: 359 ebooks, 147 paperbacks

Money earned (book sales): $1,440.02

Money earned (Patreon): $6,909

Money spent: $5,467.57

The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016 is officially available for pre-order on Amazon! (Ebook only. Paperback will come later. The book releases on May 22.)

If you’re a NetGalley person, Volume 2 will be up on NetGalley this week for you to read and review.

At this point I get to switch from “creating the ARC” to “promoting the ARC,” which means I’m going to be reaching out to bloggers and reviewers, running another BargainBooksy promo for Volume 1, and… stuff? More stuff? I need to start doing Instagram posts, guest blogs, podcast episodes, etc. (If you know of anyone who would love to have my melodious voice on their podcast, let me know.)

Thanks for your support throughout all of this. I hope you enjoy Volume 2. I also hope you pre-order it, but that’s up to you. ❤

The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 is available for pre-order!

This post was originally sent to my TinyLetter subscribers.

Exciting news, y’all: The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016 is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

This is ebook only; I’ll let you know as soon as the paperback is ready.

The official release date is May 22, 2018, one year minus one day after The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1 released, because books release on Tuesdays.

I hope you enjoy the second volume. It was a lot harder to write than the first volume, in part because adult lives don’t have the same linear forward motion as child and adolescent lives. There are stops and starts and circles, and way too many opportunities to repeat the same mistakes until you learn and grow beyond them.

But thank goodness we do keep learning and growing.  ❤

(I was reading Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore this weekend — highly recommended, btw — and there’s a section of the book that deals with a young woman trying to carve out an artistic career in Los Angeles, and I was like “Wait a minute, I did that. I remember doing all of that, and now it feels like something I did when I was younger and more foolish and in some ways more open, because I was ready to take whatever seedy success came my way.”)

Here are a few other items of note:

It’s been just about a month since The Billfold switched to a Patreon-funded model, and we’re getting closer to our second Patreon goal. If you are one of our Patreon supporters, THANK YOU.

If you are writing your own novel and you’d like an editorial eye, I have some open time on my schedule for the next few months and I’d love to work with you. Here’s how to set that up.

If you’re looking for something to read on the internet, I can’t stop thinking about Edith Zimmerman’s My First Year Sober. I’ve never been a super-heavy drinker, but over the past six months or so I’ve sort of… stopped? It’s not that I never drink, because I had a finger of bourbon at Christmas and sipped on a glass of wine at a dinner in January, but it’s more like the experiences of 1) being tipsy and 2) being tired and fuzzy-headed the next day aren’t experiences I want to have — and see, now I’m going to start sounding like Edith does in her essay, the whole “I feel so much HEALTHIER” thing that she admits is annoying, but the essay is brilliant and also it has ILLUSTRATIONS, so go read it.

And pre-order The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 if you want. Thank you. ❤

This Week in Self-Publishing: My Book Is On iBooks Now

This Week (technically “these past two weeks”)

Books sold: 0

Money earned: $0

Money spent: $386.86


Books sold: 359 ebooks, 147 paperbacks

Money earned (book sales): $1,440.02

Money earned (Patreon): $6,909

Money spent: $5,467.57

Sorry to skip last week — I was feeling unwell. I was actually hoping to have done all the work to set up the Volume 2 preorder by now, but that didn’t happen either… however, I did finally finish the process of getting The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1 back on iBooks (which I keep wanting to write as iTunes), so that’s one item I can check off the list. It should be available for sale by Tuesday at the latest.

I also submitted Volume 1 to the IndieReader Discovery Awards, specifically because they have a Best First Book award and I’m pretty proud of my first book.

I spent $374 to submit Volume 1 to the Literary Fiction category and the Best First Book category and get a discounted book review in the process (because part of the reason you do all of this is to have another piece of promotional material to send around, plus the chance of getting the IndieReader Approved sticker from the reviewer which means extra promo on IndieReader’s part, plus the chance of getting an award and having IndieReader send your book to agents).

Then I spent $12.86 to ship paperback copies of Volume 1 to IndieReader, because I had the choice of sending paperbacks or ebooks and… I’m pretty proud of my paperback, too. ❤

Other than that, I’m going to keep working and try to get that preorder up by March 1. Take care of yourselves, y’all. There are a lot of colds and flu going around, and I am still not completely well from the “probably a cold but I had about 24 hours of mild fever and muscle aches” thing I’ve had.

Photo credit: Josh Newman, CC BY 2.0.