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. ❤

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On Reading the News While Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

I checked Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys out of the library for three reasons:

  1. I love her posts on writing.
  2. I love her rules for living.
  3. Her background appears to be similar to mine in some interesting ways.

Supernatural/paranormal YA is not usually my genre, but character is my genre and feelings is my genre and mythology was definitely my genre when I was a teenager, and I ended up reading all four Raven Cycle books in five consecutive days.

I’m not sure that reading is the right word, though. More like actively hallucinating. I remember taking this pause, looking away from the page, and realizing that my bedroom looked wrong because it wasn’t the kitchen in 300 Fox Way. (Then I asked myself: Nicole, can you mentally walk through every room of that house the same way you could walk through the rooms of any place where you’ve actually lived? And I could. It was weird. I’d also created a memory map of Monmouth Manufacturing.)


Even though I love my adulthood much more than I ever enjoyed my teenagerhood—which can be emotionally, though not factually, summed up in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000The Raven Cycle made me wish I could be a teenager again.

It’s like… I wasn’t just seeing the walls of everybody’s houses, I was also inside those houses—and caves, and cars, and characters’ perspectives. Although I had a very different adolescence, I still had a moment with a guidance counselor and I still had a smile that I put on in public and I still had so many questions about love.

So I felt all of these emotions that are so vividly associated with youth and then I had to put the book down and be in my thirty-five-year-old body. Which was just as jarring as seeing my own bedroom and not the kitchen at 300 Fox Way.


But here’s why I’m actually writing this post:

If you haven’t read The Raven Cycle, I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that there are several primary characters and each character is involved in at least two or three intersecting plotlines. Sometimes one of the plotlines will be experiencing some stress, shall we call it—you could also call it property destruction, demon possession, or occasionally blood—but then you get to the next chapter and it’s about characters learning how to trust each other or finding joy in a cup of Dannon “Fruit on the Bottom” Yogurt.

(I don’t have time to write about the role that socioeconomic class plays in The Raven Cycle—and anyway, it’s already been written—but that cheap cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt struck me right in the lived experience. Also the sentence describing the bookshelf that also holds cooking stuff. That bookshelf is in my apartment right now.)

Anyway, by the time you get to the fourth book in the series, all the plotlines start experiencing stress. You turn the pages and there is no relief; you keep turning the pages and things start happening that can’t be undone. You watch a few powerful people make choices that you know are going to hurt so many other people and there is nothing you can do to stop them.

And then you take a break and make yourself a cup of Celestial Seasonings tea and check Twitter or the Washington Post as the electric kettle on your bookshelf heats up, and you feel like you are still in the book.


The trouble is that I’m not a teenager, and I’m certainly not a YA teenager who is crucial to the narrative. I haven’t even figured out the love thing to the point that I could—well, now I am getting dangerously near spoiler territory, but what I mean is that I feel very unpowerful right now.

I’m not the Chosen One and I’m not young enough to feel like I could be someday. I’m a background character and I have to watch the monster or the earthquake or the government or the corporations and wonder if the heroes will show up—or if the only person who can fix this is off doing their homework, leaving me stuck within the boundaries of my single paragraph. Calling my reps and saying my one line of dialogue.


There is a section at the end of The Raven Cycle that addresses what we can do when we don’t know what else to do; when we feel powerless and afraid and the bad news keeps coming. I don’t want to spoil it, but I read it I felt so grateful that it had been included. You don’t have to be the Chosen One to do it, either.

Of course, the drawback is that it doesn’t really change anything except yourself. But you already know how I feel about magic only working when it’s applied to your own actions.


Maggie Stiefvater’s #1 Rule For Living is this:

Decide life is going to be great. All other methods will fail without this prerequisite. A decision that life will be great allows a terrible event to turn into a plot twist along the way, not a confirmation that your life is shit.

I love that it begins with the word decide, and I love that it implies that we can write, though not necessarily control, our own stories. Mostly I love that it’s about keeping on, moving forward, doing the work, pursuing happiness if you want to describe it that way—even when, to borrow a phrase I learned when I was an executive assistant at a DC think tank, the situation on the ground has changed.

The situation on the ground is changing faster than I can turn the pages, these days.

I don’t know what to do when all the plotlines start falling apart.

I really want to end this with “I guess I’ll write my own,” which feels like the most selfish and honest thing I could possibly say.

But I’m going to keep doing the work, which is to say doing what I can for the world and then doing my work, which is to say doing what matters to me BECAUSE IT MATTERS TO ME and that is enough reason to do it.

And because, as I wrote earlier this month, I feel emotions through stories—which means that if it does in fact come down to love, this is how I create and share it.

Now go read The Raven Cycle.❤️

Photo credit: Andrea Pokrzywinski, CC BY 2.0.

On Revising My Novel While Reading Meg Howrey’s ‘The Wanderers,’ or: Books Are Supposed to Make You Think and Feel, Right?

I read Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers last week. To say that it was a book that made me forget the rest of the world existed might be a little on the nose, if you know what the story’s about, but I haven’t been this fully absorbed by a book in… I don’t even know how long.

I’ve loved a lot of books this year; Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, Ali Smith’s Autumn, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn stand out as some of my favorites. But in many cases I’m studying the language along with the story, which means I am both in the book and outside of it.

In The Wanderers‘ case I was all in.

I empathized with all of the characters—important, in a character-driven book—but felt the strongest pull towards Yoshi and Helen; with Helen, in particular, I felt like Howrey was writing truths about my own life that I was not yet ready to admit to myself.

But hey, it’s been a week. So here we go.


Mild spoilers, if you want to skip the rest of this post: Helen is an astronaut. She values her ability to perform complex tasks on command and knows that doing what she loves—that is, going to space—depends on her being able to function at top capacity at all times. This means discipline of body, of mind, and of emotions both internal and projected. Which is to say she cannot be misperceived, especially in public. Astronauts represent things, after all.

Helen is proud of her ability to maintain this discipline and geniality. The discipline, at least, comes naturally. If she had not become an astronaut she would have found another job that utilized similar skills.

I put the book down partway through—because I am also disciplined, and it was time to go to bed—and thought about how remarkable it was to be reading this story about a woman who has chosen a career that comes with certain requirements and constraints, is honest about what she has given up in order to work within those constraints, and admits that the choice is worth it.

It was also remarkable to finish the book and understand that Howrey had written a story about characters growing and changing and learning from each other without having to give up their discipline. This isn’t a story about uptight astronauts learning how to love before floating around in zero-gee soap-and-ketchup bubbles because it’s okay to be messy now, aren’t you glad we learned that?  (Not saying being messy is bad. Saying that’s the cliché.) This is a story of highly qualified people who do know how to love, who share an intense experience that teaches them how to be more specific with their love and with themselves.


I made the burndown chart for The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 today. It’s divided into the following sections:

  • Revisions
  • Rewrites
  • Checks
  • Permissions
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Prep
  • Reviews
  • Publicity
  • Awards
  • Promos
  • Ads
  • Appearances
  • Longterm
  • Maybe

For the book to publish in May 2018, I need to get Revisions through Prep done by March, in addition to my writing and editing work at The Billfold and my work for other freelance clients.

I write about 40,000 freelance words a month and edit 40 pieces, which might not require the same discipline as an astronaut but certainly requires me to function at top capacity at all times. (Or, at least, never drop below 85%.) Part of me thinks this isn’t anything worth remarking on; don’t all careers assume that we’ll show up on time, ready to go?

But other people, when I mention what I do, tend to remark on it. Generally along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it.”

I do it the same way that Helen does it: discipline, skill, compartmentalization. (And, by this point, years of practice.)

I also know what I am giving up. Not necessarily to have this career, but definitely to do all of this and get The Biographies of Ordinary People ready for publication. To do all of this, get Biographies ready, and prioritize the exercise-nutrition-sleep required to do all of this and get Biographies ready means a lot of saying no—whether it’s out loud, or internally before anyone has even asked.

This is where I’m supposed to write something about how I feel a little badly, the way the characters in The Wanderers occasionally remember to say that they feel a little badly, about this choice.

But the truth is that I want it more than anything. I have structured my entire life to have this choice. My job is to be good enough to get to keep making this choice for as long as I can.


Now I do feel badly, because I’ve written something that is both true and could be perceived as callous or careerist or lacking love, and part of what I do—you knew I was going to bring this up—involves not being misperceived.

This is both the literal definition of writing and the more contemporary definition of not being disliked. I know that telling you something true about myself is actually more likely to make us feel connected to each other, but I also know that admitting that I avoid some types of typical everyday stuff in order to focus more fully on my work might make you feel disconnected from me.

I could try to reconnect us by saying that we all make choices like this; we choose what we want to move towards and we choose what we want to move away from. (Sometimes we wish we could move towards or away from something, but there are circumstances or obstacles preventing us.) But that runs the risk of being doubly misperceived; in this case, the assumption that I’m saying my choices are better.

They’re not. I’m writing this because I’m putting a lot of intense focus on my novel right now, so I’m very interested in the choices I’m making.

I’m also writing this because I know that other people like to read about how writers work, and this is how I do it.

Mostly I’m writing this because I can’t get The Wanderers out of my head.


Back to the revisions. The reason that I am fairly sure I can complete everything on that list by March—assuming I keep the health stats up—is because this part of the writing process is mostly about discipline. It’s about me thinking critically about my writing: Is it clear?  Is every word the best possible choice, within some kind of 80:20 Pareto Principle? (Knowing which words for sure need to be the best possible choice is also part of revision.) Do the characters move in understandable ways through the narrative?

The most difficult part of that checklist will be REWRITES, which is the list of scenes I need to either rewrite in full or create from scratch. That requires emotion and sense memory and a presence of mind that is very different from the part of me that thinks “is this person a minister or a pastor?”

Which means that for the next several months, I have to be ready to jump on REWRITES on the days that I feel most emotionally capable of doing them. I already know that I’ll only have certain times free to do REWRITES (and everything else on the list), and I’ve blocked those times off on my calendar the way you’re supposed to, and I’ve already told multiple people that I won’t be available on certain weekend days because I need them, a month from now, for Biographies.

This is part of what it means to structure your life to be able to make the choices I am currently making (and knowing what you’re giving up in the process, like being less available to family, friends, the non-profit at which I tutor, etc.).

I know this isn’t the only way to revise a book. But it’s the way I’ve figured out how to revise mine. This is the second book revision process I’ve ever done, and it’s different from a lot of other writers’ first because of the way Biographies is published and second because all writers are different. We aren’t all Helens, or Pearls, or Berts, or any of the other characters that have ever helped me understand myself.

(That’s a terrible way to wrap up this post, though. Let’s revise it.)

I do want to be more specific with my love, and with myself, and with my work. I could tell you, if I weren’t coming to the end of this post, about the time I did an intensive class with Anne Bogart and learned how very specific a person could be when telling a story—and how much work it takes. (And how much love.)

And specificity requires choice, which means saying no to something in order to say yes to something else.

And now I will admit, honestly, that I do feel regret—or, more specifically, disappointment that I cannot be everything to everyone, that I am failing both them and my ideal version of myself—about the things I say no to. Right in this moment, as I write this, of course I do. ❤️

Photo credit: Ian D. Keating, CC BY 2.0.