Magic Is the Manipulation of Elements

A short digression, because of the snow — and because L and I have gotten ourselves onto the subject of magic, and I want to work through what I’m thinking about it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to come up with some definition of magic, btw. You might remember what I wrote about magic when I went to Disneyland in 2017:

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.

In 2018, I reviewed magician Nate Staniforth’s book Here Is Real Magic:

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.

In 2019, I started reading books about magic and magick and witchcraft:

Enchantments framed magic as the rituals you use to set your intention. The lit candle is not what’s magic, the part that’s magic is the part where you carve your intention into the candle and by doing so focus yourself on what you want or what you are looking for or what you are going to do.

And at the very end of 2019, in the last little bit of the before, I wrote about the way Maggie Stiefvater defined magic in her novel Call Down the Hawk (the quote below is hers, not mine):

If you’ve ever looked into a fire and been unable to look away, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the mountains and found you’re not breathing, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the moon and felt tears in your eyes, it’s that. It’s the stuff between stars, the space between roots, the thing that makes electricity get up in the morning.


The opposite of magical is not ordinary. The opposite of magical is mankind.

If you were to read all of those excerpts — as I am assuming you just did — you might come away with the idea that magic is an emotional response. Magic is something you feel when something magical happens.

But that’s not quite correct.

Magic, as we all know, is an act.

Which means that magic could also be an action.

L and I got onto this topic by asking ourselves whether more adults would work towards a so-called Piano Achievement if there were such an achievement to be achieved.

Basically, I was arguing that one of the reasons people aren’t interested in doing the difficult work of learning the piano is because there aren’t enough professional opportunities available for everyone with the requisite skills. There aren’t enough paying gigs, to be sure — but there also isn’t quite enough space for every talented musician to find an audience, even doing free recitals or posting videos to YouTube.

Plus, some people don’t want an audience. They just want mastery — and although that kind of mastery is its own reward, more people might pursue the path towards mastery if they started out thinking there would be a reward at the end.

“We need some kind of achievement badge,” I said. “Like what they give out on Steam, when you do something very difficult in a video game. You could send in your video to a qualified group of people, and if they agreed that you had successfully demonstrated excellence at the piano, you’d get your badge.”

We talked about whether it would be like the belt system in karate (“I have a black belt in piano”) or whether it would be like the test required to join Mensa. Whether such a system would reveal that there were more top-level musicians mastering their various instruments in the privacy of their own home than any of us realized, and how that might affect the music industry as a whole.

(Except we kinda figured that out that last bit with YouTube and Bandcamp, and it didn’t change as much as we thought it might.)

And then we started talking about The Magic Castle. The idea that what people really want after developing mastery in a particular skill isn’t a badge, but to be recognized by other masters. To be invited into the club, as it were.

And then we just started talking about magic — what it was, whether it was something that could in fact be created, and whether the two of us were in fact in the process of becoming magicians.

You already know that I don’t mean magician in the traditional sense. Nor in the fantastical sense. I mean it just a tiny bit in the Arthur C. Clarke sense, in that any sufficiently advanced level of mastery, at any discipline worth mastering, could be indistinguishable from magic.

But I also mean it in the Maggie Stiefvater sense, and I’ll go ahead and quote what she wrote about the Magician tarot card in The Raven’s Prophecy:

Regardless of who or what you believe in, the Magician is an extraordinary master of all trades, and he is resilient because no matter what the world throws at him, no matter how much he loses, he will always have the most powerful tool at his command: himself.

And I might mean it in the Lev Grossman sense, because much of the way he had his students study magic in The Magicians was identical to the way musicians approach their instruments. (He even gave them “Popper exercises” to practice.)

Not that this is solely about the magician-musician connection, even though those words are oh-so-very-similar. It’s about — well, you already know how I’m going to define it, you already read the title of this blog post, you already know what I told L over coffee and tea this morning:

Magic is the manipulation of elements.

Magic is the specific choice. (This might mean that magic is also the disciplined choice.)

Magic is the all-green week. Magic is choosing to solve problems and changing behaviors that are no longer working.

Magic is transforming what is in front of you because you have decided to transform it — and the point at which you become a magician is the point at which you know how to do the transformation.

The emotions associated with magic — the wonder and whatnot — are the results you get from this specific, deliberate, disciplined application of knowledge.

(Even — and especially — when you experience the wonder yourself.)

And while being recognized by other magicians might be a desire that is hard to ignore, the truth is that once you have attained that level of mastery in your own life, you won’t need outside recognition because you already know what you already have.

More on this later this week. ❤️

On Magic, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Magic

When I was in grad school I lived in one of those group houses with a bunch of other students, and one day one of my roommates was describing some of the psychic experiences she’d had in the past, including ghosts she’d seen and interacted with, and another roommate shared a similar encounter, to which the first roommate said “I knew you also had the gift.”

She looked at me. “And you don’t.”

I don’t recall saying anything, because I wasn’t exactly going to disagree with her — I have never spoken to a ghost — but I do remember feeling, at that moment, a sort of thank goodness that’s obvious.

Like I was proud that someone could look at me and tell I was not currently in conversation with the supernatural.

Then I started dreaming up a novel that had supernatural and magical elements, at which point I thought I should do some hands-on research.

Except it really kind of happened the other way around. I got a tarot deck at the end of 2017, started doing personal readings that were less about trying to communicate with an outside force and more about looking at the cards I drew and evaluating how they made me feel and what they made me think of — like, my most recent reading said I should use the Page of Swords as a path to the Nine of Wands, and that has turned out to be exactly what I am currently doing. (Though not in the way I thought I would be, when I did the reading. Tarot is interesting like that.)

So then I read a bunch of books about magic and magick and witchcraft, one of which I reviewed on this-here blog, and from there I grabbed the books on comparative religion and paganism and Wicca, including Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America (an informative and lyrical read, highly recommended), and the only book that felt anything like me was Mya Spalter’s Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession.

Enchantments framed magic as the rituals you use to set your intention. The lit candle is not what’s magic, the part that’s magic is the part where you carve your intention into the candle and by doing so focus yourself on what you want or what you are looking for or what you are going to do.

I’ve always known intention was a powerful tool, so I started ritualizing my intentions in some of the ways suggested in Enchantments. This is to say I started doing magic spells in my apartment.

(This was also when I started outlining and committing to NEXT BOOK, whether coincidentally or not.)

I quickly figured out what felt like me and what felt like not me, which tied in pretty closely to what that roommate had said, all those years ago — lighting a candle on the new moon and writing out my most important intention for the next lunar cycle felt right; bringing Diana into it felt wrong.* For better or worse, I am not in touch with the supernatural.

But I was worrying a crystal in my hand the other day — because I’ve collected a handful of crystals and have started holding them when I want to focus on and/or absorb the energy with which they are associated — and I thought about how these crystals do in fact do what the piece of paper that came with the set of Scorpio Healing Stones I bought on Etsy claimed they would.**

That is, rubbing my thumb across the citrine stone helps me focus my mind on finding opportunities for abundance (and figuring out how to take action on those opportunities).

And I asked myself whether that was specifically because of the crystal, or whether it came from me.

In other words, whether the magic was in me all along.

It’s what we tell ourselves, when we tell stories about magic; maybe you start out with an invitation to wizard school or a path through a mysterious wardrobe or the dream of finding a dead Welsh king, but the power is in you the whole time. The wands and ruby slippers and all of that are just accessories (many of which get ditched or destroyed by the end of the series, to firmly establish the it’s in your mind/hands/heart, protagonist thing).

Anyway. That’s all I have time for today, so have at it. See you tomorrow. ❤️

*Setting my intention on fire afterwards felt like it could be right, but it created a lot of smoke and I was very lucky to not set off the fire alarm and have to explain to my landlord and/or the fire department that it was because I was doing magic.

**Of course I’m a Scorpio. Capricorn rising, Aquarius moon. This means I am deeply creative and intuitive and emotional but I present to the world as all-business and my hidden self values her independence more than anything. Believe astrology if you want — or don’t — but that explains a lot.