Tuesday, October 30, 2012

That Voodoo That You Do

For those of you who don't know, I have studied the history and lore of the practice of voodoo for almost twenty-five years. It isn't something I consciously decided to take up in the hope of improving my love life or turning someone into a zombie. (Although, now I think about it, turning Gerard Butler into my voodoo love slave does have a certain appeal!)

I became interested in voodoo when I played research assistant (translation - driver, note taker, secretary and gopher) to one of the most eccentric professors ever to grace the hallowed halls of the University of Southern Mississippi - Dr. O (aka The Professor of Enemy Languages - He taught German and Russian.) The study of the voodoo religion as practiced in Louisiana was a passion of his and he did a great deal of research on the subject in the years I knew him. Research I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat to, which resulted in my meeting some fascinating people and seeing some amazing and quite unbelievable things.

I don't really intend to post a long, drawn-out dissertation on voodoo today. If anyone has any specific questions or wants to be pointed to some great research resources I would be happy to do so. Just zip me an e-mail and I'll do the best I can to help. (louisa@louisacornell.com)




 I will tell you most of the movies with voodoo themes have picked bits and pieces from various versions of voodoo or hoodoo and therefore don't give a really great picture of the practices of specific versions of the voodoo faith. Yes, it is a faith, a religion and its roots can be found in African spiritual practices, Catholicism, and rituals from many Caribbean island beliefs. A priest is called a oungan, a priestess a mambo. Spirits are lwa or lao and hold a similar position as saints in Catholicism. Catholic saints can be called upon as well. Gris-gris can be worked for good or evil and there is always a price to pay.



And what does all of this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. Not long ago I was looking over my copy of all of those notes I took. In 1986 Dr. O spent several evenings speaking with a lady who was well known in the New Orleans voodoo community then. She is even better known now and we'll just leave it at that. I asked her a question, and while I found her answer confusing then, it makes perfect sense now.

"How do you cast a spell on someone who doesn't believe?"



"Ah, bebe, when you work the gris-gris what they believe is not so important as what you believe. If you believe, you can make them believe."


Marie Laveau
 
Writing is very much like weaving a spell. We want to draw the reader into our world, sometimes into our very souls. There is no magic potion or ritual we can perform to make our stories an unforgettable part of our readers' lives, something they will never forget. Like the mambo we study, we learn our craft, we find out as much as we can about what our readers want and need. We use our words, our voice, our creativity and inspiration. We pour our hearts, souls, sweat and sometimes it even feels like our blood onto the page in the hope of working a spell of love, revenge, fame, fortune and every secret desire for our readers. We want the sorcery of what we write to wrap around them on every page, to drift into their minds, to creep up on them and to mark them as changed by what we have wrought.

But do we believe? Think of the writers whose work we truly admire. Think of those moments when you are curled up in your favorite chair and become so deeply involved in the story you are reading that the dinner has burned, the phone is ringing and the tornado warning is sounding and you haven't budged. Think of those books you've read and finishing it was like waking up from a dream. You have to look around and get your bearings because for a few hours you were at Hogwarts, you were hanging out at the Sanctuary Bar with Ash and the Dark Hunters, you were dancing the night away with a handsome duke. Of course you weren't really doing all of those things, but for a little while you BELIEVED you were. How did it happen? The author made you BELIEVE. You know how?


                                     They Believed!


 Reading those notes it hit me. If I want my stories to be real, to be magic, I have to believe. I have to believe my characters, my plot, my conflict, my setting - all of it - is real. At least while I'm writing it I do. I have to invest my entire self into believing in my story and believing in myself as the only person who can work the spell to make my story come to life. With all of the other things a writer must do I think a writer must believe in their story in order to make it believable. It may well be the final step, the final difference between those who write books and those who make magic. 

 


 
                                "If you believe, you can make them believe!"



How about you? Do you believe in your stories? What sorts of things do you do to work your story magic? What books have you read and fallen under the writer's spell? How do you do that voodoo that you do? Are you a magician or a sorcerer's apprentice? Your fellow magicians want to know.

  



15 comments:

Cari Hislop said...

I love your posts! You always have an interesting tale to tell AND it's always inspiring. I hope one day you write an autobiography!

You're so right! We have to believe. The first author I thought of was Francis H. Burnett and her Secret Garden. She really believed in the magic of believing something into being. I'm sure that ended up being woven into her haunting characters.

I needed this post. I'm in the middle of final editing and I just want to be done, but it's not done. There's a lot of magic weaving left to do. I just have to believe...

Lexi said...

Wonderful post, Louisa, and you are right. You have to immerse yourself in the story. George R.R. Martin does it for me. He really makes his world come alive for the reader.

Carla Swafford said...

That is so cool, Lousia. And so true! Thanks.

Louisa Cornell said...

LOL, Cari! I don't think my life is the stuff of an interesting book. I have been very lucky in my life and more often than not I've simply been in the right place at the right time for which I am truly grateful!

Burnett's Secret Garden is a great example of story magic.

What I did learn about casting a spell is the preparation is far more important than the actually casting. Your final editing is the preparation and I just know you're going to cast an amazing spell!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Lexi! You are so right about George R.R. Martin! His books are incredible and his world is so real you can almost touch it. Than again, I happen to think you're a bit of a magician yourself. Hannah, Alabama is so real I almost want to get in the car on a Sunday afternoon and visit!

Louisa Cornell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Carla! We're going to make you the High Priestess of Love Potions. Your heroes and heroines make some SMOKIN' HOT LOVE in your books!

ellaquinnauthor said...

Hi Louisa. That was really interesting. I don't know what the magic is. I just hope to capture it.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Ella! Magic is like that. Sometimes you don't realize you've done it until you see the results! And I happen to think you are definitely a Regency writing magician!

Jenna said...

I love it when I lose myself in my writing--that's when I believe it and hope others believe it too. The one who always makes me believe is Stephen King.

Louisa Cornell said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Jenna. When you lose yourself in your story you are working the voodoo! And Stephen King is one of my all-time favorite authors EVAH !!!

M.V.Freeman said...

Awesome post Louisa,
And how do I make people believe--I have to believe in my people, places, characters. If I can touch it, smell it, hear it--especially the characters--then hopefully I can share that. ;)

I love finding myself lost in a book, my brain taking a vacation to that world.

Its why I love historicals and Urban fantasy. :) Story Magic!

Louisa Cornell said...

"My brain taking a vacation" now that IS magic! And you totally get the writing mojo - seeing it, tasting it, hearing it - that is how magic is done!

Cari Hislop said...

Louisa, you're so right! I'd never thought of it that way, but editing is preparing the magic...only sometimes it feels like to prepare the spell one has to first climb Mt Doom to find a rare herb (guarded by hungry Orks). When one has a fitness level that makes walking the length of Walmart an epic journey...it can be disheartening, but one has to set out for that irritatingly essential ingredient! As long I don't lose my glasses and mistake an Ork for a hero, there's a slim chance...

Louisa Cornell said...

ROFL ! Cari, you are SO right! That is exactly what editing is like!