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Monday, January 20, 2014

Magic Realism, The Class

by Rob Gonsalves
I've mused on this blog about magic realism before (here and here). It seems to be more acceptable in the mainstream as time passes, with stories like Life of Pi, to take just one example, directly addressing the question of what is the breaking point of a reader's stretched credibility. This last December, I took a course in writing magic realism online from the T. J. Eckleburg Workshops, mainly because I wanted to get a firmer grasp on what exactly it is and whether I still write it.

Overall, it was a great class. The other writers had some spectacular talent, I got to read some great stories, and I wrote two of my own. We're supposed to write three, but the final assignment prompted me to think about the last part of the Providence trilogy (which is paranormal, not magical realism) instead. It's wonderful when stories take over.

In the class, magic realism is defined as a sweet spot on a continuum between realistic fiction and fantasy. The overall world of the story is realistic, but magical or fantastical elements appear in a fleeting way that could be the result of perception or point of view. My favorite part about magical realism is that the magic is not explained. It's the reader's job to decide either what's real or what the magical element means in the realistic context, or both.

In masterpieces like "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel García Márquez, for example, the appearance of a winged man in the village is factual, but his meaning is the cause of lively debate both within the text and for the readers. On the other hand, this course considers "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman an early work of magical realism because of the way the author toys with perception. (Both are incredible, worthwhile stories. Read them immediately.)

When I was writing in college, I was a classic magical realist. It's not that I had the amazing discipline necessary to maintain the balance described above, but that I was reading so much twentieth-century Latin American literature and being so thrilled and inspired by it. However, lately I've tended toward paranormal and out-and-out fantasy. It might be because I can maintain the balance of magic realism in short stories, but not in the longer pieces I've been writing.

I'm going to be revising the stories I wrote for this course and letting my imagination run with the idea of how to extend a magical idea over a longer piece. It was insane to take such an inspiring class right before making what may be the biggest, most important, trans-state move of my life, but a little insanity puts the vigor in my writing, right?