Michael Barwick

Astrologer

Insight for Every Purpose under Heaven

Writing & Alchemy

Writing and Alchemy

The best metaphor I have for the writing process is an alchemical one. In alchemy, you turn lead, or some other worthless substance (referred to as the prima materia) into priceless gold. In writing, the prima materia is raw content and gold is the finished assignment. Writing work is a process of transformation just like alchemy.

Because each alchemist practiced their art in an individual way, there are many recipes or models for the alchemical process. One model for alchemy has a four stages: black, white, red and gold. In writing, the equivalent four stages would be raw content, first draft, subsequent piecemeal drafts then finally the finished work.

Consider obtaining raw content. Just like alchemists, you need something to work on. Alchemists would go to great lengths to get their prima materia and would have to try many candidates. Your raw content may be from external sources or internal processes or a combination of both, depending on the assignment. One way or another, words have got to fill the page. The black state is to get the ideas about your subject written down.

There can be here the infamous “writer’s block.” The blank page can seem intimidating. But this is where you get to throw mud at the page. Have fun stringing words together around your subject. The key is to let go and let your creative voice run wild and free enough to put whatever comes into your mind on the page. Show up and write!

When generating , you have to give yourself permission to break all the so-called rules of what good writing is supposed to be. Conquer fears what you’re writing could be wrong. Free yourself from grammar. Scribble down phrases. Write in point form. Abandon all fear that you can make a mistake about content. Even make mistakes about what it is you are truly writing about. The goal of the black state of writing is not perfection, it’s generation. Achieve the black state by filling the page with enough black text until your subject is covered.

Once alchemists had their black prima materia, the next step was to whiten it. Alchemical processes included burning it and washing it in order to purify it. It was a big transition from black to white and the hardest one. For the writer, this is cleaning up the raw content in pursuit of a first draft — quite often the longest part of the writing process.

Many kinds of edits may be required. You will have to fashion your words into paragraphs to make sure it is “chunked” correctly. This could be re-arranging sentences. You may need to give the work a complete structural edit: changing the sequence of the chunks of information completely. Eventually, you’ll need to edit for spelling and grammar. The transition of raw content (black) to a first draft (white) makes writing into re-writing. Whitening your text is the reviewing it to determine if it is in the correct form or not and fixing it where you can and always trying to generally improve the flow of the text.

Towards the later part of the white phase, your text will start to redden. In alchemy, the reddening means not only that the work reddens in colour but it also heats up, symbolizing its transition to a living thing. Red is the colour of (animal) life. Now obviously documents are not true living things. However, seeing an order emerge makes what is lacking apparent. The document almost appears to be drawing additional external content (prima materia) into itself.

The work becomes a speckled thing — a sea of white with red sparks here and there followed by golden bits of the completed work. Gradually these golden bits get larger and larger. The piece gets ever closer to completion. You work the process all the way through. Then you have the completed work; usually, some time factor keeps you from editing forever.

The assignment is golden completeness. Now you release it to its destiny–the place where it needs to go. And then you forget it. Onto the next subject!

One final word: The wise alchemist is generous with his gold; otherwise, it brings with it resentment. The wise writer is open to helping others with his or her gifts. There’s always someone who needs help with a resume or a letter or volunteer organizations that need help with their publications. The writing that comes from your inner alchemist should delight yourself but once you have the knack of it, it is a good thing to put your talent in service of others. power of alchemical writing should of course delight yourself but it should also serve something beyond your own gain.