Writers, Remember: The Wand Chooses The Wizard

When we choose a writing career, naturally we want to find our footing quickly. But this can cause us to pay too much attention to what other authors are doing in hopes of finding the magic of success. Michelle Barker is here to remind us why looking within is actually the key, so please read on!

When I first started writing, I was fresh out of university with a degree in English literature. I was determined to be a literary writer. To me, this was what being a writer meant. Never mind writing about the things that suited my personality. I would write big important novels for adults, and short stories with lots of sentence fragments. And never mind finding my own voice; I wanted to sound like Margaret Atwood.

Well, the short version of this story is: I am not Margaret Atwood. It turns out, big important novels for adults are not my thing at all. I write young adult novels, because the voice that most suits my personality is a teenage one. It took a long time to reach this point, however. I did not understand the wisdom of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter’s world, nor would I have accepted it. But like it or not, Mr. Ollivander was right: the wand chooses the wizard.

Flannery O’Connor had her own version of the wand merchant’s wisdom: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live…” I tried writing two important adult novels. They were utter failures. There was no magic in them, no spark. They weren’t me.

Seeking Your Own Inspiration

Having misconceptions about writing serious literature is one aspect of this problem. You will also no doubt encounter well-meaning friends and family members who advise you to write about vampires because they’re popular right now. Or you’ll have that uncle at the Christmas party who corners you with a story that would make a great novel and you should write it.

Write what is in your heart, not to trends

Writing what you (or other people) think you should be writing simply doesn’t work. Unless vampires are your obsession, unless your uncle’s story made all the hair on your arms stand up, chances are you’ll only be writing with half a heart.

Besides that, jumping on the market bandwagon is a recipe for disappointment. By the time your book is ready to meet the world, there’s a good chance the fad—whatever it is—will have passed and the market will already be glutted.

Uncovering Your Passion

What do we bring to life most effectively? The things we are passionate about. The things that keep us awake at night.

These are not always easy to pin down. If you had told me even ten years ago I would be writing historical fiction, I would have laughed. I’m not a history buff. But I have a mother who lived in Germany during World War Two and then in what became East Germany. I grew up hearing stories about her life. When I finally realized I needed to write about East Germany, I didn’t care if novels about East Germany were popular. I had a protagonist with a story that was bursting out of me, and I had to write it.

We don’t usually choose our obsessions. They’re built-in, ready-made. You don’t need to justify a love for dragons or aliens or cowboys. You just need to own it.

People used to ask Stephen King why he was “wasting” his talent writing horror. Why? Because horror is what he loves. And what exactly is being wasted? He is arguably the best horror writer in the world. Should he have ignored his obsessions and tried to be a literary writer? Would he have been as successful if he had?

Finding Your Wand

But what if you stumble into Mr. Ollivander’s store like the young Harry Potter, unsure of who you are and what you might be good at? There are a few things you can try:

  • Pay attention to what you like to read. That’s often a good clue about what you might like to write. Include a list of your favourite movies and TV shows. Keep an eye out for what they all have in common.
  • Try Ray Bradbury’s exercise of making lists of nouns to see what floats to the surface of your mind. What might these lists consist of? Memories. Things that frighten you, or amuse you, or puzzle you. He contends that this exercise was what lifted his work from imitation into originality.
  • Do some journaling about the ideas you find yourself circling. If you look at many writers’ bodies of work, you’ll see they keep coming back to the same themes like a dog worrying a bone. Chances are you’ve got a few of those lurking in the background of your thoughts.

Above all, don’t apologize for what you write and who you are. Anything true, anything original and authentic, comes from this deep place.

Michelle Barker is the award-winning author of The House of One Thousand Eyes. She is also a senior editor at darlingaxe.com, a novel development and editing service, and a frequent contributor to its blog for writers, The Chopping Blog. Her newest novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, comes out in spring, 2020, with Annick Press. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

Set in East Berlin in 1983, The House of One Thousand Eyes is a young adult historical thriller. Seventeen-year-old Lena’s beloved uncle, a famous author, has disappeared.

Lena will stop at nothing to find him—but she must do so in a society of ruthless surveillance and control. Who can she trust to help her find out the truth?

Have you ever found yourself writing something that “wasn’t you?” Let us know in the comments!


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Focus, Guest Post, Motivational, Voice, Writer's Attitude, Writing Groups. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Writers, Remember: The Wand Chooses The Wizard

  1. Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt says:

    Fabulous post.
    I admire writers who can write in several genres. I read recently that C.S Lewis wrote a children’s book and a theological/ philosophical treatise simultaneously, both on the same themes. Madeleine L’Engle’s writing practice was to switch genres once she finished writing a book. Not an easy skill, but one that I admire. L’Engle claimed it kept her writing fresh and interesting to her. Lewis claimed this was how he deepened his exploration of theme.

    • I love the idea of switching genres after a project is finished. Though it goes against the current practice of “branding” oneself as a writer (which opens a whole other can of worms), I can definitely see how it would keep the writing fresh.

  2. Nice analogy. I always wanted to write books that people would enjoy reading. As a Fantasy fan, that led me down an obvious route. Creating interesting worlds is far more important to me that trying to be highbrow.

  3. Jemima Pett says:

    I’m so glad you said that. I’ve always written what I want to write. The thing is, of course, whether you can adapt enough to hit a great genre, or just fit into it (or define it, like Stephen King).
    My day will come…

    • It’s interesting to think about Stephen King. He read (and presumably still reads) widely in his genre, so he knew all the tropes and pitfalls and expectations. I wonder if he set out to redefine it, or if he simply wanted to write a good story. My bet would be on the latter. In the end, that’s why we do this, right?

      Yes, your day will come!

  4. Pingback: August 2019 Around the Web – Sandra Ardoin

  5. Very good article.

    I used “The wand chooses the wizard” analagy in “The Golden Locket: The Cruise” Book 9 in my “Hallween Night/The Golden Locket” Collection series. Turns out that the wand the young wizard’s parents gave him, didn’t want to be his, so it kept trying to escape, and his parents kept accusing him of trying to lose it on purpose.

  6. Just want to mention I have been a fan of this blog for years and am so honoured to be part of it. Thank you, Angela and Becca, for this wonderful opportunity.

  7. You may have hit on one cause of writer’s block. When a person is forcing a genre or subject that just doesn’t stoke their passion, they may resist the process althogether. Though I’m sure there are many reasons for writer’s block, I’ll bet this underlies many cases.

    I love the wand metaphor! Bet J.K. would be pleased.

    • Oh yes! I’m sure you’re right. Whenever I try to force something, it either comes out poorly or I just can’t write it at all. But I didn’t make the connection between writer’s block and writing in a genre that isn’t the right fit. It stands to reason.

  8. It took me a lot of exploring to find my sweet spot, and as I have taken such a long break from fiction I know I will have to explore to find my wand again. I have learned a lot about writing and changed a lot. I plan on not pressuring myself to go back to what I used to write when I do decide to return to fiction. Instead I will enjoy the freedom of all the pieces being back on the table and read widely to see what feels right. 🙂

    Great post—thank you!

  9. This is great advice, and the reasoning is explained well. I’ve recently switched genres, after trying a bunch out, and I feel more me now. Thanks for posting!

  10. Joy V Spicer says:

    What a fab post! Thank you, Michelle. You’ve distilled into one post the chaotic, seemingly unconnected thoughts I’ve had about writing over the years. Even though I’ve found what I enjoy writing – fairy tale retellings – there are still times, I think I ‘should’ be writing something big and important.
    I like the 3 tips you’ve included – I think they’ll come in handy to keep the creative juices flowing.
    And, last but not least, as a lover of historical fiction, I like the sound of your book. Might just have to check it out 😉
    Thank you, Angela, for hosting Michelle on your blog 🙂

    • I still have those thoughts sometimes too, but I try really hard to ignore them! Fairy tales have so much power and wisdom in them. They can be as big and important as anything else. Best of luck with your work!

  11. Anne says:

    An interesting article. It confirms something I had taken years to find out! I served my fiction-writing apprenticeship in a small but supportive writing circle. We wrote flash fiction. I’d recommend any aspirant writer to try this short form. It helped me to find my niche, so when I started writing my first novel, I knew romance was my metier. I have enjoyed writing it so much, that I can’t wait to start on the next book.

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