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Alchemist kneeling beside his alembic

Writing over a long period can be a powerful alchemical process of personal transformation.

Alchemy was the medieval forerunner of chemistry. It was particularly concerned with trying to convert base metals (such as lead) into gold or to find a universal elixir – more popularly known as the philosopher’s stone – that would perform the conversion upon contact. In recent times, the word alchemy has evolved to indicate any process of transformation, creation, or combination that seems magical.

Even the ancients realized that alchemy is as much about refining the alchemist as it is about distilling some raw material into the philosopher’s stone. Jung popularized this notion in his writings. In this process of self-refinement, the alchemist must pass through three stages:

  1. Self-discovery – learning who one truly is
  2. Self-acceptance – accepting the bad with the good (by far the hardest stage)
  3. Self-realization – working with what one has, to accomplish something one loves

Writing is an alchemical process. No writer can turn words into gold or distill paragraphs into the philosopher’s stone, but like an alchemist of old, all writers practice a two-sided refining procedure as they work. Using words as their raw material, they hone and perfect their writing until they have produced a literary philosopher’s stone – a finished piece that will work its magic on all who read it. Yet, perhaps unknowingly, they undergo a process of self-refinement at the same time. Just like an alchemist, while practicing their art, writers inevitably learn something about themselves.

Writers can take advantage of this and become more-aware alchemists. If they have the courage, they can work through the three stages listed above. They can initiate and push forward their self-refining process.

Remember, alchemists needed more than just themselves if they were to gain the necessary insights, if they were to distill themselves thoroughly. They needed some way to see their own strengths and imperfections more clearly and honestly. In order to win those elusive insights and dramatically improve their own distillation process, they needed to map themselves onto an alchemical quest aimed at turning lead into gold. For authors, writing is the vitally important enterprise that allows them to project aspects of their own self and thus see themselves more clearly.

Therefore, as serious writers (in any genre) work through the alchemical process, the three stages of self-refinement, they must embody two essential qualities:

  1. Devotion to the art of writing
  2. Immersion in the life of the mind within the world of ideas

In the pursuit of the self-refining project lie wholeness, truth, and the powers of creation. These are extracted, distilled out (i.e. acquired) by the alchemist’s (or writer’s) long, obsessive, and stubborn labours.

The alchemical attitude is one of determination to work something through to completion no matter how long it takes. One must observe one’s work closely and – like a sculptor with his block of stone – keep chipping away until the shape within becomes clearly visible. As a writer, what one sees always includes parts of oneself.

The alchemical process is how writers go the distance and complete a novel. If they are so inclined, it is how they become knowledgeable and wise.

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