WEEK ONE: Using Optical Illusions to Form Narrative in Magic Realism

Eckleburg Workshops - Magic Realism Workshop

In the above optical illusions, notice how your mind can be so certain of its perception and then your mind can shift just as certainly to another perception. The lines are offset. No, they are parallel. It’s a wine glass. No, it’s a picture of twin profiles. It’s a head shot of a man with part of his face erased. No, it’s a side profile of a man. Optical illusions engage the viewer in a way that forces creative problem solving.

It is difficult to hold two diverse perceptions at one time, though, not impossible; however, to hold two diverse perceptions requires a sort of blurring of perceptions. Neither of the individual perceptions can be held with great clarity and focus if both are simultaneous and so we accept one perception at a time as our focus and understand that another perception is equally valid. This blurring of realities, this acceptance of alternative perceptions, is the essence of magic realism.

In The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel discusses the “beholder’s share” or what the reader brings to the experience of reading our works. We are not going to read The Age of Insight in this lesson, it is a tome, but we will be using some of Kandel’s above optical illusion examples as well as his explorations into the science of perception.

In Kandel’s explorations, he discusses how illusion can affect the nuance and understanding of an element in a story, article, painting or drawing, changing the interpretation as the element relates to its background. If we relate this to narrative, this illusionary aspect creates a secondary setting, one that is not physical, but rather contextual and relational to the background within any given scene. This background can change in the reader’s perception, even though the elements of the background may not have changed at all. The “beholder’s share.” We’re going to use this concept in our writing in order to create a richer, deeper story while incorporating elements of magic realism.

First, let’s review the basics of magic realism and how it fits and sometimes doesn’t fit into the spectrum of genre and style.

WEEK FIVE: The Dream Machine and Cut Up Technique

Eckleburg Workshops - Magic Realism Workshop


The above film documents an intermedia collaboration between writers, artists and musicians, all of which is a dedication to the writer, artist, spoken word performer Brion Gysin. Gysin created the cut up technique and the Dream Machine and was integral to the Beat Generation heralded by William S. Burroughs as “the only man I ever respected.”  

Gysin was an artist from the Dadaist era. He studied at the Sorbonne. His artistic techniques became inspirational to Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie and many more writers and musicians of his time and ongoing. The beauty of the cut up technique and the dream machine are that they use the writers’ imagination and existing words in order to push the developing narrative further.  We’re going to use these techniques to create magic realist stories.

So often, writers, especially new writers, will work extra hard to develop the “big narrative ideas.” These writers will strive for concepts that are “wowing” and outside their normal everyday lives. The magic realist writer will try and focus on a big magical setting or event, when really, the best narratives usually come from the mundane and familiar with a subtle dash of the magical. We’re going to explore your mundane and familiar and look for your organic “magic.” Writers are often delightfully surprised when they realize how much imagination and “magic” can come from their everyday, mundane lives if only they will stop trying to be and write what they are not. Before we step into these techniques, first, a little background on the dream machine and the cut up technique.


The Dream Machine


“The use of flickering light can be traced back to ancient civilizations when humans would congregate around fires and peer into the shimmers. Shamans and mystics often used images provoked from fire to strengthen visionary power. Many believed the flickering light to be paths or doorways to God.

In 200 A.D. the Roman mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy spun a fanned wheel between the sun and his observers. Ptolemy sketched the patterns that emerged from eyelids and noted that his subjects reported a state of peace and euphoria.

The French visionary Nostradamus also utilized flickering light to induce his psychic powers. There are legends that describe Nostradamus sitting inside a tower gazing directly into the sun while moving his fingers quickly over his eyelids. Czech physician and physiologist, Jan E. Purkinje conducted one of the first scientific investigations into the phenomenon.

In the 19th century Purkinje opened the world’s first physiology laboratory and is known for his vast contributions to neuroscience and physical health. Purkinje discovered the basic knowledge of optics. Purkinje also coined the term ’plasma’ and ‘protoplasm’ and discovered that fingerprints are unique. In a similar experiment as Ptolemy, Purkinje observed photic stimulation when he sat in front of a spinning wheel positioned between himself and the sun. He noticed with his eyes closed that his focus concentrated and then recorded the patterns and structures that appeared behind his eyelids” (Geiger, 2003, Dream Machine).



“Following in the footsteps of Purkinje was the neurophysiologist Dr. W. Grey Walter. Dr. Walter was a fierce explorer of the mind and in the 1930s was a pioneer in the use of EEG (electroencephalograph) machine. Walter is also known as the father of artificial intelligence. Walter published many of his findings and brought his thoughts to mainstream audiences through the publication of the book “The Living Brain”.

In this book, Walter proposed that photic stimulation could modulate brain waves and produce geometric images consistent with Jungian archetypes behind a person’s eyelids. These moving geometric patterns were similar to watching a film passing. After an extensive study, he noted that brain frequencies were of important investigation.

Walter concluded that flickering light could induce alpha brain wave activity. He observed that the brain frequencies within the alpha band dissipated when our brain was involved in purposeful activities and to do lists. Walter suggested that frequencies within the alpha frequency could dissolve physiological barriers between brain regions. According to Walter (1953), ‘The flash rate could be changed quickly by turning a knob and at certain frequencies the rhythmic series of flashes appear to be breaking down some of the physiological barriers between different regions of the brain. This meant that stimulus of the flicker received in the visual projection area of the cortex was breaking balance; its ripples were overflowing into other areas'” (Dream Machine).



“One day artist Brion Gysin was traveling on a bus with his eyes closed and he noticed flickering sunlight dancing within a grove of trees. He was overcome by beautiful visions and sensations. In 1960s, Walter’s book ‘The Living Brain’ was passing between scholars, artists and writers. Brion Gysin, an artist, poet and writer, was inspired after reading Walter’s findings. This experience combined with Walter’s findings fueled his desire to replicate the experience.

Gysin began working in collaboration with Ian Somerville, a Cambridge University mathematics student. A combination of artistic ingenuity, minimal resources and fierce intellect coalesced in the invention of the Dreamachine. The Dreamachine’s components consisted of a cylinder with mathematically designed slots based upon Sufic geometry, a hanging light bulb, and 78-rpm turntable.

The turntable and the cylinder were adhered together, while a light bulb was suspended from the ceiling and placed into the center of the cylinder. When the turntable begins to rotate at 78 rpm, pulses of light flash in the frequencies of 8 to 13 pulses per second. Gysin’s life’s work with Dreamachine is noted as assisting in his development of literary devices such as the cut-up technique, writing poetry and extending the limits of calligraphy.

The word spread about the invention of this machine within the worldwide artistic community and many have described it as a mental television. The use of this machine caught on within the circuit of musicians and many artists. Notable artists Brian Jones, Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobain, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs utilized the machine to accelerate their creative potential” (Geiger, 2003, Dream Machine).


The Cut Up Technique

“The Cut-Up technique is to writing what collage is to visual art. Its recent use was pioneered by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and later David Bowie used it during the 1970s. The basic method is simple — write a piece of work, cut the paper up with scissors, and rearrange the pieces to form new phrases and new meanings.

The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit … had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You cannot will spontaneity. But you can introduce the spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors. (William S. Burroughs)

Obviously, using this method can and will produce results which you’re not happy with, but the surprising thing is how many of the results are successful. Sometimes all that is needed is a quick read through of the results, adding punctuation and deleting the occasional word to produce the finished results. Purists might complain about editing the cut-up text, but this process is a tool which you can choose to use at any stage in the process of writing” (The Lazarus Corporation).

The Lazarus Corporation offers a digital cut up machine where you can copy and paste a story and “cut it up” then study the resulting word collage for new and interesting ideas. 


Writing Assignment

This week, you are going to dream a magic realist work, write the work then cut it up. You’ll submit two different versions of this work, your original/linear piece and then your cut up piece. Follow the directions below. (Note: If you are prone to light sensitivity or epilepsy, PLEASE do not try The Dream Machine, instead, create your original work as you normally would and focus purely on the cut up technique.)

  1. Mindfully explore something completely familiar and normal in your everyday life–i.e. washing dishes, driving to work, sitting in a cubicle, eating your lunch, making dinner… Sit for five minutes or more and simply think on this. Recreate the feeling of it, the smells, the textures… 
  2. Use white noise to clear your head and focus. Go to white noise and simply listen for a few minutes. At this site, you’ll also find pink noise and brown noise with an oscillation option. Use whichever settings feel best to you. Let your mind clear and relax.
  3. Now, take your smartphone or laptop into a room with no windows. If you have neither a smartphone nor laptop, darken the room with your computer as much as possible. Turn off the lights. Go to Dream Machine and follow the directions. For at least five minutes, hopefully more but whatever is comfortable for you, close your eyes, sit close to the screen and let the light pulsations do their work. Allow your mind to go where it goes. You may find yourself returning to your familiar activity. What images come up? How might they be related, unrelated? Allow these images to create for you a tapestry of seemingly unrelated or related ideas. There is no right or wrong answer here. You are practicing a form of mindful meditation without controlling it. Whatever comes up for you as subject and image is exactly the focus that is perfect for you. (Again, if you are photosensitive or prone to seizures, DO NOT use the dream machine. Instead, put in ear buds and continue with the white noise. If you can, use your smartphone and take a walk around the block. The combined white noise and rhythmic movement will focus you and ready your mind for creative thought. If you find you can creatively explore while listening to the white noise then let this process happen. If the white noise focuses you purely on the noise, then find a quiet place to rest, turn off the white noise and return to the completely familiar and normal activity in your everyday life. Just sit and think on it.)
  4. Now, leave the dream machine and sit with your journal or laptop, whichever you use most to write, and begin free-writing about the experience of sitting with the dream machine, the light patterns, how the darkness felt… As you write about the experience allow any images you “saw” to become part of this free-write. Explain how the “familiar activity” presented itself. It is okay if the experience did not conjure “big narrative ideas.” Simply write about the experience as it happened. Don’t try to push it. 
  5. Now, clean up your free-write so that it is no more than 1000 words. Type it, if it isn’t already typed. It is okay if the narrative is realist and mundane.
  6. Visit, the cut up machine, and enter your text of 1000 words or less. Cut it.
  7. Now copy paste your cut up text into a separate word document. Read it in all its crazy, jumbled state. Look for interesting phrases, words, juxtapositions. Notice how many of the words are familiar and “commonplace.” Look for a phrase that most jumps out as different, extraordinary. This will be a point of “magic” in your story.
  8. Pull these interesting cut up phrases from the cut up text and make them part of your original, linear text. You can simply place them at the end until you’ve had time to consider and splice them into the original text. Allow the cut up phrases to take over the focus of the original text. Notice how the text changes. A single interesting cut up phrase can sometimes be the seeds of surprising genius.
  9. Now, give your narrative a day or two to rest. It is okay if it feels unfinished. Come back to it with objectivity and rewrite, revise, etc. At this point, if you haven’t already found your magic realist moment, start asking questions about the setting, such as, What if the chair spoke to the person sitting in it. What would it say?
  10. Submit both the original, linear freewrite and the revised version after your cut up.

*The main purpose of using the dream machine and cut up technique is to exercise the subconscious power of your imagination, tap into your organic “magic” and bring out concepts in your imagination that you might not have otherwise experienced. If by the end of using the dream machine and cut up technique, you haven’t found the seeds of your magic realist story, that’s okay. The dream machine and cut up technique aren’t for everyone. But it’s good that you’ve tried it and know where you stand. In this case, go ahead and write the short short story, 1000 words or less, as mundane and realist. It’s okay. As you write this mundane and realist scene, ask yourself questions. For instance, if you are writing about a woman who is standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, ask what the dishes might say if they could speak? Perhaps a teacup speaks to the woman. It tells the woman a story about a little girl. Ask what the story is about. How does this little girl reflect the woman? What are the details of this speaking teacup? Whatever you do, make sure that the activity is familiar and personal to you so that your focus isn’t on a new activity you must research but rather turning your familiar and mundane into an imaginative narrative with a subtle magic.  



How did the dream machine and cut up technique go? Were they strange? Uncomfortable? Unexpectedly calming…? Did they focus you or rattle you? Will you try them again? Again, no right or wrong answers here.