There’s a significant amount of confusion around what experience looks like in a witch. I’ve met witches who had been practicing for years who still called themselves beginners and I’ve met witches who had been practicing for just a few months who clearly thought themselves intermediate in their skills. And it’s only natural that this happens! So many of us are learning alone, we have no coven or teacher to help us gauge our progress so we’re left guessing.
This in and of itself wouldn’t be a huge problem if it weren’t for the way it affected our actual practices. More often than not, when a witch has no way of gauging their progress, they will default to the assumption that they’re not doing very well. With anxiety and imposter syndrome practically a plague in our modern world, it’s no wonder! This way of thinking can land us in a never-ending loop of studying rather than practicing though. We constantly feel a sense of our own deficiency and so to make up for that feeling, we study more, hoping that more knowledge will make us feel ready.
In the short term, this isn’t so bad, but the longer this continues, the more insidious it becomes.
Practice vs. Study
Some people will argue that the difference between practicing and studying witchcraft is minimal, and when done well they’re correct. In the case of people caught in the permanent beginner phase, however, the distinction starts to be pretty important.
A person caught as a perma-beginner studies in an endless loop, constantly feeling like there’s some lack in their knowledge, some gap that they must fill before they can be a “real” witch. So they read book after book hoping to fill that gap but after a while, and sometimes not long at all, this reading becomes boring. There’s nothing to anchor their interest in the real world, it’s all just theoretical. Inevitably, this person slips out of the habit of reading and they forget about the craft for a while, or they remember but are avoiding it out of a sense of guilt. Then, after weeks or months, they’ll find a surge of motivation to get back to it only now they’re out of practice and need to brush up on their basics all over again so they hit the books and the cycle begins again.
Some people find themselves caught in this loop for years.
And because they never feel “ready” they never end up actually doing any magic.
This is where the distinction becomes relevant. For a student of magic who is structuring their learning well, study and practice go hand in hand. A subject is not mastered until it has been put into practice, until it has been tried, and tweaked, and run through the hands of the learner so many times that the study materials become irrelevant because this magic lives inside of them now.
The Trap Of Endless Studying
I understand the fear of not knowing enough, I really do. We live in a culture of fear and our fear around the supernatural is only magnified by the aggrandizement of popular media. Nobody wants to be trying to cast a simple candle spell while worrying that they’re calling down the forces of hell upon their house! At a certain point, you have to take stock of your fear though.
Are you not practicing because you’re afraid that something is going to go wrong and curse your entire house? Or are you more afraid that you’re going to try something and it’s not going to work? Are you afraid that if you try magic, it won’t work and then you’ll have to throw in the towel entirely? Are you afraid of losing your belief in your magic?
If you’re realizing that this is the case, it’s ok. Belief is tricky and the world is constantly out to try and disprove magic. You will never feel more solid in your craft if you don’t put it to the test though! And if something doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. Magic is like any other craft, it takes skill and practice to become proficient at it. You can’t become proficient by simply reading all day though!
In this way, endless studying becomes a trap. You’re scared to get your hands dirty because you just don’t feel ready but you never gain the skills you need to feel ready because you never put in any hands-on practice! You get stuck in this loop indefinitely and this is how someone ends up stuck as a permanent beginner.
At some point, you have to decide to hell with it and just start trying stuff. Sure, maybe you don’t know everything yet but I would just about bet that you know enough to avoid blowing up your life and if you DO blow up your life, well, you’ll learn more in the process of fixing that one situation than you would in an entire year of pouring over books!
Sure, start with the easy stuff. Start with cleansing and warding and grounding. Maybe move on to banishing, or try a little glamour spell. But eventually, you will have to realize that the core motivation in witchcraft is want. It is need. In order to call yourself a witch, you need to be pursuing those things that your soul truly desires. Stop shying away from spells that could really impact your life and start actually trying to create something, to change something tangible with your magic.
There is no magical tipping point where you will suddenly have enough knowledge and no longer feel inadequate. That knowledge and that security comes from experience, from getting your hands dirty and really seeing what you can do. You cannot get it from a book.
There Are No Armchair Witches
The fact of the matter is, a witch is only a witch if they are practicing witchcraft. Witchcraft is an act, a doing, a craft. Just as you cannot call yourself an artist if you never make any art, you cannot call yourself a witch if you never do any magic! You cannot be an armchair witch. In the same way that I cannot read 20 books about writing novels and then call myself a novelist without ever writing the damn novel, being a witch requires DOING witchcraft.
As with any other craft, your initial attempts might suck. This is ok! I know that the first time I sat down to draw the result was pretty cringe-worthy. My first attempts at spells were also pretty cringe-worthy! Nobody is an expert from day one. Your first attempts at magic will be awkward and stilted and feel all wrong. You might get absolutely no results from the spell. That is fine! In the beginning, doing the practice is far more important than getting everything just right. This is how you learn! This is how you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t!
I would never know that basil and I do not work well together magically if I hadn’t actually sat down to work with basil and failed spectacularly. I would never know that juniper is a spirit attractant in my practice unless I’d sat down, lit up some juniper, and had about a dozen spirits climb in through the windows. These are not experiences you can get from a book!
How To Study Witchcraft
So, if pouring over books isn’t enough then how should we approach magical study?
1. Focus your study
The first thing any learner needs to do is find a way to narrow their focus. There is SO MUCH out there to learn and if you don’t give yourself goals and parameters about what to learn, you will quickly become overwhelmed. Choose one area of magic to focus on. If you’re new, magical hygiene is the best place to start. If you’re past that introductory stuff, focus on something specific like native plants, sigil magic, weather spells, or planetary magic.
Just pick one thing and dive into it. This will, at the very least, prevent the paralysis of feeling completely overwhelmed by the breadth of information you could be learning.
2. Alternate between books and hands-on learning
Books on witchcraft are not meant to be read straight through like a novel. You are not racing to finish the book as fast as possible so that you can check it off your to-do list. Your reading needs to be interspersed with hands-on practice.
I would suggest breaking your reading up into chunks by chapter or by topic and as you’re reading, take notes on things you could try and the page numbers where you can find that information. Then, when you finish that section or chapter, stop reading and DO something. Hold yourself to accountable to this, you must put the most recent things you’ve read into practice before moving on to the next section! If something you try is tricky or gives you trouble, stop there and just work with that for a while. Reread those passages, tweak the technique, see what’s blocking you and what you need to do to get it. Then, and only then, should you move on to more reading.
3. Decide that even if you don’t feel ready, it’s ok to try
If nobody ever did anything they felt unprepared for, we would all spend our lives sitting at home in our PJ’s watching cartoons. Life is made up of risks and doing things that scare you and getting outside your comfort zone. This is how we grow. It’s time to decide that your fear no longer gets to drive, not feeling ready is no longer an excuse not to try. If something goes wrong, it’s ok, people like me have made it our mission to help out with just that kind of problem! You have support, you have the resources you need to solve any roadblock you come up against. But you’ll never learn just how truly capable you are until you get out there and give it a go. It’s time to do some witchcraft already!