The Art and The Art Of Writing
In the video game series Myst, there is a mysterious skill or faculty which is simply known as “The Art”. Its practicioners are trained to write special words with special ink in special books. They use it to describe a world and, once they are done and the book is closed, all the words will be gone when the book is opened again. But the first page of that book will look like a window through which one can see that world as a bird would see it, circling around. And if you touch that window with your hand, you will be transported to this world instantly. The worlds are called ages and the process of being teleported to them via the books is called linking.
The universe of Myst has two possible interpretations for us what is actually happening there. One is that by describing the world using The Art, the writer created the world. He shaped it into being out of nothing. I will call this the “Gehn interpretation” - Gehn is a character who firmly held this belief. The more widespread interpretation however is that of a man called Atrus. He thinks that the writer does not create the world, but rather a link. In the vast and unfathomable depths of spacetime, every conceivable world already exists in one form or another. According to him, The Art does not create a world, it only creates a link to a world that is the most similar to the written descriptions.
The games never tell us whether Atrus or Gehn are right. Hints are dropped to support both theories. For example: An argument in favour of Gehn’s view is that minute details of what one describes in the Description Book will end up manifested in the age. And an argument in favour of Atrus’ view is that when he wrote the Description Book to the Rockship Age, he never mentioned anything being alive there. Yet after he linked, he met a boy who said that he had always lived in that world.
What the games clearly show, however, is the effect either belief has on a man’s personality. While Atrus is a quiet and humble explorer who treats the worlds he encounters with respect and dignity, Gehn thinks that he is a god who can do with ‘his creation’ as he pleases. After all - the inhabitants wouldn’t be there without him willing them into existence, so in his point of view that gives him the licence of using and abusing them. And sadly, some characters in the stories show how much this feeling of entitlement, of feeling like a god corrupts the soul. They commit heinous atrocities feeling no remorse.
Even if Atrus’ view may not explain everything either, even if it’s an incomplete picture, it is humbler, a more peaceful belief.
To me, this was always a wonderful allegory on writing as a whole.
We are writing words in books with ink and techniques. And when the readers open it, they will be transported to another world. Our stories are the windows to these worlds and if we have done our job well, they will feel present there. They will walk with our characters, suffer with them, root for them and they will celebrate their victories and they can teleport between that world and reality back and forth. But what did we do there?
Did we create these worlds? Are we their gods, their makers? And if we are, does that give us free reign over them and their inhabitants, can we do with them as we please?
Star Wars comes to mind and changes George Lucas did to the canon which the fans didn’t like. They rebelled and cried foul over ill changes to “their” world. It seems that the world has a life of its own, at least after writing it. There are some authors who do get away with bending the world afterwards - J. K. Rowling is a very recent culprit in that respect.
It’s probably obvious that I prefer the Atrus’ view on writing. We do not create the worlds we are describing. We are not creating the stories. We are linking to them. Superficially stories are about Wookies and elves and kobolds and huge green men and other things. But deep down they are about what it means to be alive. How to stay alive, how being alive feels, how life unfolds in its innumerable forms, colours, smells and emotions. We authors did not create life, it has always been there. We did not even create new forms in its already limitless palette of colours. But we are linking these aspects to pages in a book and thus make them accessible to readers. One could say that we are scouts, showing others the path to witness these miracles and to worship them with us. We story-tellers are priests of the Church of Life. We are both servants of our stories and of our readers. We bring them together. We manufacture the vessel that others use to commune with what has always been true and what has always remained powerful.
But we are not gods. We do not create stories. We tell them. We serve them. As long as we are humble explorers of our worlds, letting the world be there and permitting other explorers, that is, out readers, to be there, all is well. But if we think that we are gods and that we created that life, that illusion will lead to arrogance and a lust for power. It will corrupt us, our voice, our impact, our work. It will destroy the vessel for the reader and for us, as an arrogant writer thinks that he does not have to abide by certain rules, that he does not have to treat his characters with respect and care, that he does not need to mind the laws of that world’s nature.
What we should do to become a writer in the Atrus’ interpretation of the Art of Writing is:
- Don’t include unnecessary descriptions. Be vague where it’s ok to be vague. That gives the Art some leeway to find a matching world.
- Observe the laws and rules of your world like a scientist. Spell them out and make sure that your descriptions abide by them.
- Don’t force your characters into being. Instead, point out which properties will be most important and visit your world - you will find them there.
- In your mind, take a stroll down a main road of the world, sit down somewhere and observe the folk. And then write a journal about your journey.
- No, the journal is not your book. The journal is your research for writing the book.
- Sometimes you know better than your readers. But sometimes it’s the other way round. Be humble about it.
By the way, if you want to see some sound advice about natural laws of worlds, I can recommend the game “Myst: Exile”.
Give my regards to Atrus.