Writing is an act of exploration
A stark realist, grounded in the visible limits of a man tapping keys or scratching with a pen, would call my current stage of the writing process prewriting, brainstorming, ideating. If one could see through my mind, witness with all her senses what I bear witness to, she would call this anthropology, cartography, pilgrimage.
I once heard in an offhand comment, “The only kind of person with a bigger God complex than a doctor is a writer.” While this sentiment may be true of some writers, it does not align with my philosophy of writing. This sentiment derives from the assumption that writing is an act of creation, and the stories one writes are the vessel for the world one has created. No, I believe that writing is an act of discovery, exploration, and depiction; both my stories and I myself are the vessels for the world I have discovered.
Let’s put this philosophy into context. A writer of contemporary fiction writes about the real world he sees before him, having experienced its intricacies enough to weave a story out of them, with people he has met and places he has visited as building blocks. Likewise, a writer of historical fiction writes about the real world as it existed in a time that she could not have seen, having researched its intricacies enough to weave a story out of them. But neither of these writers created the real world. The real world was (and still is) discovered, explored, and depicted. If you look at the map above, drawn in 1529 by Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero, you’ll notice nebulous, undefined areas in the Americas and Asia, which at the time were unknown to Europeans. I’ll bet that many writers, in the early stages of their book’s development, can sympathize with the feeling of working with an incomplete map. One of the numerous traits shared by fictional worlds and the real world is that they must be explored before they can be depicted.
Fantasy fiction writers do not create the worlds they write about any more than realist fiction writers do. Both approximate the world we’ve grown up in, to varying degrees, then incorporate elements delivered via the imagination. Sure, the author makes decisions on hair color and who does what when, but if an author throws elements together into fiction that seems implausible to the reader, the narrative falls apart; therefore, writers do not have absolute power over their stories. “Wordbuilding” is a commonly used and deeply appropriate term in fantasy circles, and I believe its connotations vitally differentiate it from “worldcreating” (a term not typically used). To build, one requires raw materials delivered from forests and quarries. A writer’s raw materials are experiences, delivered from the real world, from other stories, or from unknown external sources. And of course, a builder is not necessarily an architect. (Ian, Dana, Jess, Paul, Cameron, Charity, Rachel, Connor, other writers, do you agree?)
When I imagine the Timestage world, I do not feel as though I have shaped its geography with my hands or physically given birth to the people who inhabit it. I feel as though I have caught a glimpse of a land that somehow existed before I ever set foot on its soil, similar to my homeland in some ways. I feel as though I have been introduced to a unique person, with his own traits that I can only learn by growing better acquainted with him. I explore it piece by piece. But if I did not invent these pieces, how did I find them? I believe they are revealed to me by an external unknown; every culture has a slightly different notion of this, but perhaps the most universally known is the Muse.
I could ramble on and on about this gorgeously crafted painting. Hesiod, one of the most ancient Greek storytellers, plays the lyre under the guidance of his muse. Rather than directly instructing him, she hovers close behind, whispering in his ear. Rather than forcing his hand, her fingers gently rest on his wrist. This is exactly how I feel the presence of my muse in my own life—it speaks wordlessly through my mind, brushing back the curtain between me and my next character, occasionally leading me down new paths throughout the Timestage world. And while I never leave our world to inhabit my story world, I explore it nonetheless—Timestage exists somewhere in the Great Mystery, my muse is its conduit to me, I am its conduit to my books, and someday, my books will be its conduit to the real world.
The Muses were the Greek goddesses of the arts, and enabled humans to play instruments, sing, dance, and write. Similar deities appear in Hinduism (the Apsaras), Roman mythology (the Camenae), and Norse mythology (the Völva). Before some of you accuse me of being pagan, allow me to remind you that when John Milton invokes his muse at the beginning of Paradise Lost, he is almost certainly referring to the Holy Spirit. And before some of you accuse me of being a zealot, allow me to remind you that the muses have been widely interpreted as a universal condition of humanity, ranging from the most strictly defined deities to the very abstraction of inspiration itself. What really matters here is that my stories do not come from me, but rather come through me. Regardless of how you choose to view inspiration, I invite you to explore the Timestage world along with me, piece by piece.
Today, I have stated outright my philosophy on writing. From now onward, may it be evidenced in my words, my phrasings, and in my dependence on the Great Mystery, that invisible fountain from which all inspiration flows.
What’s your personal mode of expression? What inspires you? How do you relate to such things on a philosophical level?