A shiny red apple sits on a green park bench beneath a shady oak tree.
Now. What do you see in your mind’s eye? I bet I can guess. It won’t be exactly the same picture that I have in my mind. Maybe your park bench looks a little different. Maybe your sky is cloudy instead of searing blue. But it would be close.
We just shared telepathy, you and I. I transferred a mental image from my brain to your brain by way of a mere fifteen words.
If that’s not magic I don’t know what is.
And the more you think about it, the more miraculous it seems. That tree doesn’t exist, not in the same way you and I exist. It never did. It has no leaves, no branches, no bark. It has no physical substance at all. You couldn’t isolate a single molecule or atom and say, this belongs to the shady oak tree.
“Words can make us laugh or cry. They can change our minds and break our hearts.”
It began as a pattern of activity among the neurons in my brain, electrochemical signals passed from one synapse to another. Those signals drove a sequence of movements of my thumb over the screen of my phone, which in turn converted the taps into a pattern of ones and zeroes. Your web browser decoded the pattern and displayed 55 letters on your screen. A bit more neural activity went on in your brain, and — voilà! — you pictured the tree.
A tree that doesn’t exist except in our shared imagining.
Think about that for a moment. The tree and the apple and the park bench — they all exist in the realm of information. You can’t see them or touch them. You can’t bite the apple or rest a spell on the bench. But they exist for both of us because of the magic of words.
Words can make us think. Words can make us feel. Words can make us laugh or cry. They can change our minds and break our hearts. As writers we can create whole worlds made of nothing but dreams set down for others to experience.
But anything so incandescent as the miracle of writing casts a shadow. Words can inspire hope and compassion, but they can also be used to foment hatred and cruelty. Words can vilify and torment, shatter friendships and ruin lives. How many of history’s atrocities have their roots in written works? How many times have we seen books held high to justify acts of barbarism?
Writers wield a kind of magic, the power to transmit ideas and feelings to the minds of others. But just as there is light magic there is also dark. Ideas and feelings can change the world. It is up to us as writers to decide what we want that change to be.