Ways to write a world

I wrote a whole world, once. Then I wrote another. Then another.

What is there to do with these worlds, afterwards? They sort of linger, lolling about in your head.

It’s a funny thing to finish a world; it’s a sudden decision to stop; simply to stop putting down the lifeline of its words or thought pattern. You walk along and hear a character’s voice, remarking on something which has amused him; speaking words which he is certain, by the way, is the kind of thing he’d say; he’s become quite witty – quite worldly, even stuck in that fertile ring of performance you formed with your sentences, that belt you put around him, that supposed perimeter defining him, a sort of spritz put about the sense of him.

But other worlds begin to rise and drift above a horizon, just peeping balloons thinking of saying hello to themselves in the warm, final fire of sun at evening; and you start to collect, and notice the next. Each world is a bubble; fundamentally translucent, rimmed with flickering, fleeting, flubulous colour. One is pale blue – quite gentle, quite precise. Another is wrapped in gleams of green. The most recent is a bubble which has fighting purple inside it, and deep, husky red. It holds all its people as it drifts, so that the bubble becomes an interface of your character’s expressions; the ones you forced them into and the ones they are playing with now, left to their own devices (the back of your head; you are thinking of other things).

I think there are two main ways to write a world.

The first posits the writer as a sort of God. You hold the whole story universe in your brain – entirely intact, its edges razor sharp – and your job is simply to tell it. The main task, other than deciding from which point to start, is choosing what to reveal to the reader as they turn your pages – these revelations are the story itself. Here, you are a sort of merry clever-clogs, teasing and manipulating the reader into understanding your view (which is of everything). You must condense, refine, chisel and make expert choices on behalf of your audience; you are the overseer of all things, gate keeper, mystery-maker and letter-iner; anyone can come to your story, but only you have the key.

The second way is a little more accidental. Here, you’re more of a bumbling have-a-goer, unearthing clues of what you want to say over time. In this instance, you can confuse and delight yourself to your pumping heart’s content, keeping strange hours, excavating the entire world via unpicking what’s in your head (or what’s playing on the weird screen within it), surprised by the conversations that turn up unannounced and unauthorised but penning them dutifully. Here, you are hoping for the best, or actually not hoping at all, because your self-consciousness is wonderfully switched off. You dabble with surrender; you dabble so hard you know little else. If you strike anything, you feel like something divine, too – not the expert kind of divine (not like writer numero one) but the lucky kind – and you know you’ve been sent something heavenly, but could never take credit for anything you ever do, because you are only ever a baffled, dedicated, openminded bystander in your own body. For this writer, reader feedback is illuminating. You are presenting your work not as a finished piece but for diagnosis; what did I do? What happened here? Critique tells you about your story, which was only ever about itself, and never about you. (For the other kind of writer, the novel is a fixed text, meant for understanding and not interpretation.)

Sometimes you are in your bedroom placing down a cup on a coaster (underneath which is a crumpled old bank note of a foreign currency which speaks to you, often, of returning), and the pinched and lined face of a man faces you as clearly as if he were in the room with you – except no sooner have you noticed him, you have zoomed out and are watching him in a pub with his friends and observe the way he is reacting to situations with strange expressions on his face. You see quite clearly that someone has complimented him, and that he is offended. When he is reprimanded, he appears relieved. It’s difficult not to sit and watch him for a while, but you have things to do; you put your cup down for a reason.

Really, actually, obviously, finally; writing a world is a form of living. You can’t live without writing a world. Some of us live more accidentally than others, curating casual galleries of un-popped bubbles and, often at night, pressing their edges softly to see how they might bend light.

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