I sold my first article at 14 to Wargamer’s Digest, and I’ve been selling odd bits of my writing ever since. In the last few years, I’ve written a couple of hundred articles each year, and the thrill of publication has been almost lost in more practical concerns (Any typos? Do any of the comments reveal that I’ve overlooked something? Where’s the cheque?). I’ve even learned to take wry humor in being called a moron or a paid flunky of a company or cause. But one experience I never had until a few weeks ago was seeing my words illustrated by someone else.
Well, that’s not quite true. Years ago, I did have a cover for Witches of the Mind, my book about Fritz Leiber, but that was an impressionistic cover about the variety of Fritz’s stories, rather than anything inspired by what I had written.
Now, helping with the back story of the Imperial Realms online game, I’ve seen four illustrations so far of my work by Avi Pinhas and Ken Henderson. In coming months, I expect to see more.
I have mixed reactions to these illustrations. Some I admire, while some plainly contradict what I wrote. But, in all cases, my main reaction has little to do with whether I like or dislike the rendering. Instead, I’m overwhelmed by how unsettling I find seeing someone else’s interpretation of my words.
As a writer of fiction (or, in this case, pseudo-fact), I am very visually oriented. When I finish writing, the words that remain seem the best reflection of the images in my mind that I can achieve in the circumstances.
What is humbling, frustrating, and exciting all at the same time is the realization that, as much as the words seem accurate to me, they’re self-evidently open to interpretations I hadn’t considered. And some of these interpretations are at least as valid as the ones I had in mind.
The fact that these differences in interpretation can exist has me questioning traditional notions of creativity, and the degree of control anyone can have over what they produce. If others can draw things out of my words that I didn’t intend but can’t reject as incorrect (at least not without insisting that only my vision is valid), then I have to wonder how much control I have over what I write.
Clearly, I have some; from the start, Ken Henderson’s depiction of the alien race called the Tsihor, for example, is very close to the image in my mind of a species that might form a biker gang with Cthulhu. Yet, equally clearly, the degree of control is limited, and party determined by what others bring to the work.
That suggests the auteur theories of art, in which the creator molds every aspect of the impression that others receive is not only misleading, but threatens to lure the creative into an impossible effort to control everything about the audience’s experience.
But does that mean that all that the creative should do is throw out vague impressions and hope that some of them resonate in the audience? To accept that alternative seems equally extreme.
I can’t help wondering, too, what the third generation reaction will be, when players react to the combination of pictures and words. Perhaps if some of them are inspired to their own artwork, I’ll find out. But I wonder how much of the third generation reaction will be from my work. And should I care, when I can’t control it anyway?
Another line of thought is that the translation of my words into pictures somehow validates them. Of course, this is partly an illusion, since all of us are doing work for hire, not necessarily work that we would choose on our own, but it’s a remarkably persistent one. Regardless of whether the images do or don’t correspond to the ones in my mind, I’d be lying if I pretended not to get a kick from seeing my words shaping other people’s creations.
So far, I’ve only had the smallest taste of this experience. However, it’s enough for me to imagine what directors and producers must feel when their finished production appears on film. It must be an exhilarating experience. I wonder, though: does their first experience of the process affect their subsequent work? Does it make them more or less careful? Affect their work in any other way? It would be interesting to find out.