“There are worse prisons than words.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
Picture the writer, trapped in the creation of his work and held captive by some muse demanding, if not perfection, at least the attempt. The “Tortured Writer,” a stereotype often descried as a myth or misunderstood by society at large, even as the struggle for artistic achievement, professional success, and, most importantly, personal fulfillment continues to plague the storytellers of our time. These figures, surviving on coffee or nicotine, pour themselves body and soul into their literary projects with an unhealthy passion that prevents them from engaging in the world with any semblance of normalcy. Always unsatisfied, always convinced that their stories fall short on the page – as if the best pieces of their imagination were lost in the transfer from mind to pen – they sit surrounded by discarded bits of paper, or in the cyber age, full “Recycle Bins.” Incarcerated in the prison of words, their own words, the writer’s dreams lay scattered in black and white before their very eyes.
Picture the reader who has become more passionate about the stories they consume than they are about their own lives, who would rather sit down with a book than venture away from the tale that dominates their attention. One who hates the jolting transition back to reality; who knows characters better than their flesh-and-blood friends; and whose view of the world is tinted, twisted, colored, or warped by their latest imagined journey – a reader caught in the trap of literature. Like the creators of those works they adore, such readers find themselves confined in words, their lives measured in pages, their deepest connections made with events and people that, though vividly true, are not actually real. This is the price demanded of those who commit their soul to literature: long stretches of days, thousands of moments, are given up in order to inhabit another life, a written life. Each volume read constitutes imprisonment within the confines of a narrative, a sacrifice of “reality” for an imagined, ever-changing existence in books.
Is it a terrible trade, this willful introversion that causes writers and readers alike to consistently lock themselves away in the pages of a tome? Let us picture the prison of words. Literature – whether it be prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, classic or contemporary – has the remarkable quality of being able to draw us into circumstances completely outside of ourselves. We live lives not our own, we love and hate and fear and believe what we cannot see before us, we walk streets and sail seas that we may never traverse ourselves. Reading may seclude us physically and emotionally from our immediate present, but it offers a broader experience than even the most tremendous present could furnish. From our prison of words, we observe humanity at its fullest. We recognize this fullness as we encounter characters who, in circumstances ordinary and extraordinary, exhibit an astonishing array of human traits and opinions. Tales inspired by the experiences, dreams, and traditions of others become webs that give a wider view, a more complete understanding, even as they bind us to our chairs and chain our attention to the work at hand. The writer, blessed or cursed with the gift that defines his life, is bound to weave these stories as readers are bound to run their minds and hearts over the threads.
“There are worse prisons than words.” So little in life can be controlled or drastically changed according to our will, but what we can choose are the words that we use to explain, describe, and sort out human existence. On paper, writers wade through the bog of their own minds to bring forth something for readers to connect with, learn from, and grow through. To be detained in literature necessarily offers a sense of freedom to its inmates; though locked in your study, though restricted to the library, you are no longer limited to your own body, thoughts, or feelings. In a moment of inspiration, you choose the prison, the words you immerse yourself in surround you, and in doing so you choose the world that you step into for a time. Language is the only form of true magic we have: there may be no visible spectacle, but in your imagination there is something akin to miracles taking place. “Time” loses all meaning as we travel back and forth across it; “Death” is nothing final as men are resurrected and given life-breath once more, or reappear as ghosts or shadows to haunt us; “Distance” can be conquered by a simple sentence; and “Love” can be communicated using expressions while our hearts rest safely in our own chests.
People who do not write or read literature have no inkling of what marvelous phenomenon occurs between the pages of a book and the human soul. They are convinced that they are content with living one life – their own, limited by accident or fate and their own choices – rather than temporarily seeing the world in a different light. It is ultimately a question of what our souls are like, and whether we see the truths within us reflected in things outside of ourselves. The prison of words allows us to tap into those things, and to more fully understand those truths, because we give up our narrow reality in exchange for the freedom to think and feel and move along the vastness of human imagination. Writers may live through their work, and readers may live inside their books, but is a more beautiful, more liberating existence imaginable?