The Incredible Winking Prose

by Nick Jaina
April 26, 2019

Last summer I worked on an installation called Spektrum where the audience would walk in one person at a time, and spend ten minutes alone and in silence in each room as they passed through this exhibit. The rooms were each cast in one color of the spectrum, an orange kitchen and a green lounge and so forth. In some of the rooms the person would find a letter sitting at a table.

The quality I wanted from these letters was to feel like they were written to this person specifically. How do you do that? How do you write something to someone you've never met, who could have any kind of history and sit down at a table and read this thing and feel like it was meant just for them?

I have a definition of magic that is based on something the great alchemist Paracelsus said. He said that magic is nothing more than a supremacy of knowledge. This is useful because we usually think of magic as something sparkling outside of us, some bolt of lightning that transforms us. But he spoke of magic as the way we would see if from a God or a being from another dimension. Or the magic that we already would have if we could travel back a hundred years in time and bring modern day technology with us. If we went to 1919 and showed someone an iPad they would think we were a wizard.

Anyway, to Paracelsus' definition I've added confident guessing. Therefore, magic is a supremacy of knowledge combined with confident guessing. And the way to write a letter to someone you've never met and make them feel like it was written just for them involves this kind of magic. Learning about the patterns and echoes of the world, all the ways that nature follows ley lines and the easiest paths. The way you can look at someone's face, at the way they move their eyes, and get a sense of how easy or hard their life has been. The way you can tell if someone has been crying even if their eyes are dry. The way you can see in someone's shoulders how much of a burden they've carried. You don't think you can possibly know, you feel presumptuous for pretending to know. But you kind of know. You know a lot.

From there it just takes a guess. This is not like cold reading or fortune telling. This is not about setting up a hierarchy that presents you as this mystical expert. This is just opening a door to deeper conversation. Even if the conversation is a letter to a stranger sitting on the table. You have a supremacy of knowledge, even if you think you don't. From there, you can make confident guesses.

I want writing that has this magical winking quality. That feels like it sees you, that it cares about you. Yes, you, with the aching shoulders. You with the dry eyes that have been crying all morning. This is the writing I want.