The Magic of Words

Nancy J. Cohen

As I switch my gaze from the iPad where I am proofreading my next Marla Shore story to our bookshelf crammed with mystery novels, I marvel at how mere words on a page have the ability to transform into a mental image in our minds. In addition, those among us who have the gift of reading fiction can transport ourselves to any realm, time or place and put ourselves into any fictional role we desire.


Not everyone is blessed with this ability. Those who read nonfiction or fashion magazines, for example, may lack this talent or deny it in themselves. It’s their personal preference not to read fiction but it’s also their loss. We possess a gift in being able to glimpse a page of words and fly away to another world in our imaginations. How does this happen? What transformation occurs in our brains to allow us to visualize scenes based on black type against a white page? Surely studies must have been done to show how this works. It never ceases to amaze me. I feel sorry for people who do not share my enjoyment in reading stories.

As this ability to transform words into images is a human trait, let’s admit that what each of us perceives is related to our personal lifespace. Lifespace is a concept I learned in nursing school and carried over to teaching writing. In character development, you take your main character and write her name in a circle on a piece of paper. Draw cartoon bubbles around her head. In these spaces, fill in what’s in your character’s mind at a given moment in time. What are her immediate concerns? Tasks to complete? Daily goals? That’s her lifespace. Do this for your protagonists and you’ll get inside their heads.

How you read words on a page and perceive them will differ from how I do it, because we each perceive the same scene from different viewpoints.

Here’s an example. “She strolled along the beach, head down, contemplating the seashells and damp weeds strewn across the sand. Her skirt blew in the breeze while a forlorn horn blasted from a ship headed out to sea. The ocean’s vastness swallowed a freighter’s silhouette against the darkening sky. Deep blue waters beckoned for her to shed her earthly concerns….”

What mood are you getting from this short piece? Are you feeling sad? At peace? Tempted to go skinny dipping? How you feel will be partly due to the words and the imagery they provoke and partly due to your own life experience and how you perceive the world.

I love reading stories. I want to share my passion, although I understand people’s reading tastes differ. But what wondrous worlds these other folks are missing. And what a wonder it is that we can take mere words on a page and use them to transcend to another universe. Wouldn’t you agree?

16 thoughts on “The Magic of Words

  1. So true on perception of words. When I read reviews sometimes, I can’t believe that a book received a “bad” review when I thought it was outstanding. What works for one does not work for all. I had a friend ask me if I was angry with him. After checking my mental list of those I AM angry with, I said no and asked why. He said that the email I had sent him sounded angry.

    I actually know people who do not read fiction, only nonfiction. They are now my ex-friends. Just kidding.

    • My husband has read fiction but he prefers nonfiction. It’s a personal choice. But people who aren’t into fiction don’t always understand how absorbed we get in a story.

  2. Nancy, I agree. And from the writer’s perspective, I believe there is nothing more creative than the ability to make everything from nothing, i.e. create whole universes from the written word.

    You mentioned your sympathy for those who are not able to “fly away to another world.” I’m certain that today’s discussion will include the “why” of why some are not able “transcend to another universe.” I will just mention one idea.

    Over the Thanksgiving holiday I noticed friends and relatives, who used to read, now playing Candy Crush Saga on their “smart” phones. They were hooked on it, spending every free moment playing, and no time reading. We are surrounded by infinite choices and possibilities. We can find anything on the internet. We can see anything happening in a movie. Do we even need the skill of imagining new worlds anymore? You know my answer.

    We need an app for our phones that will break our addictions to social media and “trivial pursuit” and make us want to read again. Ah, now that I have vented I feel better.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • This is true, Steve. Our multi-media environment provides nearly infinite distractions. That affects our writing because we have to write shorter pieces that appeal to narrowed attention spans. How can we, as writers, capture this population who stares at their cell phone screens? Or who relies on television instead of books for their fictional fix?

  3. I’ve found that the best historical nonfiction can actually transport me to a place and time. But you’re right–fiction is the ultimate world-creating craft. A lot of nonfiction falls short, which is why history class is usually such a bore in high school.

    • I’m a firm proponent of letting kids choose their own book-length reading material in school, mixed in with the classics if necessary. And yes, well done historical nonfiction can transport you. My father’s travel adventure, Thumbs Up, gives you a glimpse of life in 1929 America. But to help me get to sleep at night? I have to read a historical romance.

  4. Reading is a brain workout that can keep the mind & inagination sharp at any age. It’s a cheap vacation too. Nice post, Nancy.

    Give books for Christmas gifts or stocking stuffers. The gift that keeps on giving.

    • Yes, good reminder, Jordan! Books make great gifts. Reading fiction not only keeps the mind sharp but you learn all sorts of interesting tidbits about the world around you, about careers you’d never taste otherwise, about places you can only visit in your armchair. As you say, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

  5. Nancy, It’s all true on both sides fiction vs non-fiction. Something I realized twenty years ago, some written words reach some and others who read the same pages don’t get it. Sermons that carry a message the same way. I use to purchase CD’s of a message that rang my bell, but later learned that the recipient of my gift CD heard nothing.

    • That’s the difference in perception. It’s also a matter of interest. If you care about a topic, like a sermon, you’ll pay attention and absorb more.

  6. Great article Nancy. I’m interested to know. As a reader how does the ocean passage you wrote about make you feel? For me, it made me feel sad but somehow hopeful that it would all turn out okay. It’s interesting how one paragraph can evoke so many different emotions depending on the person reading it. Thanks.

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