About Writing and Alchemy

Long ago, before the first scientist had lived but after the last wizard had died, there were alchemists.

And a strange lot they were, too.

Alchemists spent their days conducting bizarre experiments and then writing weird and wonderful books about what they had found out. Being an alchemist meant you had to spend a long time boiling things, melting things, mixing them with other things…

But mostly, being an alchemist meant embarking upon a quest.

Yes, it seems you couldn’t be an alchemist without having one. And every alchemist’s quest was different, but it was also the same. They were looking for their Magnum Opus, their ‘masterwork’. Which was something they could look at and say, with pride not vanity: ‘At last! I did it! I made something marvellous!’
Some alchemists were looking for a potion to cure all disease (the Panacea). Others wanted a means to turn base metals into gold (the Philosopher’s Stone). Some sought a way to live forever (the Philosopher’s Stone, too, or sometimes it’s called the Elixir of Life). I’ve even heard some of them wanted to find a mega-powerful acid that would dissolve anything is touched (the Alkahest). Not sure what sort of bottle you’d put that in once you’d discovered it.

Perhaps it is because of problems like this, or maybe it was something else, but a few hundred years ago, all the alchemists died out.

Well, no, not exactly – they didn’t die out, they changed. Which is fitting, really, because that’s what alchemy is all about: transmutation! Turning something base and earth-bound into something marvellous and celestial.

So, then: some alchemists turned themselves into chemists, and carried on mixing things with other things. Others, I suppose, became philosophers and psychologists: those who seem to realise that we are all on some sort of quest, but argue amongst themselves as to what that quest is, and where it is leading.

But a great many other alchemists, I believe, became something else entirely.

They became writers.

I say this having just written my first ever book, The Snow Merchant, in which many of the characters are (or learn to be) alchemists. And for me the whole process was akin to some bizarre experiment. I mixed up a whole bunch of sentences (some good, most awful)… and then I let the whole thing simmer for a long, long time (it took about two years, including all the edits, to write). And somehow, at the end, most of the bad bits had magically evaporated away. And I was left with a story.

Alchemy has long been a metaphor linked to the act of writing. There are a lot of similarities. Literature is, at its essence, transformative. And it’s old; steeped in mystery. Percy Shelley called poetry ‘a secret alchemy’. William Blake literally printed his work using a complex technique involving acid, ‘melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid’. And both those poets created some pretty sublime stuff.

Now, most of us don’t use corrosive chemicals when we write (although I found an awful lot of words dissolve – in a good way – during the editing process with my publisher.) But aren’t we all alchemists in that, like them, we writers are on a quest? We’re all searching for something different, but also it’s the same: we want to pull that Magnum Opus, that sublime masterpiece, from the boiling cauldrons of our imaginations. We want to create something we can look at and say, with pride and not vanity: At last! I did it! I created that!

That, at least, is why I write. And that is also why I am glad to follow in the footsteps of the alchemists, for like them I spend my days conducting strange experiments (in my head) and then writing weird and wonderful books of what I’ve found out (on my laptop).