Monday Writing Motivation: The inventors of immersivity

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog, Tips for Writers

Introducing an episode of a series of short radio programmes recently, the presenter* said: “I’d like you to imagine strapping on a big eye mask. It completely covers your eyes. Inside is a screen which fills your vision and shows a forest scene. You can see the trees swaying in front of you. You can hear the wind rustling in the leaves… As you turn your head to the left, you can see the trees on the left; as you tilt your head upwards, you can see the sky… It really does feel like you’re in the forest.”

In a word, what he was describing was the way in which artificial intelligence has enabled us merely organic intelligences to enjoy immersive experiences.

You can picture the advertising blurb:

“Imagine yourself on the lunar surface, experiencing the sensation of walking in one sixth of Earth’s gravity. Feel the thrill as you kick your heels at the stars and witness the awe-inspiring sight of our beautiful blue planet slowly setting below the lunar horizon. Our Moonwalk Package will transport you to an otherworldly realm, offering an adventure like no other.”

For Moon, substitute any exotic location you like: Want to climb Mt Everest? No problem? Explore Angkor Watt? Be our guest. Hike along the Great Wall of China? Sign up today!

Immersivity is the buzzword of virtual reality – and it’s all within our grasp now that AI is here.

But I’d like to make one small point. And it’s best made by way of example. Here’s an extract from The Goldfinch by the redoubtable Donna Tartt:

  We were buzzed in, took a cage elevator up to the second floor. I could smell incense, weed, spaghetti sauce cooking. A lanky blonde woman – short cropped hair and a serene small-eyed face like a camel’s – opened the door. She was dressed like a sort of old-fashioned street urchin or newsboy: houndstooth trousers, ankle boots, dirty thermal shirt, suspenders. Perched on the tip of her nose were a pair of wire-rimmed Ben Franklin glasses.

Without saying a word she opened the door to us and walked off, leaving us alone in a dim, grimy, ballroom-sized salon which was like a derelict version of some high-society set from a Fred Astaire movie: high ceilings; crumbling plaster; grand piano; darkened chandelier with half the crystals broken or gone; sweeping Hollywood staircase littered with cigarette butts. Sufi chants droned low in the background: Alla-hu Alla-hu Alla-hu Haqq, Alla-hu Alla-hu Alla-hu Haqq. Someone had drawn on the wall, in charcoal, a series of life-sized nudes ascending the stairs like frames in a film; and there was very little furniture apart from a ratty futon and some chairs and tables that looked scavenged from the street. Empty picture frames on the wall, a ram’s skull. On the television, an animated film flickered and spluttered with epileptic vim, windmilling geometrics intercut with letters and live-action racecar images. Apart from that, and the door where the blonde had disappeared, the only light came from a lamp which threw a sharp white circle on melted candles, computer cables, empty beer bottles and butane cans, oil pastels boxed and loose, many catalogues raisonnes, books in German and English including Nabokov’s Despair and Heidegger’s Being and Time, with the cover torn off, sketch books, art books, ashtrays and burnt tinfoil, and a grubby looking pillow where drowsed a gray tabby cat. Over the door, like a trophy from some Schwarzwald hunting lodge, a rack of antlers cast distorted shadows that spread and branched across the ceiling with a Nordic, wicked fairy-tale feel…

Now, answer me this: is this not immersivity? Isn’t this what novels – in fact, creative writing of all kinds – do? They transport you into exotic situations. Or familiar situations viewed through a wayward, sometimes unreliable eye. And they’re able to do more than even the most technologically advanced VR goggles: they can give you a whiff of incense, they can evoke the widest range of associations, they can call into your mind that edgy feeling that, as children, we experienced when fairy tales were read to us.

This is immersivity of which that tricksy virtual reality is a pallid shadow.

And Donna Tartt is only one of thousands of writers who provide us with immersive experiences across geographies and historical eras, shot through with emotions that range from joy to despair, from simple satisfaction to the most profound wonder.

The writer, John Gardner, author of the remarkable Grendel, who also taught at one of those august US schools of creative writing, put it best when he wrote that a writer gives “the signals that make us ‘see’ the setting, characters and events; that is, he does not tell us about them in abstract terms, like an essayist, but gives us images that appeal to our senses – preferably all of them, not just the visual sense – so that we move among the characters, lean with them against the fictional walls, taste the fictional gazpacho, smell the fictional hyacinths.”

I’ll be among the first to take a VR trip to the Grand Canyon. But for a truly immersive experience, I’ll just pick any one of the novels presently piled on my bedside table, and sink into the story it tells.

Happy writing,


* The presenter was Spencer Kelly, and the series of programmes,  available on BCC Sounds, was Understand: Tech and AI.

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