Many years ago, the emperor of Zhi had a dream. In his dream he found himself in a city at the confluence of two rivers, opposite a mountain range, with lush tropical gardens, white marble statues, and palaces made of pure gold. While in the dream city, he experienced a deep sense of serenity he had never felt before. When he awoke, he was determined to recapture this feeling by building the city. He described it to his architects in as much detail as he could remember and they soon started construction on what was to become the city of Metasia.
The architects tried their best to conform to the emperor’s vision, but as the city materialized, it slowly diverged from the dream. The nascent, real Metasia was similar to the city from the dream in many ways: It was situated at the confluence of two great rivers, it had a large botanical garden, many magnificent statues, and some of the most luxurious palaces the world had ever seen. Yet when the emperor came to inspect the new city, he barely recognized it. Instead of a majestic mountain range, there were only a few hills in the distance. The gardens were exotic, but had no tropical plants, as the climate was too dry. The statues and palaces were not made of marble and gold. The imperial treasury simply could not afford it.
At first, the emperor was outraged. He felt betrayed by his architects, who had not delivered the city he had envisioned. However, after some reflection he realized that what he was truly seeking was a feeling, personal to him. No matter how close the real Metasia would come to the dream city, it would always remain separate from it. Metasia, the city, would go on to become proud capital of a thousand-year empire. Metasia, the feeling, could never be recreated.
I wrote this city about a pattern that I first started noticing while writing other cities, but later found to be present in all my creative endeavors.
There is a feeling, an elusive, hard to explain something that gets me excited when starting a new project. It is the promise of an amazing, glorious result, perfect in every way, almost by definition. The promise is backed up by a few sharp details and fragments of the result. This fools me into thinking that making the thing will be easy, because it’s only a matter of transferring information from my brain to a medium.
But as I embark on the project, I discover that these fragments were all I had. Most of it still needs to be figured out. Real-world constraints start manifesting themselves and shape every aspect of the outcome. As the project goes on, the initial vision fades ever further into the distance.
In the end, the result is almost always very different from what I initially imagined. It doesn’t convey the feeling I set out to capture. That doesn’t make it bad, it has just become its own thing. It has value independently of the original intention.
In a way it is tragic that ideas can never truly become reality, but then that is what makes them ideas. They give us a space where we can dream of marble statues and golden palaces.