Across the street from my house is a city park with a splash pool. The water spurts up from the concrete in rowdy jets that sometimes start and stop, catching you off guard if you’re not paying attention. The pool is a great hit with kids and their moms from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
One day as I walked by the pool, I saw a little boy playing with a broken plastic bucket. He would catch water in the bucket, chase his brother with it, then throw the water. He would put the bucket over one of the jets and watch it dance up with the water pressure. He was even chased in his turn by his brother with a bucket full of water. After watching for a little while, I started to want a broken plastic bucket of my own. Of course, I wouldn’t have as much fun as these kids were having because I’m probably not capable of their mind set in that setting–full summer, free of school and responsibilities, and with a toy of opportunity that was perfect for the moment. I could not experience their set and setting, so that broken bucket would be wasted on me.
The late Dr. Timothy Leary coined the term set and setting to describe the circumstances one might experience during an LSD drug experience. The mind set and environment could lead someone tripping to distress and paranoia or life-transforming revelations. The Eleusinian Mysteries and other rites throughout history have made use of a carefully prepared set and setting to guide initiates to unforgettable and transformative experiences.
As an author, I strive in my writing to describe settings that will be vivid for my readers, placing them in environments that are real enough to immerse them, to put them in a world of my creation that I hope they can experience as I have imagined or experienced it. In addition, I try to lead them to a mind set that will provide an experience of suspense, entertainment, perhaps even revelation. By using the ancient tools of manipulating set and setting, I try to guide my readers to the end experience I am aiming for. I may never be able to bring them the joy provided by a well-timed, broken plastic bucket, but it’s a lofty goal to keep in sight.