Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Waiting On Empty Air

I was scouring the Web the other day when I came across a talk by Steven Johnson on TED.com titled "Where Good Ideas Come From." I clicked on the link, expecting the usual litany of generic promises found under this kind of title: meditation techniques to clear your head of synaptic sludge, a diet program that augments imaginative output by 13.354%, and a list of books you must buy before you too are capable of producing ideas of merit. I readied myself for Johnson to peddle his snake oil and refused to join the audience of nodding, thoughtless bobble heads. But, as is usually the case with my preconceived notions, I was wrong.

It turns out that Johnson isn’t in the market of prepackaged epiphanies. Rather, his purpose is to debunk the power the “Eureka! Moment” holds over our cultural imagination. Johnson’s sell is that our ideas are not flash-in-the-pan moments of inspiration that come to us because either: A) our head is an idea making factory of unadulterated amazing, or B) we have been blessed by some deity of intellectual bounty. Instead, he proposes that good ideas need two important processes to mature. The first of these he calls the Liquid Network. To put it simply, the Liquid Network is a pattern of interconnecting ideas you construct by immersing yourself in the chaos of other people’s ideas. This chaos is mandatory to change and mature your ideas, and — let’s face it — an idea that doesn’t evolve will ultimately prove worthless. The second process is called the Slow Hunch a.k.a. time, the long, arduous, and painful variety.

Once said, Johnson’s system seems quite obvious, the commonest of common senses. However, when we turn our attention to the subject of creative writing, we find writers operating as if these facts do not apply to the creative process. Just stop and think about how many writers you know that act as though this system doesn’t pertain to them. How many wait day after day for their “Eureka! Moment” to visit? How many only write and read from that comfortable, safe genre and never venture forth into the chaos of something new? (And, yes, even the supposed anarchy of the postmodern or avant-garde will eventually render itself safe and formulaic given enough time.)

The reason for this fallacy is that we writers of stories and ideas have been wooed by our own creations. So many of us listen to the story of Isaac Newton under his apple tree and decided to sit under our own trees, hoping for the arrival of the consecrated fruit bludgeoning. We never bother to climb into the tree and drop a few of our own apples because we confused the metaphor of the “Eureka! Moment” with the actuality of the growing, struggling idea.

So many writers are raised hearing about the life of the mythic, lonely writer, the social Walden locked in a broom closet, her only means of escape her thoughts and a Remington (typewriter that is). Now, any writer will have long, drawn out periods of solitude; I’ll concede to that. Yet, any writer who writes something that resounds with others must obviously have had contact with people, whether from reading, socially interacting, schooling, and so forth. Those people will shape the author the same way she will in turn shape them. Otherwise, the author’s ideas would be of interest to only one person, herself. We fall for the obvious ploy of the writer as purely isolated because it makes for a great metaphor about the creative lifestyle, but, again, we confuse the metaphor with the reality.

Why this confusion? Simply because art is long and life is short. Metaphors provide us with mental short cuts to complex ideas and concepts, but in our rush to make long art compatible with our short lives, we can sometimes misconstrue the short cuts and the actual path. This misunderstanding is why books titled "How to Write a Novel in a Month," "The Shortcuts to Writing a Masterpiece," and "No Time, No Idea, No Problem!" not only exist but greatly appeal to writers, both new and seasoned alike. They fill their pages with metaphors and simplified stories that are completely believable at first glance since they contain that tiny, tiny granule of truth swimming in a bottle of nostrum.

Did an apple fall on Newton's head? Probably not, but even if it did, I'll bet Newton had had gravity on his mind for years beforehand (staring into what he eloquently called "the ocean of knowledge"). Do writers sometimes find themselves locked in lonely broom closets with their typewriters? I'm sure they do, but I'm also willing to bet they surround those typewriters with piles of books and have tack to the wall a list of people they are going to call when their book is finished.

Johnson may not be selling advice directly, but the advice that comes free with his intellectual wares is worth having. Write a lot. Read even more. Engage in a community, the more chaotic and varied the better. Be patience. Are you guaranteed a good idea? No, but it can't hurt your chances, and at least you won't waste twenty bucks on a copy of "The Shortcuts to Writing a Masterpiece."

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