Saturday, September 24, 2011

Writing, Bacteria, Evolution, and Rules

I wasn't sure which blog to post this article to. It is science, yes, but it is also philosophy, and very little thought was required to turn that philosophy into writing advice. So, writing, philosophy, and science? Sounds like it belongs right here.

How Life Arose on Earth, and How a Singularity Might Bring It Down
September 23, 2011

The origins of life; the process of evolution; the dangers of too rapid growth, but also of stagnation.

Can you see the application to writing?

There is a quote early on, from Sean Carroll. He blogs at Cosmic Variance.

“The purpose of life,” meeting co-organizer and Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll said in his opening remarks, “is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.”

Well, that's a downer for all of us who want to believe there's something inherently unique and purposeful about humanity. But as a writer, I see that as a call to remember the true purpose of my work: to write stories.

Writers are not marketing machines; we are not  role-models; we are not advocates for this, that, or anything. Of course, these are aspects of our work, but they are tangential, not essential to what we do. Writers tell stories. In non-fiction, writers provide information.

That's it. That is our whole reason to be. To write. Anything else is the proverbial icing on the cake. Don't get so caught up in the add-ons that you lose sight of your true purpose. Just tell stories.

Back to the article. Inorganic reactions become biological reactions.The evolution of life-forms was driven by the spontaneous generation of complexity.

In writing, we start with a few tools. Words. Sentences. Grammar. Themes that determine how we arrange those elements. Then we reach a critical level, and the ideas take over, dictating the words, forcing the patterns into new lines.

Some people say their characters take over the story and they can no longer tell them what to do. Such willfulness is analogous to the emergence of biological reactions in evolution. What these writers are saying is that the story has found its life. It has evolved from connected words to an entity with a need to grow and develop.

Just as there are millions upon millions of life forms in the past, present, and future of our world, so too are there millions of stories. Like life, they rely on a few basic structures, but also like life, the pressures of their environment, the resources they have, the stimuli they perceive will alter and adapt them in to myriad forms.

Nothing new under the sun? Quite correct. It is not new, it is the history of life and of literature to constantly create new permutations, new adaptations. Infinite variety.

The article goes on to discuss how a strain of bacterium discovered they could use the citrate in their agar, rather than depend upon the glucose. This evolutionary adaptation proved repeatable. (I loved the comment, "Sympathetic murmurs of pity for the grad students spread through the FQXi audience." Grad students do all the long, tedious slog-work essential for science) It's not just making stuff up, folks. It's an incredible amount of painstaking, repetitious labor that leads to science. That's why we don't call it science unless it can be proven and repeated. Not at all the same thing as merely wanting it to be true.

In writing, the old patterns work. We are taught how to craft a sentence, how to develop a character, how to 'show-don't-tell.' But if we read, we discover that the greatest writers break the rules and enhance, even throw out the accepted forms. They bring new ways of telling stories into the world. Innovation drives literature as surely as it drives life.

Many, perhaps most innovations will fail. But a few succeed. Don't be afraid to try new styles, new characters. Never let yourself fall into believing that there's a one-and-only way to write. That said, like the bacteria in the experiment, there's a reason why we are taught rules. They work. If you innovate, you may fail. Be warned.

The end of the article discusses how different systems follow similar patterns. Bacteria, cities, humanity: all follow predictable relations. Smaller organisms have faster metabolisms. People in cities walk faster. And short stories require tighter, more urgent pacing.

Complexity theorist. Now there's a job title I'd love to have. "Complexity theorist Raissa D’Souza of U.C. Davis argued in her talk that when you have coupled complex systems, any break in the growth trends tends to be accompanied by wild fluctuations. Modern society is predicated on growth; stability is tantamount to collapse."

I've long wondered why humans in western cultures are so obsessed with growth. The town I live in, a delightful, charming place, is being destroyed by growth. The university is being mutated into a cancer that absorbs and destroys the quality of life for the campus and the town. But it will be a Big University, and that is, alas, all that matters.

Snarking aside, being big is not, by default, better. Books are too often too long. Don't be afraid to cut. Remove whole scenes. The joy of computer-aided writing is that you can copy out the entire novel in a blink, tear it to shreds, rearrange the bits, keep what works, paste that into a new version, and delete the rest.

Do hire an editor. They aren't enamored with your words, only with the finished product. They have the objectivity to see what is extraneous where you can't bear to let anything go. Trust your editor!

The final advice of the article is one all writers hear frequently. Get off the internet.

Time, lots of time, gave us life on earth. Even more sweeps of time gave us our selves. What's a few months to give life to your words?

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