It’s my great pleasure to welcome Chicago-based author, screenwriter, endurance athlete, and forensic scientist(!), Greg Hickey. Greg has some interesting observations on how creativity can sometimes lead to its own undoing. Greg is the author of Our Dried Voices, a dystopian fiction novel about what happens when humans no longer need to think and create in order to sustain their lives, and a Finalist for Foreword Reviews‘ 2014 INDIEFAB Science Fiction Book of the Year Award. You can read samples of Our Dried Voices and the rest of his written work on his website http://www.greghickeywrites.com. Thanks Greg!
Humanity is moving toward a paradoxical state where our efforts for creative production and problem-solving eventually lead to an environment in which those efforts can be easily neglected. “Creativity is bound up in our ability to find new ways around old problems,” said psychologist Martin Seligman, and throughout human history, creativity has aimed to advance the goals of universal progress and the edification of human civilization, most often by responding to difficulties and challenges faced by humankind. As a species, we have built, cultivated, doctored, analogized and depicted in order to counteract natural elements, hunger, pain, disease and conflict. Even art is typically a response to a specific social condition, an urge to experiment with new materials or a struggle with a particular idea.
Yet we rarely stop to consider our ultimate end for all this instrumental creation. Imagine we one day discover a cure for HIV/AIDS that is completely effective, works rapidly, and can be manufactured at such low cost that we can quickly distribute it to every corner of the globe. That day may not be as far-off as it appears. AIDS, which has contributed to 39 million deaths since the start of the pandemic in the 1980s[i], has been far less devastating than the smallpox virus, which killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone[ii]. Yet smallpox was eradicated in 1979, giving us hope for an AIDS cure in the near future. And if we do ever eradicate AIDS, the world’s top virologists may wake from the champagne-soaked stupor of the previous night’s wholly deserved bacchanalia of triumph and relief to find themselves out of a job.
On the surface, the end goal of a painless, challenge-free life might seem ideal. But what would that life really look like?
Consider how you’d spend your time if you got snowed in from work or school.
You’d have the perfect opportunity to build a snowman, write some poetry, practice yoga on your living room floor or learn to cook a new meal. Or, as I suspect many of us might do, you could spend a few extra hours in bed, then recline in your remote-controlled La-Z-Boy and have lunch delivered to your door while you stream reality TV.
It’s no secret our lives have become increasingly intertwined with a host of technologies that eliminate inconveniences and automate mundane tasks. As a result, we are now healthier and safer and live longer than ever before. And thanks to technology, many of us never need worry about parallel parking, orienting oneself in a new city or preparing a meal from scratch. However, an overdependence on such technological systems allows humans the luxury of not developing the skills we would need to employ should those systems ever fail. In terms of this so-called automation paradox, creativity is a double-edged sword. The humans who developed these technologies did so with imagination and skill, and
at its best, technology frees us up to make better use of our creative capacities. Yet it also allows us to neglect those capacities and turn intellectual and skill-based activities over to automation, making us more comfortable and complacent and less creatively motivated.
There’s a lot I like about writing. It’s creatively satisfying, it allows me to play day long games of “What if?” and call it being “productive.” Writing lets me pretend I’m someone else so I can try on different viewpoints and new ways of living: Christmas on Mars is nothing like back on Earth! I even enjoy the challenge of mastering a craft that on many days seems hopelessly beyond my reach. And it’s good for me! Study after study after study shows how good writing is for my brain, keeping it healthy and flexible well into old age (assuming, of course, that all my other writerly bad habits don’t destroy me first).
But another thing I like about writing – and one that doesn’t get discussed so much – is that it is a powerful tool for personal development. Writing teaches me lessons about perseverance and problem solving, about tolerance and interpersonal relationships. In short, it makes me a better person.
Case in point: A few days ago I was thinking about the novel I’m currently working on and found myself getting overwhelmed by the number of themes and scenes I’m developing. Although I have an outline in place, I don’t have all the details sorted yet and holding the whole story in my head felt like an impossible task. I was trying to eat the watermelon in one bite.
Of course the only way to write a novel is word by word, beat by beat, scene by scene. If I can just remember that, then the process of writing a novel shrinks to but one small task: writing a sentence.
I quickly realized that this is not just true of writing – it’s true of many, many things in life. So often I avoid doing certain things because they are BIG and OVERWHELMING and I’m tired and would rather troll for free images on Flickr. But actually there are no big tasks, only small ones:
My daughter plays in the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and during her rehearsals I usually pass the time at a cafe, downing cappuccinos and writing. I was there last Saturday, sipping my coffee drink and munching on my gluten-free, low-carb snack bar (holy crap I sound like a Yuppie) thinking about how to add more pain and conflict to a character’s life.
No, I’m not a sadist, I just saw that the short story I was working on wasn’t as compelling as it could be. The general rule in fiction is that every story must have at least one character and that character must be in conflict. Or to put it another way, storytelling describes what someone wants and how they get it (or don’t). The more obstacles and conflicts, the more squeaky bum angst, the more compelling the reading.
But as I sat there in my very distressed Windsor bow back chair, I wondered why all fiction demands conflict. Why couldn’t fiction just be a bunch of things that happen? Are real human lives full of conflict and drama? Well, yes. And no. It occurred to me that what stories need is not conflict per se, but rather a sense of progression, of overcoming some obstacle to reach a new goal. It’s that sense of progress that makes us turn the page, and gives the story a point.
John Gardner liked to use the term “profluence”. It’s a writing-geek word that refers a story’s flow. When a story has profluence, readers feel that the narrative is leading somewhere, and so they keep turning the pages. The feeling of achieving something is deeply satisfying.
Conversely, when a story doesn’t have profluence, when one scene doesn’t seem to connect to the next, when events feel random and the character just a bystander, readers are likely to close the book and say something nasty on Twitter.
All fine and well. So my story needed more profluence. But as I sat on that hard wooden chair, now succumbing to gluteal myalgia, I began to ponder whether profluence, so critical in fiction, isn’t also critical in life? I mean, we all have desires – it’s part of the human condition – but aren’t we happiest when we’re clear about our desires and are taking action to realize them? In fiction, a reader must understand what a character wants, either in the moment or in life. But how often do I really know what I want from life?