Chickens and Eggs


Courtesy, “hand writing science formulas” by Mr. Lightman


Sometimes it feels like Plato and Aristotle are sitting at my kitchen table, arguing. This happens because where my kids used to bicker over who elbowed whom in the back seat of the car, as they’ve grown up they’ve moved on to better things – debates over ideas. And I have to say that while the squabbling in the back seat used to make me want to scream, the disputations that happen at the kitchen table leave me thinking. Here’s a case in point: the other day, the Rocket Scientist and the Conductor got into an epic talk about whether math is only a product of the human mind, or whether it has some reality in the world. The Rocket Scientist maintained that math is the name we give to things – amounts, shapes – and that, as such, it’s only a human construct. We see a tree outside, and connect the lines of its branches to other lines we see (the horizon, for instance), and come up with this idea we call a line. We see things and call them squares, even though no perfect square exists in the world. Meanwhile, the Conductor argued back that math grows out of physics – things exist in the world, we see them, and so we name them. Therefore, there’s a line because lines exist in the world, we see a bunch of them that look very similar to each other, and the idea of lines is born. To put the question another way, does the abstract grow out of the concrete, or do we pull the abstract out of nothing and lay it over the world we see? Sometimes These are chicken and egg questions that are just interesting to think about, and have been throughout time. As usual, I don’t think about them in terms of math and physics, but in terms of people and the telling of stories. The questions are equally tough in that realm, though, because while you often see that people tell themselves stories about what should be, or what the world is like, and then build their real, lived lives around that made-up story, you’ll just as often see stories that grow out of life. A person will experience kindness or cruelty, and go on to tell stories of the same. This gets writ large all over history – we tell ourselves that the king is born to be petted and obeyed and the serf is born to be abused and commanded, and then we make that story true by making sure everybody lives that way. And yet, that’s not the only way it happens. For a thousand reasons some other idea might develop – the concept that we human beings have inalienable rights, for example – and it works its way in, eventually changing the story for everyone. Chicken and egg, math and physics, reality and story. Is it a seesaw, or does one always lead to the other? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about. 

The Vocabulary for Transcendence

Courtesy, "red autumn forest" by Evgeni Dinev

Courtesy, “red autumn forest” by Evgeni Dinev

Last week’s Washington Post featured a book review on All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Here’s a piece of it that really caught my eye:

“I imagine that most parents will agree with her, too, that the joy is real, if sometimes fleeting and difficult to measure. “Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science,” she writes. ‘The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive.’”

The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive. Those are great lines. And they made me think about why writing about happiness is such a challenge. I won’t say writing about fun, because fun is neither very interesting nor any kind of goal. Fun is so uninteresting, in fact, that it’s a stereotype – imagine the neighbors inviting you over to view their vacation slides. Fun turns out not to be too great a story topic. I think most people know that instinctively, know that fun, while nice to have, isn’t exactly the richest of experiences. That’s why it seems like such a strange thing to talk about in the context of parenting. Asking if parenting is fun is like asking if schooling is. It deepens you, it challenges you, it enriches you, and it has moments – so many! – of transcendence. But though it might be plenty of fun some days, that’s not exactly part of the job description.

Which all leads back to the difficulty of writing about happiness, and yes, transcendence. The best writers I’ve seen do it by tucking those lovely moments into the midst of the conflict, moments that give the characters space to breathe, and to remember why they fight so hard to survive whatever challenge the story holds for them. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of the fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater, whose lyrical writing gives me much to aspire to. And I notice that she does this a lot – slipping in moments of beauty that you just want to hold onto, even as you’re eager to turn the page. The images she comes up with really wow me – a golden wood where leaves flutter past in the wind, a room where a boy makes paper cranes out of his memories. Beauty tucked in amid the hardship, transcendence that rises out of the challenges. Another way in which stories are so much like life.

The Lily and the Beetle

File:Victoria amazonica edit 1.jpg

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Sometimes inspiration is so feather-light you don’t really know you’ve had a solid idea unless you catch it. It could come as a passing thought, or a what if that drifts into mind, or the intriguing sound of someone’s voice. Years ago, when I was teaching business writing, I was often asked about the role of brainstorming in writing. Most people seem to understand that brainstorming is a big part of the writing process, and they know it is somehow related to inspiration, they just don’t exactly know how the two connect and how one can stimulate the other.At the time, the focus of my teaching wasn’t on either one. I was trying to show people how to gain a different skill they frequently lacked — that of organizing and giving force to ideas. Writing structure was my favorite topic.

But of course there’s always a place for brainstorming, because before you can organize your thoughts, you have to have one or two of them to work with. So here’s what I wrote, back then, about brainstorming:

Twyla Tharp, the master choreographer, has a wonderful book on creativity called The Creative Habit. One of my favorite pieces of advice in it is her discussion of how to start anything – a dance, a book, or a piece of music. To begin, she says, you don’t have to start at the actual opening of the piece. Dive into a part that interests you, begin brainstorming there, and you can build the piece outward, in any direction. This is a good piece of advice for writers in the earliest part of the process, long before it’s time to structure a piece of writing, when you’re only just developing the idea of what to write about. If a topic interests you, begin brainstorming about what caught your attention. The initial idea should blossom from there – leading outward to other topics, into greater detail or out, into the broader context of your topic. Either direction works.

Say you’re interested in the topic of symbiosis in the rainforest. You read about a certain water lily – bright white – that attracts a very specific beetle. At night, it closes, trapping the beetle and covering it in pollen. In the morning, it frees the beetle to go pollinate other lilies, and changes color – to pink – to avoid attracting the same beetle over again. Interesting topic, right? How could you work from there? You could either choose to move more deeply into the topic – examining the beetle, the flower, and their mutual life cycles, or you could move outward – out into other symbiotic relationships in the rainforest, to the algae that grows on the sloth’s fur to get closer to the sunlight, for example. You could even move out to the rainforest itself and other topics relevant to it. Either way, the initial idea – the lily and the beetle – doesn’t have to be the beginning of the piece you eventually write. If it turns out to be a wonderful hook into the piece – great. But in the end, it may become merely a footnote. It doesn’t matter. The lily and the beetle worked, because they were the spark that started the brainstorming engine.

Brainstorming is obviously a big part of writing fiction, and that’s so because brainstorming is what gives some weight to that initial moment of inspiration. People often ask me now how I start a story, or how I started a particular story. The answer is pretty much back to the lily and the beetle, because work on a piece begins with whatever inspired me, and that’s a different thing each time. Sometimes it’s the voice that gets me. I hear something in my head, and I like the sound of it, and then I find a story to put it in. Sometimes I’m fascinated with an idea, and wonder how it would look in the world if it were to play out. What would a world without gender look like, for example? Or a world where people didn’t age? Or could record their dreams and then step in and live inside them?

So I play that inspired moment out on paper in a brainstorming session or two. That means asking myself question after question about the initial idea, building it into something that has some weight, some reality. When it does, I begin working on the pieces I’ve missed – if I’ve got character, that means plot, and setting. If I’ve got plot, that means character. And those questions keep getting asked at every stage: what kind of place is this, and what kind of culture does it produce? What kind of person is this and where would he or she get the ideas/way of speaking/difficulties he or she has?

When I think of this messy, unpredictable process, all of it flowing out of that initial, fleeting moment of inspiration, I think the lily and beetle metaphor becomes that much more apt. The moment of inspiration comes out of nowhere. But if you open up your hand (or petals) to catch it, a process begins. Coat the thing with pollen, hold it there, until you know it will help you grow. And then, when you do let it go, you’re changed. No more white lily, now it’s pink, and looking for the next thing it will need, to continue to be fertile. Inspiration is nothing without brainstorming to build on that initial, easy-come idea. But of course first you have to catch the beetle. 



photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Perspective is everything. When I was in college, I took a class with the wonderful fiction writer Joyce R. Kornblatt and read one of her novels, White Water, the story of a family reunion that runs over a weekend. The story is told from the perspective of five family members. Each section offers a different perspective, and moves the story forward. While I realize this technique is more common now, reading Kornblatt’s novel was the first time I’d been exposed to it, and I instantly fell in love with the idea. To do it well, you need each voice to feel different, and that challenge intrigued me. Beyond the challenge of it, though, I’m also fascinated by how different people see the world, and how and why they react differently to the same situation. Sometimes it’s not even just all the baggage and back story people carry with them, but even the pressure they’re under in the moment. Malcolm Gladwell touches on this idea in The Tipping Point when he talks about what makes people act the way they do. In it, he describes a group of seminary students, randomly assigned to give speeches, either on the topic of the good Samaritan, or on another, unrelated lesson. On their way to the speech, a person obviously in distress was placed along the path. Some of the seminarians – even though they were going to give a speech on helping a stranger in distress – stepped right over the man and went on their way. Others helped him. The difference turned on not which students had studied the ideas more closely, or even which had been randomly assigned to give the speech. It all depended on whether the individual speech-giver had been told he was late to his speech. I read the book a few years ago, but his example still sticks with me. Different perspectives matter, time pressure matters, the context matters. All so interesting when you’re studying people’s points of view.