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Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

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I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

Monday Musings: Superbowl and the Reach of Sport

I find the entire spectacle obscene. The money spent on those television ads alone, if put to different purpose, could improve the lives of millions who desperately need to have their worlds made better. And yet, it is as American a moment as any annual event on our nation’s calendar. It is a shared experience of unparalleled reach.

Last summer, while Nancy and I were in Ireland, traveling and sightseeing before WorldCon, we discovered the Irish national sport. We had just reached the Midlands city of Birr and were getting a Guinness before dinner. (A lot of our sightseeing resulted in us seeing the inside of a pub…) While we were enjoying our stouts and chatting with the locals in the bar, we noticed that the game on the small, wall-mounted television was not anything we’d seen before.

Ireland’s national sport is not Gaelic football, as one might think, nor is it soccer. It is a sport called hurling, which, along with its sibling sport, played by women, called camogie (and actually that night we were watching a camogie match) has a history dating back approximataely four thousand years. As an organized sport it is some 800 years old.

Hurling/camogie is called by many the fastest game on grass. To the untrained American eye it appears to be a blend of lacrosse (it is played with a stick – the hurley – and a small hard ball – the sliotar) and Gaelic rules football (the pitch is set up much the same way, with goals and goalposts at either end). The action in hurling/camogie is breakneck and non-stop, the game is rough and dangerous, and the skill required of its players is mind-boggling. The wooden hurley ends in a flat blade on which players catch the sliotar and then cradle the ball as they run. Read that sentence again. The stick is bladed. There is no net in which to catch the ball as there is in lacrosse. Players catch and carry this hard, slightly rubbery ball on a slat of wood no bigger than the palm of one’s hand at the end of a stick 30 inches long.

Hurling/camogie is as fantastical as Quidditch, except it’s real. And, in Ireland, the fanfare surrounding the hurling championship is no less frenzied than that surrounding our Superbowl. Sure, there is less money involved. Companies don’t spend millions for a single advertisement during the match. But for the duration of that championship game, the nation slows down to watch. Other concerns are briefly set aside and a huge swath of the population is caught up in the immediacy of the moment.

This seems a good day (I’m writing this on Sunday) to reflect on the power of sport in culture. I am a huge sports fan. I love just about any sport, although, I will admit on this Superbowl Sunday, American football might well be my least favorite of all the major league sports, not just in the U.S., but anywhere (and not just because I’m a New York Giants fan). I much prefer baseball (even with all my complaints about the way it’s played today) and soccer and basketball and even hurling. I won’t take much time to explain why – I’m not looking for an argument. But I will say that I prefer games that rely more heavily on finesse and refined skills (like basketball and soccer and baseball) to the brute force of football. (Before you get on me for this, I fully acknowledge that players like Pat Mahomes and Raheem Mostert, Tyreek Hill and George Kittle have incredible skill and talent. But to my mind, as someone who has been watching for literally 50 years, the game itself is one that emphasizes brute power and violence.) And for all the talk about how exciting football is supposed to be, the ball is actually only in play for about 12 minutes per game (the figure is only 18 minutes for baseball, so I realize that I’m not being entirely consistent here).

That said, I will watch today’s game. Because it’s an Event, and even the commercials will be talked about for days to come. Because even the dullest sporting event can have moments of unbelievable excitement, suspense, and surprise. And not least because the vast majority of the rest of the country will be watching as well. That might seem like an odd reason – conformity for conformity’s sake. But we live in a country of 330 million people. We live in cities and tiny towns, blue states and red states, mansions and cramped apartments. We come from different nations, different religious backgrounds, different races, different gender identities. Even with the power of today’s media and popular culture and technology, how many experiences do we as a country actually share in real time?

The Superbowl is big business. It’s glitzy and crass and ridiculously over-hyped. I find the entire spectacle obscene. The money spent on those television ads alone, if put to different purpose, could improve the lives of millions who desperately need to have their worlds made better. And yet, it is as American a moment as any annual event on our nation’s calendar. It is a shared experience of unparalleled reach. Viewership of the game is actually on the wane, and still we can expect that close to 100 million Americans will watch tonight’s game. That is as significant and telling as it is insane.

So I’ll watch, tolerating the hype and the flash, hoping for an exciting game filled with twists and turns. I’ll marvel at Mahomes’s feathery touch  and Mostert’s ungodly agility. I’ll enjoy the big plays and get caught up in the inevitable controversies. I’ll even watch the commercials with interest. In other words, for this one evening, I’ll be a typical American. And I’m okay with that.

Super Bowl Sunday

Today, of course, is Super Bowl Sunday, the most bizarre, quintessentially American “holiday” of the year. It is, I believe, the anti-Thanksgiving. It is to Thanksgiving what evil Willow is to normal Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what Mirror Universe Spock is to Federation Spock in the original Star Trek. Other than the presence of a football game in the middle of the festivities, Super Bowl Sunday and Thanksgiving Thursday have nothing in common.

Let me be clear: I’ll be watching today’s game. I always watch the Super Bowl. And yes, I’ll also be paying close attention to the ads, as I do every year. I make no claims to being holier than any of thou. But let’s face it, America: Super Bowl Sunday is a celebration of controlled culturally (and economically) sanctioned violence, interspersed with frenzied expressions of consumerism and gluttony. It is an excuse (as if we needed one) to gorge ourselves on fast food and mediocre beer while watching commercials for still more fast food and mediocre beer. On Thanksgiving we pause to express our appreciation for the wonders that we are so privileged to enjoy: freedom and security, family and friendship, shelter and sustenance. On Super Bowl Sunday we sit in front unspeakably large televisions (or else we rue the fact that we don’t own unspeakably large televisions) and consume stuff that those who were present at the very first Thanksgiving so many centuries ago would scarcely recognize as food.

And the ads! Did you know that this year advertisers will be paying $4.5 million for each thirty second spot? NBC expects to pull in about $360 million in ad revenue tonight, which is, like, a lot of money. All so that we can watch a game that has, more often than not in the forty-nine year history of the Super Bowl, proven to be a rather anti-climactic end to the football season. Way more than half the Super Bowl games played over the years have been one-sided — thirty of forty-eight have been decided by 10 points or more, and many of those have been true blow-outs.

Of course, we don’t really care. If the ads are good, and we eat enough chips and drink enough beer, the game ceases to be of much importance. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving that way, only really not.

One of Those Posts . . .

This is one of those posts. And by one of those posts I mean a post that is going up for the sake of keeping alive a promise I’ve made to myself to try to blog about something every day.

Thing is, I don’t have a lot to say. I worked today. I got out for a walk and saw a few birds (a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk and a small flock of Swamp Sparrows, which happen to be among my favorite winter residents). I watched a little football. When I’m done with this I plan to play a little music. A relaxing, quiet day, of which I have had way too few recently. And I don’t see too many more such days in my immediate future.

So I’m going to enjoy this one. Forgive the brief, pointless post. See you tomorrow.