Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Apollo 13 and the adjacent possible

with 2 comments

In The Name Above the Title, his wonderful, if somewhat unreliable, autobiography, the director Frank Capra describes seeing a silent comedian go onto a set, pick up the props that are lying around—a chair, a lamp, a basket of fruit—and immediately start improvising gags based on the materials at hand. I love this image, just as I love the idea of television shows wringing every possible variation out of a handful of standing sets, or low-budget exploitation films, like those of Roger Corman, that make inventive use of whatever happens to be available. (The original Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days on sets that were left over from another movie.) While the results can sometimes be mixed, I can’t help seeing this as an example of artistic ingenuity in its purest form, and especially as a useful model for writers, who can often be paralyzed by the range of possible options.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, follows the scientist Stuart Kauffman in calling this concept “the adjacent possible”—the act of creating something new out of what happens to be lying around. His favorite example comes from the movie Apollo 13, in which a team of NASA engineers is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft into ones that will work on the lunar module, using only materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician announces, holding up a pair of carbon scrubbers: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” The engineers get to work, sorting the mess into piles, as we hear a voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”

It’s a great scene, and I know for a fact that one of my best friends became an engineer because of that very moment—he wanted to be one of those guys standing around the table. And it isn’t hard to see why the idea is so appealing. It’s the kind of MacGyver-type problem we all like to think we’d be able to solve under pressure, given enough coffee, and while we may never have to save a spacecraft, we’re often confronted with analogous situations. This is especially true in the intermediate stages of any creative project, like a novel or screenplay. When we begin, we can do whatever we like, but each decision we make seems to narrow our options, until, by the end, we’re left with what feels like a table full of spare parts that we need to fit together. But it’s at moments like this that the most creative solutions tend to present themselves.

In my experience, when you’re looking to solve a problem in any story, the odds are that the answer is right there in front of you, in the collection of pieces you’ve already assembled. I’m always turning up useful spare parts in my own work. When I’m trying to solve a plot problem, I’ve found that it’s often best to go back and check what’s there, in the standing sets I’ve built, because the answer may lie in a throwaway line or a detail that can be put to some other use. (Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.) And when I’m writing a blog post and find myself searching for a snappy closing sentence, chances are, it already exists: it’s just a matter of looking over what I’ve written and relocating the best sentence so it sits at the end. See?

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I remember Apollo 13–the event as well as the movie–and your recounting of that scene brings chills. As writers, our work may not save lives (though one can dream), but solving problems in our stories does save our careers (such as they may be). We either end up defeated, with a bunch of unfinished garbage, feeling bad about ourselves, or we end up triumphant, happy, with something worth publishing, something inevitable, like it was meant to be there the entire time.
    In retrospect, the triumph of Apollo 13 seems inevitable, as if the crew was always meant to be saved. It wasn’t. Thanks for the reminder.

    speculativemartha

    May 3, 2012 at 10:41 am

  2. Glad you liked it! It’s funny how these events always seem inevitable in retrospect—except they weren’t, and we sometimes tend to forget that.

    nevalalee

    May 3, 2012 at 7:56 pm


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