Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The evolution of art

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Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you’ve been watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as faithfully as I have, you probably came away from last night’s episode with a newfound appreciation for the wonders of natural selection. Darwinian evolution, as Daniel Dennett likes to point out, is probably the single best idea anyone ever had, and it’s since been applied to fields far beyond those of biology. The notion that ideas and abstract concepts, for instance, are subject to selection pressure—both within the human mind and in the larger world beyond—is a familiar one, and every writer knows how it feels. Life is full of story ideas, and the means by which one or another wins out is a mysterious one, with selection often taking place below the level of conscious thought. Even once you’ve started a story, it can go in any number of directions, with the author selecting and discarding variations based on their perceived rightness, a process that happens all over again once the story is released into the wild. (The publishing industry is a battleground for survival of a particularly ruthless kind.) And if you want to harness the power of evolution in your own work, it’s not a bad idea to take a few cues from nature itself:

1. Move through a series of useful intermediate steps. My favorite part of last night’s Cosmos episode was its takedown of the argument, common among proponents of intelligent design, that an organ like the human eye is too complex to have evolved by chance. It may be true that half an eye isn’t very useful, but an approximation of an eye certainly is, and there’s a beautiful sequence illustrating how the eye evolved from a series of intermediate stages, each useful in itself: a cluster of a few photosensitive proteins develops gradually into a depression with an aperture and finally an eye with a lens. And this is a striking analogy to how the creative process works. Half a story isn’t any more useful than half an eye, but a finished rough draft—one that takes the entire narrative from beginning to end, however imperfectly—is both a sketch of the whole and a template that can be refined through successive revisions. And it isn’t until you’ve got something that holds together on its own provisional terms that you can start to make it better. (This is part of the reason why I always start with a detailed outline, which is the roughest version of the complete story that can possibly exist.)

Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

2. Introduce a little randomness. Natural selection proceeds as a succession of accidents, with random mutations in the genetic code that usually lead nowhere, but occasionally result in a useful adaptation. The process of writing a story can’t work in quite the same way: unlike nature, we’re writing with an end in mind, and most of us start with a plan. Even with such a teleological approach, however, it’s still possible to embrace a productive element of chance. I’ve described my own methods in detail, but every author will develop his or her own strategies for making raids on the random. Nicholson Baker, for instance, used a random number generator to reorder the chapters in his novel The Anthologist, and although he discarded most of the results, it led to a handful of promising juxtapositions that were preserved in the final draft. Even if you aren’t as systematic about it, you’ll soon find that every finished novel represents a compromise between the vision that the author had at the beginning and the unpredictable variations that the process introduced. And it’s essential to be able to depart from the plan enough to incorporate the unexpected—and to test it diligently against the alternatives.

3. Give it time. If the diversity and ingenuity of the adaptations that nature creates can sometimes seem unimaginable, it’s because natural selection operates over millions of years. Time, scale, and variation can do remarkable things. Artists, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury: we can only write one version of a story at a time, and we only have a few months or years to get it done. Even on that reduced level, though, time is crucial. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering in the creative process, and the fact that most novels need a year or so to percolate in the author’s mind, no matter how fast we can write. There’s a simple explanation: most of us only have so many good ideas at any one time, and if we can extend the period of writing, we’ll increase our chances of finding an idea that can be applied to the problem at hand. It’s possible to take this too far, of course, and there always comes a time when the draft needs to be sent out to meet its fate. But even a break of a few weeks can have positive effect, especially if we’ve turned our attention to other projects in the meantime. And when we do finally go back to the work we’ve set aside, we’ll often find that it has evolved in our absence, when we weren’t even aware of it. Now that’s some intelligent design.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2014 at 9:57 am

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