A trap baited with grass
Last month, in a post about the origins of my novelette “Stonebrood,” I quoted the author David Brin, who compared writing science fiction—with tongue in cheek—to wildcat oil drilling. Here’s more of what he said:
If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard SF writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking. For whatever it’s worth, some people think that way. A lot of SF writers aren’t writing hard science fiction because they think most of it has been written. If their reasoning is true—and I don’t think it is—one of the reasons is that you have writers like Larry Niven out there mining out whole veins and leaving nothing left for the rest of us to explore…He not only mines all those marvelous veins of ideas, he mines them to exhaustion.
Brin may not believe that writing is really like wildcatting, but his image gets at something meaningful about how authors work. When you embark on a project of any length, you’re making an excursion into unexplored territory. You can pick the area based on promising signs in the landscape, but in the end, you have no choice but to start digging and hope that the effort pays off. There’s skill involved, but also a lot of luck.
And a writer is less like a modern oil company with a team of geologists than a lone wildcatter driven by an obsession, like Daniel Plainview at the start of There Will Be Blood. Brian Frehner, in his interesting study Finding Oil, refers to them as “vernacular prospectors,” and describes how some relied on dowsing rods and mysterious black boxes called doodlebugs to identify potential sources of oil. It was crackpot science, but to the extent that it worked, it was as a way of focusing the user’s own hunches:
Like a blind man navigating the terrain with a cane, the most successful doodlebug prospectors also surveyed the landscape, and this activity cultivated within them an instinct for recognizing changes in topography and vegetation that indicated the presence of oil. In order to operate a doodlebug, [a prospector] explained that “you’ve got to have a lot of common sense and some knowledge of oil to get any effective results.”
Similarly, any writer eventually develops his or her own bag of superstitious tricks for identifying promising material, even if they’re ultimately just a means of enabling extended thought or reflection. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the specific tools that writers use, from mind maps to tarot cards, are less important in themselves than as an excuse that forces you to sit and think for the necessary number of hours that any idea requires.
But sometimes your intuition can fail you, even if you’re an experienced writer who has navigated the blank places on the map before. I got to thinking about this after reading Robert A. Caro’s description of the Hill Country of Texas in The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Describing the view that greeted settlers in the nineteenth century, Caro writes:
The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides alike…To these men the grass was proof that their dreams would come true. In country where grass grew like that, cotton would surely grow tall, and cattle fat—and men rich. In a country where grass grew like that, they thought, anything would grow.
He concludes bleakly: “How could they know about the grass?” In reality, the grass of the Hill Country had taken centuries to form, growing on a thin, fragile layer of soil over limestone, and as soon as it was eaten by cattle or otherwise denuded, it would never return. In Caro’s memorable words, the Hill Country was “a trap baited with grass.” And any writer can relate to the problem of encountering what seems like a promising area for a story—just look at all that grass!—only to end up striking bare rock.
Even worse, it can take weeks, months, or even years of effort before the writer realizes that the land has gone sour. (As Ted Hughes once said, quoting an unnamed playwright: “Dramatists waste eighty percent of their productive life on unworkable ideas that have to be abandoned.”) And even caution and long experience can’t always defend you against such mistakes. Caro continues:
Moreover, as to the adequacy of rainfall, the evidence of the settlers’ own eyes was often misleading, for one aspect of the trap was especially convincing—and especially cruel…Rain can be plentiful in the Hill Country not just for one year, but for two or three—or more—in a row. Men, even cautious men, therefore could arrive during a wet cycle and conclude—and write home confidently—that rainfall was adequate, even abundant. And when, suddenly, the cycle shifted…who could blame these men for being sure that the dry spell was an aberration; that it would surely rain the next year—or the next? It had to, they felt; there was plenty of rain in the Hill Country—hadn’t they seen it with their own eyes?
The italics are mine. All the caution in the world can’t prevent us from sinking months or years of our lives into ideas that won’t pay off in the way we hoped. The only way to avoid it is to stick only to the areas that have been thoroughly explored, which can lead to its own kind of disappointment. Any ambitious writer—which is to say, any writer determined to strike off on his or her own—will fall into that trap sooner or later. And when it happens, all we can do is pull up stakes, try somewhere else, and hope that this time we’ll find the land that we need.