Thursday, August 5, 2010
Keep your process off my emergence
Something people do all the time is classify stuff - we sort everything into some kind of category, from "want" and "not want" to super-complex lists of who knows what, and everything in between, sometimes all at once. The thing about doing that is that when you put something into the box marked "good stuff", it can't also belong in the box marked "bad stuff" - and people are very, very bad at classifying stuff that changes. When does it stop being a puppy and become a dog? There's no clear line, and there are times when it's more puppy-like, and others when it's more dog-like. Basically, classification can't handle the process by which one thing becomes another.
Let's take the nice, simple example. Everyone knows that water freezes at 0C and boils at 100C (substitute the appropriate Fahrenheit numbers if you grew up with the non-metric system). Only, well... it doesn't, exactly. Even at temperatures a fair way below freezing, you get water - and sometimes water at sub-freezing temperatures, if the conditions are right. You've also got a certain amount of water vapor - steam - in the air. There's actually a fairly wide range of temperatures where you can get water in all three states. Or two and a half, depending on whether you regard ice as a solid or as a supercooled liquid.
Then of course the process of phase change between solid to liquid, solid to gas, and liquid to gas isn't exactly simple. It's not like a switch gets flipped and "A-ha!" you've gone from ice to water.
And this is the easy part. We can follow processes and trace them from start to finish, even if we're not sure if a partly melted ice cube is "really" liquid or solid (much less whether that fuzzy monster in the living room is a puppy or a dog). Processes usually have rules, and stick to them.
Emergence is a different beastie again. That's when you get something completely different out of an interaction. Like the way combining a lethally volatile gas (oxygen) with a solid that can be soft and sooty or hard and crystalline (carbon) gets you water/ice/steam. Or how you make that jump from hugely complex aggregates of organic molecules that look kind of like proteins to living things.
Or - to get into the really fun stuff - how the heck self-awareness and a massively complex inner life with an immense storage capacity crams itself into the few pounds of brain matter.
It isn't even that there's a lot to figure out. It's that nobody has an idea how it fits together. There's any number of theories about how you get from a brain to a mind, and nothing to disprove any of them (for the non-scientific readers: technically and ideally, there are no absolutes in science. Only theories that haven't been disproved. Yet). When it comes to something that authors use and exercise everyday, science has no real idea.
Yup. Creativity is one of those pesky emergent phenomenomena (sorry, I kind of like the Nanny Ogg school of spelling). It's there or it isn't, and if you've got it you really do see things differently.
What's more, every creative person sees things differently than every other creative person. Talk about an organizational nightmare, this is it. If you try to classify creative folks, you're going to end up with one box per person. "Sarah-Hoyt-Creativity" and "Dave-Freer-Creativity", and that festering one we hide in the corner is "Kate-Paulk-Creativity", while over to the right there, the box sprouting happy thoughts and flowers is "Rowena-Cory-Daniells-Creativity" (Yeah, yeah, I'm exaggerating. Kind of).
Guess what that does to the marketing folks. It gives them hives. Where do you shelve something that's the literary love child of Pratchett and Dostoyevski? What about "Little Peter Rabbit" meets "Silence of the Lambs" (mint sauce optional)?
For that matter, it makes a heck of a mess of writers, too. Imagine you're buzzing along happily with your satire on life, the universe, and everything (Yes, I like Douglas Adams, too) and out of nowhere - or so it seems - it twists and suddenly the whole thing is much more skating on the thinnest of ice praying it's not going to break. It's interesting, terrifying at times, and usually ends up being better than what you'd originally figured on, if you can survive the transition. Then of course there's that moment when a chance comment or something you see makes everything in your current project click into place so firmly you feel like you've had a chiropractor fiddling about inside your skull.
(And we won't even mention the process of going from "idea" to "book". There be dragons there. Big ones.)
So... the point, if there is one, is that writing is an emergent process all by itself, and spins off a whole bunch of others. What are some of your emergent process stories?