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?


Megan Haskell said...

I'm relatively new to the writing game, having only been at it for a couple of years, but what I've found most interesting is how my own thought processes have evolved over time. I started out with the idea that I wanted to write. Something. Anything. I tried my hand at a gardening blog but got bored. Decided I wanted to write a novel but had no story ideas.

Then one day I had an inkling of an idea, so I ran with it. It was a tough process, getting those first few words on the page. After about twenty or thirty pages, I realized that my story was an amalgamation of a bunch of other stories I'd recently read. In other words, not unique or particularly interesting.

However, while I was writing that first attempt, my brain starting thinking all on its own. I started coming up with new ideas. Creative ideas. Things that I hadn't seen or hadn't been done well (to my mind). I found my story.

Now it seems I can't stop the ideas from flowing. Practically every day I come up with a new character or plotline or setting that demand attention. I can't write them all at once, but let's just say my idea book is getting pretty full.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I can't help being happy. It's just the way I'm made.

I've tried being angsty, to fit the perceived creative sterotype, but it was too hard to maintain.

(Note - this comment is made tongue in cheek).

Kate said...


It works that way - one thing leads to another, and another, and another, and the next thing you know you've got an epic on your hands and no idea what you're going to do with it!

Maybe I'm just weird, but I find it fascinating to watch my thought processes happen and track them through - or to backtrack to figure out just what inspired a particularly bizarre idea.

Kate said...


I can not imagine you being all angsty. It just doesn't work. Sorry - I guess you're stuck with the happy person we know so well :-)

Me, I have a streak of dark that threatens to dwarf the Pacific. It's not really angst, it's just... dark. And according to other people, scary. (Usually I only scare myself because I"m not scared by things that probably should scare me, if that makes any kind of sense at all).

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate - yes, what you said to Rowena about "scaring myself by failing to be scared" does make sense. I seem to lack many of the "normal" manifestations of a sense of self-preservation -- no fear whatsoever of walking/working in high places, for example, or walking mountain trails in the dark.

Emergent processes -- the fantasy WIP started out as a fairly straightforward "here are the good guys, there are the bad guys, build to *that* climax" kind of story. Originally conceived as a single story, grew to probably two volumes to develop the whole thing right as I sketched in the landmarks along the way. Then, I realized that I had people invoking Gods to produce actual, measurable effects -- which meant I had to have a mythic structure to support those gods. They couldn't just exist "in a vacuum". That added several layers of texture to things and ended up producing a second major story in parallel with the one I thought I had come to tell. That story led to even more layers of texture, as I realized I had missed several aspects of the surrounding culture in my tunnel-vision focus on the principal group of protagonists ... I'm up to what looks to be a five-volume epic, at this point. But I think I've finally killed all the alligators. (My FORTRAN professor used to have a poster in his office that said, "When you're up to your a** in alligators, it's hard to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp.")

Mike said...

Odd thought -- given that a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas produces typhoons and such in Japan, what storms do the emergent butterflies of writers breed as they crawl out of their chrysalis and shake those damp wings out? (I need tea!)

Kate said...


In my case it's usually things like being so deep into the POV of an evil character - and I mean the real thing, too, utterly self-centered, intelligent, magnetic, and outright evil and not being scared that I can imagine that kind of thing so easily. But yeah, it's the same general thing. I know intellectually there are places it's better not to go, but I still go there, and worry because it doesn't scare me.

Your progress with the WIP sounds very much like an emergent process, with all sorts of things arising and filling in the details as you go.

Your FORTRAN prof got it in one. Although if the alligators in question are like the Oz crocs, you might be better just nuking the swamp!

Kate said...


Who knows? Books have changed quite a few lives around the world, and those people have gone on to change lives for other people - in good and bad ways, depending on the person and the book.

Stephen Simmons said...

In the words of Little Orphan Annie: "Leapin' Lizards!" That there's a whole Wal-Mart full of handbags, just waitin' to be tanned an' stitched ... "Better pull out and nuke 'em from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Ya, I've never been a big fan of labels. When you define something you limit what it can be and is. You also have to deal with the fact others will have different reactions to your label.