inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #76 of 128: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 27 Feb 08 16:45
    
Does anyone really live an all-sunshine all-the-time life? 

And there is a saying in fiction that "happiness writes white on the
page."  Who wants to read a novel without conflict to be resolved, or
some dysfunction to be explored?  If so, the narrative will sound like
one of those holiday newsletters from your Aunt.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #77 of 128: Jonelle Patrick (jonellep) Wed 27 Feb 08 17:36
    

Besides, if grim aspects of life weren't must-have ingredients in novels,
writers would not be able to comfort themselves by muttering, "It's all
material" when life deals out its little challenges. heh.

I was wondering how you (Pamela) made decisions about when to name names and
when to fictionalize? For example, the Santa Fe Institute appears as itself,
but what if one of the characters associated with it had been a
reprehensible person, or was doing suspect research? At what point did you
change the names (or alter details) to protect the innocent?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #78 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 28 Feb 08 06:19
    
Let me answer a group of questions here.

Robertflink asks about navigating the seas of human relationships, and
whether, with science in the mix, it's easier or harder, whether
scientists are theoretical or experimental.

Successfully navigating human relationships seems to depend on human
empathy--the more empathy between humans, the better they can see each
other's point of view, anticipate what the other might be feeling (or
would feel in a hypothetical situation--if I steal this guy's cookie,
he's not going to be too happy.)  

We've always thought that was the luck of the personality draw, you
were blessed with empathy or not, but in the last ten years, we've
begun to accumulate evidence that a set of neurons in the human brain
called "mirror neurons" is where empathy lies (among many other
things).  

People with poorly functioning mirror neurons haven't a clue about
others; people with well functioning mirror neurons are deeply
empathetic and can make very good guesses about the feelings of others
without being told.  

I'd guess the natural distribution of well-functioning and poorly
functioning mirror neurons is pretty random: as many self-centered
idiots in the philosophy department as in physics, but this is only a
guess.  It's possible that some fields of science permit a high level
of performance even without very well-functioning mirror neurons, but
then so does music, painting, and literary criticism.

Most important, with effort, those mirror neurons can be trained to be
more effective.  In other words, born a self-absorbed idiot, you don't
necessarily have to remain so.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #79 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 28 Feb 08 06:28
    
Scott is right, of course.  Conflict--and its resolution--are what any
art is all about.  In the case of novels, it's usually a human being
up against some difficult, even overwhelming, odds, and your task as a
novelist is to bring that to life.  You don't necessarily solve the
problems; your protagonist doesn't necessarily win against the odds;
but if he fights a good fight and the forces of destiny drive him to
destruction anyway (as in Greek tragedy or some operas, say) everybody
feels a kind of catharsis, and goes away satisfied.  "It had to be
thus."

Laurie Colwin wrote a novel called "Happy All the Time" which I read
just because I couldn't imagine how she could write such a book, but it
was delightful, but of course it must have *some* conflicts, though
they were small.    
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #80 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 28 Feb 08 06:39
    
Finally, Jonelle's question about naming names.

Funny you should ask.  Yes, the Santa Fe Institute is real, and I name
a few real-life, still living, scientists who could have been found
there during the years the book takes place--Murray Gell-Mann, Stewart
Kauffman, etc.  But you notice that these are very flattering
references.  I don't wish to spend any time in litigation.

A nasty plaigiarism case involving a scientist then associated with
SFI did take place during the period I wrote, and I didn't include it
or of course name names, though it was quite public and even made the
New York Times.  An attempted suicide and a successful suicide have
taken place there (not in situ, on the grounds, but the victims were
people at the Institute).  None of these were quite pertinent to what I
was writing, so I didn't include them.  (Who knows what I'd put in a
sequel?)

Art is economizing--taking away, so that the important points emerge.
At the same time (to quote Lewis Mumford) art is labor-loving not
labor-saving: we labor over it both as creator and reader to get the
most we can out of it.  But that opens a whole new topic!
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #81 of 128: a very simple agent (zippy) Thu 28 Feb 08 08:18
    

I think I would distinguish the presence of good mirror neurons - the
ability to empathize - from a persons interest in empathizing.  in the
complex system of human interaction, each is a different input.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #82 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 28 Feb 08 13:41
    
If I had Sandy Blakeslee's new book on mirror neurons at my side, I
could say more about them.  I just wanted to take a stab at answering
the question above.

On an earlier topic, I heard the cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer give a
lunchtime talk today, and answering a question as to whether the
drawing or the captions come first, he said he opens with a drawing,
sometimes a caption, and "the characters take it from there.  You can't
think your way even through the short narrative of a six-panel
cartoon.  Your characters lead you."
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #83 of 128: Jonelle Patrick (jonellep) Thu 28 Feb 08 15:36
    

How amazing that happens even with cartoons. And Jules Pfeiffer would know!

> It's possible that some fields of science permit a high level
 of performance even without very well-functioning mirror neurons, but
 then so does music, painting, and literary criticism.

Literary critics! HAR!

And I've been thinking about one's life work becoming out-of-date (per the
discussion upstream about scientists) and it seems to me that in scientific
fields, it might not become superannuated sooner, but could become so far
more emphatically than in say, the field of literature or other non-
empiracal fields. For example, new discoveries might toss one's famous
theory right out the window. Poof.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #84 of 128: a very simple agent (zippy) Thu 28 Feb 08 16:14
    

which is at least one cause of the territorial behavior one sees in those
fields.

I'm interested in how the edge of chaos (note lack of caps) figures in your
creative process pamela.  can you characterize how the complex system of
your characters and plot evolved?  were there particular ways you goosed the
system towards chaos when the writing wasn't going forward?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #85 of 128: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 28 Feb 08 16:27
    
How can anyone dare signify that there is edgy chaos in the realm of
poststructural deconstructivism?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #86 of 128: David Kline (kline) Thu 28 Feb 08 18:24
    
I suggested earlier that we'd come back to this idea that the
characters take on a life of their own, an idea which fascinated me
(and reminds me of the part of _Sophie's World_ that I just read a
couple of days ago).  I'm interested in hearing more about that, and it
relates at least tangentially to several of recent posts.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #87 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 29 Feb 08 06:40
    
Lee, you asked how the edge of chaos figures in my own work process. 
Unfortunately, I can't answer that.  My creative processes operate at
such an unconscious level that I'd stop myself dead if I tried to
analyze them.  I do know when they're moving me forward; I do know when
I'm even interfering with them.  I try not to.  Hence the notion of
the characters, not the god-like author, as the engine of the story.

I think Scott is asking his question tongue in cheek, so I'll just
smile and move on.

Characters taking on a life of their own.  Yes, they do.  In a very
early draft, Judith was happily married and Sophie didn't exist. 
Molloy was just mysterious, and Benito just a scientist.  Gradually,
Judith told me she was not cut out to be a married woman; a confidante
(Sophie) appeared instead; Molloy's backstory wrote itself and then
moved forward; Benito played a bigger and bigger role.  But I cannot
say more than I already have that the author feels as if she's
discovering this stuff, not inventing it.

The closest I can compare it to is a dream: you dream your dreams,
they're yours start to finish, but you don't control the plots or the
setting or any such thing.  In fact, you're often surprised when you
wake up at just how creative that dream has been in juxtaposing issues,
or yanking out people from your past you haven't thought of for twenty
years, or whatever.  Sometimes you don't like your dreams: they're
scary, they're puzzling.  But they're yours.  Yet you don't "control"
them in any real sense; they control you.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #88 of 128: a very simple agent (zippy) Fri 29 Feb 08 08:46
    

well I wouldn't want to stop your creative process dead, but I'm fascinated
by the recursion of a person who knows about complex systems writing a book
about complex systems that is itself a complex system.  when Judith told you
she wasn't cut out to be a married woman, the system was whispering to you
about a problem in the way it had evolved, and you responded by changing
variables in the system.  I suspect there was a period of increased chaos
after you removed the married variable and if you ever have an insight about
that increased chaos and the re-evolution that occurred after it - with
characters and the relationships between them exhibiting new traits - I'd be
very interested.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #89 of 128: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 29 Feb 08 10:21
    
Zippy, you may be onto a completely new way for creative writers to
approach the task of constructing text.  Some authors will jump into a
story with no preconceived idea of where they are heading, others will
have intricate outlines or at least benchmarks to lead the way, but
I've never heard of the process described in this way.  Voice,
characterization, character development, conflict/resolution, plot,
place/setting, profluence/energeics are some of the terms used by
writing teachers to impart craft, but a chaos theory/systems approach
is a new one!  

Pamela's discussion about how certain characters emerge and others
diminish as stories evolve is common.  It's part of the "magical"
element for authors as they become immersed in their stories.  It's
often described as the writer tapping into their subconscious to find
the "real" story that is trying to emerge.  Thinking about it too
systematically as a process of shifting variables, increasing chaotic
relationships, or objectively inserting or removing traits, of course,
risks a formulaic process.  The best literature has both sophisticated
plotting AND three-dimensional characters dealing with situations in
ways that generate for the reader an emotive/subjective and a resonant
appeal that talented writers are able to evoke.

Along these lines, when you write your fiction, Pamela, do you ever or
often use benchmarks/outlines or have an ending in mind when you
start?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #90 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 29 Feb 08 11:16
    
Not in fiction, Scott.  No ending in mind; certainly no outline; no
special points that must be covered or else. 

I've worked in hypertext a little bit (I loved it; only the
ever-changing platforms made me go back to good old linear text) but
that was long before I knew anything much about complexity. 

I've used such aides as you mention (outlines, benchmarks, etc.) in
nonfiction writing--after all, you need to submit a proposal to a
publisher--but even there, I find stuff changes under my hand, and I go
with the change; it's usually the right thing to do.  What you think
is important ahead of time often turns out to be less important than
issues you'll uncover immersed in the work.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #91 of 128: David Kline (kline) Fri 29 Feb 08 15:27
    
>I've used such aides as you mention (outlines, benchmarks,
etc.)...but
>even there, I find stuff changes under my hand, and I go
with the change; it's usually the right thing to do.  

OK, this helps me a lot, because I write a lot of nonfiction--reports,
papers, proposals yadda yadda.  I can see what you're saying because I
have that experience.  I can almost jump from there to characters with
a life of their own (but the leap is still a bit long.)
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #92 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 1 Mar 08 08:55
    
Nobody has mentioned it, so I will.  In the opening scene, Molloy asks
the dinner table a question "that gets everyone's attention."  It's a
very simple question: why are you here?

Most of them take it literally--I came to Santa Fe because...  It
occurs to Judith that it might be meant as an existential question, but
a bit condescendingly, she thinks surely this guy doesn't mean that.

But the question recurs throughout the book; it *is* an existential
question, and it preoccupies all of the main characters.  

Did you notice?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #93 of 128: Donna Odierna (strega) Sat 1 Mar 08 10:58
    
I did notice.

I also remember thinking, when he asked it, that of course it was an
existential question. How not, in that time and place, in that company?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #94 of 128: David Kline (kline) Sat 1 Mar 08 11:40
    
Yes, I noticed.  It's another tie to _Sophie's World_, which begins
with  "Who are you?" and "Where did the world come from?"  (Everything
always ties to the book I'm reading right now, so never mind me)

I had the same reaction as Donna, and when Judith condescendingly
thought Molloy couldn't mean it as existential, I thought, "What?  Are
you being dense on purpose?"  

Why would it "[get] everyone's attention" if he *didn't* mean it
exestentially?  The answers were revealing -- everyone else had to get
it as much as Judith did. 
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #95 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 1 Mar 08 13:19
    
Okay, just asking!
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #96 of 128: Ludo, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Sat 1 Mar 08 13:44
    
"Why are you here?" is a very interesting question not the least for
the implication that one is here by intention and it is valuable to
know the presumed intention.  The premise of the question is that
intention is a given.  Its attraction may stem from some discomfort on
the matter in each of us.  

I think a "better" question (possibly as a rejoinder)would be "Why is
there a need for a 'why'?"

BTW, the inherent infinite regress is in no way out of line with the
original question.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #97 of 128: Jim Rutt (memetic) Sat 1 Mar 08 14:29
    
Howdy all.  I'm a half time resident of Santa Fe and have been
associated with the Santa Fe Institute since 2002.  

I'm about 2/3rds of the way thru the book.  I started reading the
topic, but ran across a spoiler or two so think I'll wait until I'm
done before I hop back in.   
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #98 of 128: David Kline (kline) Sat 1 Mar 08 15:22
    
One of the fascinating aspects of Molloy's question and its echoes
throughout the book is that we all could so easily have wound up
somewhere *completely* different, and quite easily.  That facet has its
echoes in the book too -- the path not taken, the path we were afraid
to  take.  (As an aside, there's a close chaos theory analogue to this
notion that was discovered by Henri Poincare around 100 years ago, long
before there was such a buzzword as chaos theory.  To his horror did
he realize that the beautiful, deterministic Newtonian celestial
mechanics equations were fundamentally badly behaved ("chaotic" in the
technical sense).

But yeah, the notion of "but for _____ I could have wound up on the
other side of the galaxy" was nicely woven into the book.

That weaving -- was it conscious, or did it just come out that way?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #99 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 1 Mar 08 16:38
    
Very conscious, David.  It's something we talk about around our house
a lot.  It's basically contingency--but for a nail, the battle was lost
kind of thing.

The book explicitly mentions paths not taken several times.  It
doesn't explore them, except, perhaps in the characters' minds--I
could've been a contender, except...  In this book, no believers in
inevitability, or fate, or it had to be.  
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #100 of 128: David Kline (kline) Sun 2 Mar 08 06:39
    
That's true now you mention it -- not even a token representative of
the predestination school.

So how does the intentional weaving-in of the contingency concept mix
with the characters who develop have minds of their own?  Writing the
former sounds intentional and the latter more go-with-the-flow.  How
does that all come together in one writing process?
  

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