Imaginative Skeptics

Ian McEwanAuthor Ian McEwan recently visited ASU for a lecture in partnership with the ASU Origins Project and the Center for Science and the Imagination. At this co-sponsored event, Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Sweet Tooth and winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at ASU, discussed doubt and skepticism in relationship to writing, as well as the interplay between science and literature.

The first question posed to McEwan and Krauss contained the overarching theme of the discussion: what is doubt and skepticism and how is it approached in writing both fiction and nonfiction?

McEwan began by defining doubt as “someone hesitating before a problem or outcome…pausing before a moral choice.”  He explained that the novel is a secular form which is invested in individuals and is at the heart of doubt and skepticism. Using Hamlet as the quintessential example of a self-examining and moralizing character embodied by doubt, McEwan described literature as reflective of the relation between consciousness and doubt in examining human actions and motives.

In reply, Krauss examined uncertainty in nonfiction, the scientific version of doubt. According to Krauss, uncertainty quantifies science because it imparts a worth on scientific discovery and establishes a value of correctness or probability. Although uncertainty is valuable to science, Krauss discussed how in writing scientific articles, his copy editor eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity even though “there is no absolute truth in science…it’s either very very very likely or very very very unlikely or in between.”  While uncertainty is crucial to scientific discovery, he explained that the human condition does not allow for doubt in something we like to accept as pure fact and truth.

In discussing the place of the scientific account in the narrative spectrum, McEwan commented that “science invades the territory of land held by the novel.” He explained that as science progresses, it seeks to quantify how we as humans make our choices. Understanding human action, as defined by science, forces the novel into a position of doubt as it must change its set of approaches in human emotional analysis. The novel, McEwan argued, is in a position of vague threat due to the increasing advancements of science because “if [science] changes the novel, it will change everyday lives.”

The moderator asked both lecturers to discuss how each conveys skepticism and doubt in a narrative. McEwan characterized his approach as a bottom-up–not a top-down–matter. In paraphrasing a 1953 lecture by Nabokov, McEwan said that one’s job as an author is to find the details; what a novelist has to do is build a world where skepticism is possible.

In contrast, Krauss’s approach to skepticism in nonfiction is a top-down approach, which to him is the best tool a scientist can use. For Krauss, skepticism is best utilized by conveying shock to the reader because “the easiest person to fool is yourself.” By getting someone to make the discovery that what they believe is wrong, it opens up the possibility that everything else could be wrong and leads to a questioning everything.  Krauss argued that it is vitally important for a scientist to be brutally honest as “little accidents can have a profound impact.”

In their examination of doubt and skepticism, McEwan and Krauss spent a substantial amount of time examining the vitality of the novel and writing. Writing doubt takes different forms in each genre, and as science alters humans’ understanding, fiction writing will alter as well in a continued attempt to clarify the human condition. This intimate discussion between two prominent masters of their field stirred a thought-provoking lecture in the exploration of how these two fields affect and alter one another.

Guest Blog Post, Monica Petersen: The Art in the “Shitty first draft”

SFDTaken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.

The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.

After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.

The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.

Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?