A Long, Lonely Road: Advice to New Writers
By David Brin
Most of literature and storytelling boils down to one basic issue, how to balance our hopes and our fears. Within a novel we adopt the characters’ yearnings—briefly—as our own, trying them on for size. And when those dreams, those ambitions, are threatened? That drives both empathy and a gripping plot-line. The hopes can be as small-scale as getting invited to a dance and the threat might just be a teen rival…
…or the issues at stake may ramp up to include absolutely everything we value. Our families, nations, civilization, and continuing survival. Our chance to continue existing as a species. Perhaps even the flourishing of life itself in our galaxy?
Writing is a worthy calling -- one that can, at times, achieve great heights that ennoble the human race.
Actually, I believe writing was the first truly verifiable and effective form of magic. Think of how it must have impressed people in ancient times! To look at marks, pressed into fired clay, and know that they convey the words of scribes and kings long dead -- it must have seemed fantastic. Knowledge, wisdom and art could finally accumulate, and death was cheated one part of its sting.
Still, let me admit and avow that writing was not my own first choice of a career. True, I came from a family of writers. It was in my blood. But I wanted something else -- to be a scientist. And by the fates, I became one.
I also had this hobby though -- writing stories -- and it provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I'd scribble a few stories a year... maybe a novel now and then... while striving to become the best researcher and teacher I could be.
Don't mistake this for modesty! It's just that I perceive science -- the disciplined pursuit of truth -- to be a higher calling than spinning imaginative tales, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those tales may turn out to be.
I know this seems an unconventional view -- certainly my fellow scientists tell me so, as they often express envy -- an envy that I find bemusing. As for the artists and writers I know, they seem almost universally convinced that they stand at the pinnacle of human undertakings. Doesn't society put out endless propaganda proclaiming that entertainers are beings close to gods?
Ever notice how this propaganda is feverishly spread by the very people who benefit from the image?
Don't you believe it. They are getting the whole thing backwards.
Oh, don't get me wrong; art is a core element to being human. We need it, from our brains all the way down to the heart and gut. Art is the original "magic." Even when we're starving -- especially when we're starving -- we can find nourishment at the level of the subjective, just by using our imaginations. As author Tom Robbins aptly put it:
"Science gives man what he needs,
But magic gives him what he wants."
I'll grant all that. But don't listen when they tell you the other half -- that art and artists are rare.
Have you ever noticed that no human civilization ever suffered from a deficit of artistic expression? Art fizzes from our very pores! How many people do you know who lavish time and money on an artistic hobby? Some of them quite good, yet stuck way down the pyramid that treats the top figures like deities.
Imagine this. If all of the professional actors and entertainers died tomorrow, how many days before they were all replaced? Whether high or low, empathic or vile -- art seems to pour from Homo Sapiens, almost as if it were a product of our metabolism, a natural part of ingesting and excreting. No, sorry. Art may be essential and deeply human, but it ain't rare.
What's rare is honesty. A willingness to look past all the fancy things we want to believe, peering instead at what may actually be true. And while every civilization had subjective arts, in copious supply, only one culture ever had the guts to seek objective truth through science.
As a child, despite my talents and background, it was science that struck me as truly grand and romantically noble -- a team effort in which egotism took a second seat to the main goal. The goal of getting around all the pretty lies we tell ourselves. I strove hard to be part of it.
But what can you do? Choose your talents? No way. Eventually, as my beloved hobby burgeoned, threatening to take over, I found myself forced to admit that science is hard! I am much better at art -- making up vivid stories -- than I ever was at laboring honestly to discover new truths.