inspiration

Asymmetric Inspiration: Interstellar’s Heroes

interThis weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in the theater. A visually brilliant, at times emotional and utterly breath taking venture into space; while finding a deeper spiritual connection between humanity.

I left the theater wishing I loved math more.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again love for physics. Mostly easy to digest popular non-fiction works on physics, but on occasion wandering into the harder theory side of the field. Yes, math is a big part of that. Interstellar made math and scientific curiosity traits of the heroes, women and men of different races, rather than devices for destruction.

The silence of space is unnerving. Its celestial violence is jarring and absolute. The warping of light or its complete avoidance is mind numbingly scary, yet beautiful. Not because its flashy or visually menacing as many movies portray space, but because you understand the physics, the overwhelming and unfathomable powers concealed in these black holes or worm holes. Like the monster concealed in the shadow, the terrible power lost in blackness of space is equally as riveting.

Surely Nolan’s film is not perfect and it does seem to borrow inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. Yes, you do rebel against some of the climactic devices, straining what you understand about the theoretical physics of black holes. Then again, worm holes don’t exist so we’re allowed a level of creative license, especially if the bulk of the movie treats the perils and wonder of space exploration tonally realistic.

At times I was amazed at the broad efforts the actors and script exerted on my intellect and emotion. In these moments I was reminded heavily of the fantastic PBS series Closer to the Truth. I HIGHLY recommend this series as it not only delves into physics, but religion and consciousness. It just so happens to include interviews with Interstellar’s theoretical physicist and producer Kip Thorne.

But Interstellar works because the most heroic people in the story are not muscle bound, gun totting badasses but thoughtful, intellectual and adventurous astronomers, physicists and engineers. And that alone makes the film worthy of inspiring, or aspiring to, greater creativity.

Interstellar makes me wish I was a bit braver. And a lot better at math.

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Asymmetric Creativity: Down the Research Rabbit Hole

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I’m a fiend for research. I am addicted to the chase of ideas and facts throughout history. When I conjur up a story idea I often know how I will tackle my research before I have a fully fleshed out plot. Sometimes the research serves the story, fleshing out concepts or imbuing characters with more authentic voices. Sometimes, the addiction, the jonzing for new and more information can overwhelm, bog down, and drown a story in its earliest stages. Occasionally I dive into the creative process only to get lost in the rabbit warren of journals, books and articles.

For years I would start the research and essentially kill the idea because I exhausted all of my inquisitive and curious creative energy on the research process. Realizing this only just recently has given me a new lease on life as research addicted author. I now let the story outline lead the horse, rather than the research as cart.

Seems like a no-brainer, wanting to put your all into research in order to wring out the most from source or background materials. Yet the energy is sometimes expended, leaving nothing but a snake skin of the original inspiration. If creativity strikes like lightning for you as it does for me, then grounding the lightning bolt by burying your brain in research only diffuses all the writing energy. Back in the day of libraries and bookstore visits, this wouldn’t be so much a problem, but in the day of Internet research indulgences can be fed into gluttony.

My newest tactic in combating this obsessive level of research, denying the creative process,comes by setting a deadline. As a former journalist, deadlines don’t scare me. But denying the rush and thrill of research feels like denying yourself Halloween candy after spending all night going door to door collecting it. Instead of indulging this rush, I merely channel my research into a time-frame, say two hours, before returning to the writing process, whether that’s outlining or character development.

Most important, trust your creative instincts and voice. Let the story flow with the basic framework of research. Trust your outline, trust your wandering words and new strange directions. If you write yourself into a corner, perhaps generated by a lack of information you’d need through research, then dive back in to solve the problem. But immediately reemerge to finish the creative writing.

While this is easier said than done, requiring a discipline that eluded me for ages, I think that this simple advice may help keep you on track.

Asymmetric Creativity: Righting World Building Gone Wrong

YggdrasilI have an ongoing wrestling match with world building in speculative fiction. I revel in new writers producing ideas that challenge conventional story frameworks or characters. As one of those new writers I still learn as I go, producing some successes and tossing narrative failures. I plug forward with confidence and hope that my stories, short or long, will entertain readers around the world.

All that said, I do have an issue with the idea of world building some writers use in their works. To call it world building is a misnomer, as often we see a hodge-podge of cherry picked pieces of cultural and religious history cobbled together to form new faiths, nations or histories. I would suggest there is a cleaner, more energetic way at world building that harnesses creativity, while keeping the new world authentic to our shared historical knowledge.

Appreciating that many writers lavish countless hours to research before launching into a new story (a research fetishist myself) I feel sometimes the creative energy is lost in the action of stitching together. There needs to be a cohesive view of the world, not a patch work or “everything and the kitchen sink.” Perhaps other readers do not notice or take issue with such incongruities, but as a devotee of history, folklore and religion, I am sometimes distracted by the world building method employed by some writers. Sometimes speculative fiction is like the infamous movie scene where a Roman soldier wears a wrist watch. On the face of it, they seem authentic, but on closer inspection it doesn’t match up.

One of the reasons I started Asymmetric Creativity was to put down ideas that encouraged unconventional thinking that produced exciting results. World building is one such creative endeavor that I think benefits from asymmetric thinking. If I were to offer advice on how to find asymmetric influence in world building I would propose the following:

1- Museum Visits– Seems like a no brainer, but if you live in a part of the world with a robust museum community I would suggest getting outside of your intellectual comfort zone and visit a museum you would not be drawn to. If you are a classic art fan, go to a modern art museum and seek out unconventional sculpture or paintings. If you are a writer interested in world building, avoid the well worn museum galleries of Roman or Egyptian antiquities. Seek out the remnants of other cultures outside the big exhibits or popular galleries. Seek inspiration in the mundane household items or shard of pottery as often they provide insights into the greater culture. Also, spend time at local, smaller cultural institutions as regional history can provide creative triggers.

2- Seek Cultures Old or Overlooked– Unless I am constructing a story set in those culture, I avoid the typical empires or dominant societies favored by most world building writers. While I have non-fiction interest in Roman, Chinese, Egyptian and Medieval England I avoid using them as templates or research starting points for world building. Piecing together Roman imperial system with Chinese cosmology may seem new and inventive, but often they read incongruous or even silly. Find those precursor cultures which we continue to learn of their influence and astounding vibrancy. How do you find obscure or ancient societies?

3- Monitor Archaeology News– Social Media has provided an immediate and constantly updating flow of news about our past. I follow over a dozen archaeology and history organizations, websites and blogs. If you have the ability consider joining organizations like ASOR or at least following their social media updates. Or for a treasure trove of historical, anthropological and archaeological information, possibly join JSTOR. Read reputable history or archaeological periodicals.

4- Read Non-Fiction for Fun. Not Just Research– I have been a reader of non-fiction all my adult life. Currently I read 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, with the non-fiction primarily folklore, religion and global histories. I read non-fiction for the enrichment, helping me keep the modern world in perspective knowing what came before and how it parallels today. This enrichment helps fill in the imagination, providing credible and realistic starting points for my fiction. World building fiction can only come by understand the way the world of the past operated on every level. Avoid confining the richness of your worlds to capes, armor, sword or sexual debauchery. Look at the names of men and women in 19th century America to forge characters in a strange future. Read about the faiths of Central Asia in the Bronze age to conjure a strange, yet authentic religion. While we all cannot be Tolkein, we can aspire to build authentic, individual and engrossing worlds on our own and not create a Frankenstein’s monster.

5- Write a History– If you feel compelled to create a world, then write a brief “paper” on the world you’ve imagine. Consider going back in time to your youth, to college, when you crafted papers with purpose. Now, as a fiction writer, you have a purpose to craft a world as authentic as any real society you would have profiled in college. Break it down in any form as you want, but create a level by level history of the world or society you imagined. Also, write the history with an authenticity and in a way that has a solid academic underpinning. Don’t worry about footnotes or following MLA standards, but take it seriously as you write a report on the layers of your imagined society. This becomes your history resource and creates a cohesive, authentic vision for your imagined world.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric Creativity: John Cleese

ministrysillywalksI am a fan of the illustration blog, Muddy Colors. For artistic inspiration alone its a great site, but from time to time the idea of inspiration and creativity is added to the conversation. This week a Muddy Colors contributor posted this video from Monty Python veteran John Cleese. In the over 30 minute long lecture, Cleese provides some amazing and insightful ideas about how creativity works. Throughout I laughed and nodded at Cleese’s insights into the nature of creativity, techniques for encouraging it.

What really rung with me occurred at roughly the 30 minute mark when Cleese talks about humor, explaining the laughter comes “at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way.” That is the essence of Asymmetric Creativity, the ability to have two entirely different frameworks or ideas meet and produce a new or unexpected result. Such as reading about religious ecstasy, finding a reference to the origins of consciousness and creating a science fiction short story set in 2030. That is Asymmetric Creativity.

Here is Cleese’s lecture in its entirety.

 

Asymmetric Fiction: Spawn of the Lost Moon Pt. 2

 


 

Carland, Massachusetts is a small hamlet located near the Vermont border, about 90 minutes west of Boston. With the nearest rail station 12 miles away from the tiny mountain community, I was linked up to a patrol of Massachusetts National Guardsmen heading north.

Master Sergeant Ben Williams leads his squad on a mid-day patrol, his voice crackling through a headset inside the Humvee.

“We’ve had to fortify gas stations the most, especially since the rationing rules were put into effect,” said the four tour combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Folks love their cars, they want to flee, head for the hills loaded down with gas and guns. I don’t blame them. But until the government gets a handle on this whole crisis, I think it’s smart to restrict gasoline usage. It’s making people crazy though.”

Driving the armored vehicle through the once tourist clogged mountain road was Specialist Martin Schwartz, ” I saw a woman sneak her 5 year old under a Humvee to get at an underground gas tank valve. She was going to try to siphon off gallons of it into an inflatable kiddy pool in her minivan. Crazy.”

Williams is a stout and likable soldier, his helmet concealing a salt and pepper receding hairline. His hands, those of a peace time mechanic, expertly handle his M-4 carbine. Several miles from Carland, Williams ordered his three vehicle convoy to dismount at the first check-point we’ve encountered.

“We’re going to walk you up to the CITGO check-point, you can make it to the town center in about 20 minutes.”

Each of the men in William’s Massachusetts National Guard unit mustered when called. Some units around the country weren’t so lucky, experiencing 70 percent absenteeism when the federal government declared nation-wide martial law. New England based Guard units had nearly 80 percent reportage, resulting in a more stable, calm, if dystopian environment.

“We’re mostly Berkshire guys in the unit, a few from Worcester and Springfield. When we got called up it made sense for us to report. It’s our duty.”

“You didn’t feel the need to stay by your families, protect them personally, and remain in your home towns?”

“This place,” Williams pointed around to the green hills knotted with dense pine, “this is home. Where else would we go?”

Asked about any problems with violence or looting, Williams halts the column, spreading his team out to form a defensive perimeter. He takes the opportunity to bring out a tourist map of the Berkshires.

“It’s not been too bad,” Williams combat gloves trace a few Guard positions, check points and observation posts. “We had a riot in Worcester two weeks ago when a rumor started that the government was confiscating guns. A dairy farm, out in Lee, was robbed of 40 head of cattle one night. Same for a chicken farm in Carlton. And a farm off the Miskatonic River had its entire 10 acres of corn plucked clean by a mob. Sure, there has been some looting here and there, but it feels weirdly calm. Y’know?”

Calm is the consistent term for life in New England after The Loss. The same cannot be said for other parts of this nation or the world. The Mexican border erupted into a 600 mile conflagration of riots and firefights after the central government fell and when hastily raised Texans militia started cross-border raids against the ruling narco-gangs. Chicago burned, again. The UK became a fortress trying to piece together some semblance of a future. India and Pakistan engaged in two days of tactical nuclear exchange, killing 15 million. China is crumbling amid revolt and Eastern Europe is drifting back to a state more like the late Middle Ages.

The world had come to an end, in slow motion, all because of the panic over loosing the moon and the realization that eventually the seas would die and so would we.

As Williams moved the patrol forward, Carland’s town limits come into view.

“Viking base, this is Thor Zero One, radio check. Over.” Williams took the radio handset from the young Specialist always by his side. The radio crackle began a quick exchange between the Guardsmen and the nearby patrol base. Their language is rapid, cryptic and seems fit more for a war-zone than the Berkshires. I mention this to Williams as he signs off.

“It’s SOP,” Williams pauses, “standard operating procedure. And while this may be home, its sure as hell not peacetime.”

A few rapid instructions to his senior soldiers and hand gestures got the column moving forward again.

“Besides,” Williams remarked, “things may be calm here, but stuff can get dangerous very, very fast.”

Anticipating my follow-up question to the statement, Williams slows his pace.

“You’re here to meet residents, talk about life after the moon. But you’re also here to see what this whole moon debris story is all about.”

After I nod, Williams continues, “There are some NASA nerds, Cambridge and California scientific types wandering around the hills looking for the rock. We just brought one in before your train arrived, a curator from some museum. Quiet woman.”

As I exchange handshakes with these Massachusetts men, citizen soldiers, I left behind modernity and stepped back in time. Crossing into Carland after The Loss was probably not unlike the town before the moon’s explosion, permanently suspended in the late 19th century.

Concluded in Part III…this Friday.


 

Here is the link to Spawn of the Lost Moon Pt. 1


 

© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

 

Eco-Disaster Fiction: Mankind’s Folly? Why Not Displeased Gods?

From 2012 to Day after Tomorrow, environmental disaster films center on spectacle rather than substance. The modern movie goer revels in easy to digest worst-case scenarios rather than tackle the real-world questions about climate change that spur the fiction. The mainstream book world is also dotted with environmental calamities such as these lists from Bookish, io9 and The Guardian. These are horror stories, horrific tales on a global rather than intimate scale.

Many of these stories and films offer a bleak look at man-made environmental cataclysm, during and/or after the destruction. Taking a closer look at non-fiction environmental writing of the past century, you see bleak warning signs that fortify many scriptwriters and fiction scribes. These real environmental stories are mixed equally with rhapsodic prose of nature’s beauty and fragility. Mankind;s connection to nature was elegantly stated by environmental writer Wendell Berry who wrote in Preserving Wilderness, ” A culture that does not measure itself by nature, by an understanding of its to nature, becomes destructive of nature and this itself.”

From Berry to Emerson, we have a rich perspective on the preciousness of the environment that was intimately connected to the spiritual world. Where has this spiritual link between man and environment in our disaster fiction? Could there be another way of telling dire environmental stories without relying on the folly and failure of mankind? What would stories of environmental disasters of a spiritual nature look like? Nature folklore has never truly been syncretized into fiction.


Environmental Ecstasy


The stalwart and respected environmental essayist Berry wrote, “We need to come into the presence of the unqualified and mysterious formality of Creation.” Berry’s use of Creation, placing God within the conversation about the environment, and you have heavier, more Biblical language. The wilderness, according to Berry, is required for us to survive, as “an essential measure of our history and behavior.” The wilderness of the Bible is a place of hardship and discovery. It is the harsh crucible of races and individuals, the wilderness of the Bible. This is a language of devotion and reverence, a rarity written in today’s of scientific arguments.

Environmental writers of the last century freely used language of ecstatic religious experience where many modern environmental takes a decidedly secular tact. Conservation champions like Thoreau and Muir are what many associate with environmental writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson, articulated the Transcendentalist philosophy of soul and nature, “Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”

The wilderness of colonial Americans, those Puritans of New England, was not a place of trial and redemption but often a place of horror and temptation, occupied by the Devil and his pagan minions. Within two centuries, America’s progress changed the language of our relationship with the environment. The wild was either cheapened, conquered and harvested, or sanctified as a place of personal discovery. By the 20th century, environmental activism and awareness replaced theology and spiritualism with data and scientific theory. This non-fiction change is directly reflected in the tales of global disasters, now carbon footprints stomp our arrogance where fickle gods once did. The deluges of Gilgamesh and the Bible are replaced by humanity choked by greenhouse gas and mankind’s consumerism.


Spirit Never Left The Wood


The ideas of nature’s spiritual power, its potency and humanity’s relationship with it, are not lofty ideas generated by thinkers of centuries past. The spiritual connections between man and nature were being explored by David Abram in his 1990s, The Ecology of Magic. A trained stage magician Abram traveled the world seeking to rekindle humanity’s embrace of nature’s spiritual side. Abram would meet modern men and women, shamans and magicians of, who worked for man, but nature, performing “constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and ‘journeys,’ he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal.”

Imagine Wicker Man‘s Lord Summerisle invoking Berry’s “culture” and “nature,” what tone does it take then? Strange, ominous or ‘backwards’? Or are they saying the same thing, just choosing a different path of worship to the same ends? Abram’s shaman and magician, like those of Summerisle, walk the path between the “human and more-than-human worlds.” Abram’s

The Green Man and Maypole are the environmental folklore descended from ancient tales born at the dawn of civilization. They are the mythologies of man’s relationship with the environment, shunned by the Christian world. The stories we are telling today about environmental horror are that of mankind’s doing, not a god displeased or spirit unsatisfied with tributes paid. Abram caught this modern oversight when he wrote, “modern civilized assumption that the natural world is largely determinate and mechanical, and that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be some other, nonphysical real above nature, ‘supernatural’.” Modern mechanistic attributes of nature have left little room for the supernatural in much disaster story telling.

The cold sureness of science informs the screenplays and manuscripts about our bruised and battered environment. The narrative of nature before was told reverently through forest mythologies, faiths or religions; and are decidedly absent from modern disaster-tainment. Introducing the ideas of gods, spirits and beings tied to our environmental well-being would not trivialize the problems we face nor absolve us of guilt in the damage done. Watch Princess Mononoke or Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind to appreciate strong environmental stories told from a supernatural or magical perspectives. It is time to return to these old ways to provide new insights, add a spiritual and environmentally redemptive value to stories of global natural collapse.

Asymmetric Inspiration: In Search Of

If you are a child of the 70s, you know the original theme song (above,) eerie scene music and deadpan narration of Leonard Nimoy for the television program In Search Of. Before YouTube conspiracy videos. Before History Channel’s flock of Ancient Aliens and odd docudrama, there was In Search Of. This television program, which I believed I watched on a UHF station here in Boston, was immensely influential on my intellectual curiosity and possibly the cornerstone of my creativity.

With Nimoy’s introduction and cool, intense narration of investigative stories on Loch Ness, UFOs, Atlantis and phantasmagoria, In Search Of (ISO) executed a tightrope walk between plausibility and wild speculation. In the parlance of gymnastics, each week it ‘stuck the landing’ by piquing your interest and making you wonder…what else is out there? What made ISO different from modern cable strange tales and pseudo-documentaries was its unashamed reenactments and embrace of open conjecture. Within each opening montage, narrated over images of UFOs and Stonehenge, was the following statement, “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

Modern ancient conspiracy television series don’t embrace conjecture. Instead they assume an aggressive and belligerent posture. ISO was entertaining, spooky, and strange, never angry, arrogant or sanctimonious. My youthful brain bathed in a new oddity each week. From crystal skulls, aliens, Amelia Earhart, and Bermuda Triangle, ISO asked weird questions about weird problems. The circuit board of my curiosity was being soldered and wired with intense diversity by a program which I look back on with fondness.

In Search Of explains, perhaps better than any other influence, my odd and diverse interests. It opened my eyes as a child to a process of discovery that was decidedly unconventional. Today, I may not be convinced Bigfoot roams the Pacific Northwest, but I can read or hear or see something tiny or odd in a vast environment or work and immediately seek out the who-what-where-when of this footnote to a larger story. These footnotes in history, speculative or academic, inspired me to write short stories of monsters, or explore the origins of religious faith, or the incomprehensible questions of science. In Search Of, set the unconventional curiosity that would become my new mantra, Asymmetric Creativity.