In the fall of 2011, I was invited to give The Vivian J. Lamb Lecture on Science and Religion at Villanova University. The text of my hour-long talk ran to more than 6,000 words, and as far as I know it was never published anywhere. I’ve been publishing it here in three parts; what follows is Part 2.
A friend of mine, an editor at Tor Science Fiction, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, once posted on her blog what she calls a “four-item formula” for writing fiction: 1. Move and keep moving. 2. Make it consequential. 3. Recycle your characters. 4. See if you already have one.
Move and keep moving. Tell the story you want to tell without shilly-shallying around. You may know that something really wonderful is coming up in chapter three, but your reader doesn’t unless you give them a taste of the cool stuff with a promise of more coming soon.
Of course you do then have an implicit promise to redeem: there really better be something cool coming up in chapter three.
You can’t move and keep moving unless there’s some place you are moving to; and you need to know where you’re trying to get to when you move. You don’t write a story without having some reason for writing it… a plot idea, or a character, or sometimes just a setting. Sometimes nothing more than a picture. Whatever it is, the opening of the story has to serve the reason you had for writing the story in the first place.
Make it consequential. Have later events be caused or motivated or shaped by earlier ones. Every causal or consequential link you can build into the story, Teresa says, is like “a steel cable holding your narrative together.” Or like the string holding together the rosary beads.
Recycle your characters. When you’re peopling later events, give preference to characters already used in earlier episodes.
See if you already have one. Whenever you need something new — prop, plot thread, setting, minor character — go back through the parts of the story you’ve already written and see whether you can find it there. It’s surprising how often the exact thing you need is already sitting there in plain sight.
Now, that’s about writing a story.
What about science? What is the scientific equivalent of “move and keep moving”?
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Know what you’re trying to do. Have a clear idea of the specific bit of information you want to get across, and concentrate on getting to it.
Well, of course, obviously; how else would you do science? Actually… you could do it the wrong way. A lot of people do. One example of the wrong way is to make the measurement that’s easy to make, rather than the one that actually tells you what you need to know. You can get flashy results, but you’re not advancing the field, or the story. You’re shilly-shallying.
Here’s an example in my own field. If I want to know how a meteorite breaks up when it hits the Earth’s atmosphere, I need to know how strong a meteorite is. Now I can take a piece of a meteorite into the lab and measure how much pressure it takes to break it. But nobody likes to make those measurements because it means actually breaking the meteorite, and meteorite curators get a little upset when they loan you a rock and you give them back a pile of gravel and dust.
So instead, some people – I am one of them – have measured the Young’s Modulus of a meteorite, how much it flexes for a given amount of pressure, stress versus strain. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a Young’s modulus is, the point is that it is relatively easy to measure, and it doesn’t break the meteorite; but it doesn’t actually give you what you really need to know: when is the meteorite is going to break? It’s shilly-shallying. (Another way to proceed, by the way, is to take those measurements anyway and then see if they tell you a new story that you didn’t expect.)
Dare I repeat here the hoary old joke of the drunk looking for his keys? A cop on the beat late at night sees this guy on his hands and knees, out in the street, feeling around on the ground. “I live here, but I locked myself out, and I dropped my keys,” slurs the drunk. The cop decides to help him out, and two of them look for a while, but they don’t find a thing. “Are you sure you dropped your keys here?” asks the cop. “No, I dropped them back in the alley. But the light is better, here.”
Of course, you could get lucky. The drunk might stumble across a quarter that someone dropped. But you can’t count on that. And if that does turn out to happen, your story is about the quarter, not the keys. When it comes time to tell the story, don’t bother talking about keys.
Beyond that, however, the real trick is remembering that, ultimately, the drunk wants to get into his house. That’s why you’re looking for the keys. That’s where you’re going. Don’t lose sight of the goal. You know, maybe you can get into the house some other way, without using a key.
Second bit to the formula: every detail you do describe must have a causal connection that gets you to the point you want to get to. It must be consequential. My editor friend is saying that a good story has to have an internal logic, things happen for a reason. Obviously that’s also key to science, which after all is based on logic and the laws of cause-and-effect. Bad story telling, and bad science, fall back on the old joke of “suddenly a miracle occurs.”
And of course “consequential” has another meaning… “Consequential” also implies that the events matter, in a larger sense. When I am reading a story – or a scientific paper – there has to be a reason why they matter enough to me, the reader, that I turn the page.
I remember one of the worst scientific presentations I ever heard. A prominent scientist, someone who actually I really respect and like, gave us a seminar back when I was a grad student about Neptune. This was years ago, before we ever sent any spacecraft to Neptune, before the Hubble telescope, the fact is we really didn’t know bupkis about Neptune back then. And he was talking for half an hour about collecting some really obscure bit of data. Finally, this hot shot in the back of the room – not me, I assure you – gets up and says… “I’ve got a question… so what? I mean, who cares? What difference does it make?”
Nasty, rude question. And on the money. Don’t lose sight of the context, the bigger picture, the answer to the question “so what?”
Sometimes “consequential” gets misunderstood. How many fantasies start with our young heroes saving the entire universe in Book One, and then spend the rest of the endless series trying to figure out how to top their first mission… I care more about the fate of an interesting character than I do about The Fate of the Universe – which, frankly, seems to have gotten along just fine without our heroes up to now. In the same way, I don’t insist that every paper come up with yet another True Explanation for the Origin of the Solar System. But I do want to be able to see how it might be part of a larger story.
Still, this sense of “consequential” ultimately goes back to the deeper question of, why are we doing this? Why do we do science? Why do we write stories (or read them?) More on that soon.
Meanwhile, on to rules three and four. “Recycle you characters” and “see if you already have one” in science means keeping it simple. You don’t introduce new hypotheses when you can actually use what you already have to hand. We call that Ockham’s razor. In Bertrand Russell’s formulation, “Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.” None of what the Greeks called the Deus Ex Machina, the god who comes out of the machinery backstage at the end of the play to set everyone right and send them on their way.
How does this apply to religion?
Number one, move and keep moving… don’t shilly-shally. Start talking to God, now. Don’t wait until Sunday; don’t wait until you’re in a quiet place; don’t for the end of this talk. Now.
Don’t wait for the church to reform all the things you know are wrong. Don’t wait for the perfect liturgy, the perfect guru, the perfect you. Start from now, where you are now. If you need a jump start, use a formula or a rule; that’s what they’re there for. On the other hand, if the formula is not where you are, if it isn’t where you dropped your keys, then accept that you’ll have to stumble around in the dark, but the sooner you start fumbling around, the sooner you’ll find your keys and get to where you are going.
And remember, the decision to get in touch with God, however you do it, is not the end of the story. It’s not even the climax of your story. It’s the opening page. Watch for developments. Watch for conflict; it will come, there’s no story without it. Watch for the tough choice that comes along; it’s surprising how many people sleepwalk through the climax of their own story without ever noticing it happened. Watch for the consequences of that choice. You can’t skip ahead to the last chapter to find out how it’s all going to turn out. You just have to trust the authors.
And then watch as you discover that this is just the first volume of a good, long series. It’s a shared universe series, with a lot of co-authors. You are only one of them.
Number two, be consequential. “Suddenly a miracle occurs” is lousy religion, as much as it is lousy science and lousy storytelling. (It’s not the miracle I doubt; it’s the “suddenly.”) Yes, things happen in your life by chance; but how you respond to them is not by chance.
And how God responds to how you respond, is also not by chance. There is an internal logic to what’s going on between you and God. Sometimes you have to accept that even when you can’t see it.
Or, on the other hand, if it really is just random junk, then maybe it isn’t from God.
Maybe the most original breakthrough in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the foundation of the spirituality in the Jesuits, is what Ignatius calls “the discernment of spirits.” Rather than try to reproduce here what he came up with, I just want to point out that he did come up with something; that he saw a need for people to learn how to tell apart good urges from bad, good ideas from ideas that masquerade as good but really aren’t. Is it a miracle, or is it junk? Not every outside urge is an urge from God. But urges from God have an internal logic that you can learn to recognize. They are not just random “miracles” that suddenly occur.
If it’s bad storytelling, it’s probably bad spirituality.
Number three, recycle your characters. The path to God is through your neighbors, the people you already know.
Number four, see if you already have one. For us Catholics, I think this means recognizing and using the richness that already exists within our religious tradition. If you weren’t raised Catholic, or if you never learned much about your religion, go find out what it is you already have. There’s a lot of good stuff there; sometimes it’s well disguised, but it is there if you know what to look for. And even if you’re a totally secularized non-practicing nothing from a long line of nothings, you’ve still been raised in a culture that has good in it, things you can learn from. Things that are inside you already. Things you maybe heard from some guy on TV that has stuck with you. The lyrics of some pop song. Go with it. The movement you need is on your shoulder.
God does not appear suddenly out of nowhere, via some machinery of the universe. He’s there on stage all along, and with a little practice you can begin to recognize how to spot Him… by his weird sense of humor, if nothing else.
If it’s good storytelling, it’s probably good spirituality.