You’ve undoubtedly heard this before:
over and over and expecting different results.
I’m old enough now that I can attest to the truth of that saying from both observation and personal experience. The antidote, of course, is to recognize behavior patterns and interrupt them — provided you have the clarity of mind to do so. It’s not easy, and it runs against the human tendency to resist change and protect the ego, but it can be done. As is also often said, admitting you have a problem is the first step.
A related but much more insidious problem involves the repetition of behaviors over the course of generations. These generations may be literal, coming along every twenty years or so, or they may be developmental and occur with greater frequency. In each case, however, new generations are predisposed to repeat experiences precisely because they arrive on the scene oblivious to what has gone before.
There are two main reasons for the perpetuation of such generational blindness. The first is the failing of previous generations to pass along useful knowledge, or to make knowledge available and digestible in ways that are accessible and relevant. The second is the failing of new generations to recognize that a distinction must be made between what is new to them (as a group or as individuals), and what is actually new.
For example, at some point most people becomes fascinated with their own sexuality, often to the point of distraction. Yet no one would argue that this process for any individual sheds new light on the human condition, or represents a break from the past. Coming to terms with one’s own desires and biological essence is exciting, intoxicating, and so utterly commonplace as to be mundane. That such newness can feel transcendent to the individual or group is clear, even as it is demonstrably not new. (Without ‘going there’, try conceptualizing your parents or grandparents as the sexual being you believe yourself to be. Because they are/were.)
I was reminded of this generational myopia recently while reading a book called Wind Energy Basics (2nd Ed.), by Paul Gipe. While thoroughly satisfying and illuminating as a primer, for the purposes of this post I want to draw attention to a subsection of Chapter 1 titled Vertical-Axis Revival. In that section the author talks about an “explosion” of interest in vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWT’s), as opposed to the more traditional horizontal-axis turbines (HAWT’s):
“Not everyone is thrilled at the VAWT renaissance. “The driving force [behind the revival of VAWTs]” says Ian Woofenden, “is ignorance of past failures, and arrogance about overcoming the problems” inherent in the designs. Woofenden, an editor who lives with conventional small wind turbines off the grid, points out that VAWTs are not new. He admonishes that “anyone designing a new one [VAWT] should do their homework first and find out what past designers learned.”
I have no qualm with bucking the system, doubting conventional wisdom, channeling youthful exuberance, questioning authority, going off the beaten path, gambling on gut instinct and generally assuming that the powers-that-be are dedicated at least in part to maintaining power even when they are completely wrong. Having a fresh set of eyes on a problem is always a good thing — provided the brain behind those eyes is not simply engaged in intellectual masturbation. Again: there’s a radical difference between things that feel good to, or capture the imagination of, an individual, and things that really are new and transformative in human history.
If you’re over the age of thirty, say, chances are you’ve been involved in a profession or past time long enough to watch a new generation of participants enter that arena. If so, the geeky quote above about wind power probably struck a chord with you, as it did with me.
The first time I encountered this phenomenon was as a student learning to write short fiction. In a workshop setting I not only learned about the golden age of literary fiction, but I also learned about an explosion — there’s that word again — of interest in what was then called The New Fiction. I’d like to tell you what that movement was about, but bold new movements in fiction are as plentiful as hem-line changes in the fashion industry — and usually as meaningful. To the extent that there may be an established way of doing things in the arts, some will always be working against the establishment, but that doesn’t mean that they’re doing anything new (or good).
Clearly this was not always the case. Before painting on canvas was deconstructed across Western civilization to the point of pixels (pointillism), multiple points of view (cubism) and an absence of representation (abstract expressionism), there really were new horizons. Today, it’s impossible to imagine a combination of paints and brush strokes that has not already been done as a form or technique. (By contrast, if you want to see an art form that is still being deconstructed, check out this film, which I could not recommend more highly.)
Far from limiting the artist, however, the individual painter is now armed to the teeth with the complete freedom to create, and a robust set of techniques which supports that aim. Rather than battling the form itself, the painter can get on with the much more interesting pursuit of saying what they have to say about their life experience. Unless, of course, what that painter is really in the painting game for is to make a name for themselves as an artistic explorer. (If you really want to be the next Picasso, then you better read up on Georges Braque.)
Storytelling is little different. Fifty years ago there were still expressions of form that were simply considered wrong, and many writers and poets broke new ground by breaking with those repressive restrictions. Today it can fairly be said that there are no new pathways to wander in narrative and poetry in the same way that there are no new ways to approach a blank canvas. If you can imagine it on the page, it has been done, and probably done well by at least one author. (And here I specifically include hyper-fiction or linked-text fiction, which is now at least twenty years old.)
Again, rather than denying new authors the thrill of discovery, this hard-won literary latitude means that writers can get on with the business of saying what they have to say without first having to dislodge a curmudgeonly establishment. Permission has been irrefutably granted to all new storytellers to explore in any literary direction at any length, with success being determined not by vaulting the heights of established norms but by the effect of the author’s technique and imagination upon the reader.
Today there are plenty of new movements in fiction. But those new movements are new relative to the generations exploring them, not new to narrative itself. What is now called flash fiction used to be called a sketch, and the same limitations that affected the sketch then (difficulty in establishing depth of characterization; limitations in blending plot and character) affect flash fiction now. None of which is to say that flash fiction may not have new relevance given the current tendency of people to consume art, craft and entertainment in smaller and smaller nuggets, or that exploring a previously-discovered technique is wrong for any given author. By definition it is not: that’s precisely why there are no rules.
The second time I encountered the phenomenon of reinventing the artistic wheel was in the interactive industry. After spending a decade getting to know the ins and outs of interactivity as it related to storytelling, I watched as a new generation of enthusiasts crashed ashore, agog at all the possibilities. The problem was that this new generation learned little or nothing about what had already been tried, to the extent that their work was almost entirely a rehash of previous efforts. A few years later another generation of interactive pioneers descended on the medium, this time from the academic world. Armed with both interest and political aims (establishing whole new departments, including tenured professorships), the academics raved about the possibilities in interactive, even as they set about reinventing the wheel yet again.
Today I still read bold articles written by well-meaning people who can hardly contain themselves about what might be possible in interactive storytelling, yet their theorizing pales in comparison to ten-year-old (if not fifteen-year-old) documents that can be found on my site. (The most basic and far-reaching limitation facing interactive storytelling cannot be overcome by processing power or algorithms. Yet time after time this limitation is overlooked in a headlong rush to feed the titillated imagination.)
Currently there are movements afoot to blend storytelling and computers and media under the banner of transmedia storytelling, as if either the idea or the expression is new when it is not. Beyond nebulous definitions of, and proprietary spats about, the term itself, transmedia storytelling means little more than the expression of a story or storyworld across multiple mediums. You can dress it up and make it sound a great deal sexier, but that’s really the idea — and also the main problem with the idea. If people really wanted transmedia experiences they would have taken hold long before the advent of the computer, unless one assumes that there was only one extant medium before the CPU came along.
But I digress. And indeed I apologize to people who are enjoying any or all of these pursuits as individuals, for whatever reason. If I find chasing the latest trends or fashions meaningless, the world defines me as the outlier on a daily basis. Hem lines go up, hem lines go down. Genres of music come and go like tides. Movie stars glitter and fade. Television shows break new ground for new generations ignorant of the precedents, then jump the shark by trying to stay relevant for too long.
As I’ve noted before, I am now on my third iteration of the vampire as a cult icon. Justin Beiber’s ascendant (now descendant?) teen-idol celebrity strikes me as nothing more than an inevitability — like the reappearance of spring after winter.
Boy meets girl. Girl texts boy. Twas ever thus.
that something is new because it’s new to you.
When you’re ready to set out on your next great adventure, ask yourself one question. Is what you’re doing really new, or is it new to you?
Telling stories isn’t about breaking the rules of form. It’s about communicating an experience — your experience — in whatever way works best. Embracing what’s new to you and telling others about it can be as valid, and maybe even important, as trying to break new ground. Particularly if you recognize the difference, and in so doing avoid devoting a decade of your life to reinventing another broken wheel.
If form follows function, and I believe it does, then what you have to say is more important than how you say it. What do you have to say?
— Mark Barrett
Great post Mark.
I can relate to several things in here…
– I’m definitely in the over enthusiastic noob camp. I’ve only been blogging about writing and the industry for four or five weeks and yet I haven’t been exactly timid in my posts. I do think that i am aware of how few of my ideas are new and how common my passion is. Thats what keeps me from self publishing right now, i don’t have any new ideas to break my novel out of the pack (besides my novel that is).
– There seems to be plenty of experimentation (with plot structures, in PoMo form or otherwise) going on among literary writers and some have had great success too (Cloud Atlas comes to mind). If an idea is new to a fresh generations of actos upon that idea (writers in this case), it should be new to the audience as well. Perhaps the duty of each generation is to translate/explain existing ideas into relevant ones for the new audience. Archetypes in fiction are like this, they’ve been around for ages and haven’t changed much and yet we’ve told millions of stories based on them.
Thanks for the post.
Many moons ago, in college, we debated whether they would ever be any new stories. The answer, after a pitched battle, was no. There are no new stories. You can dress them up in modern clothes, or futuristic clothes, but the dynamics of life and human interaction are known.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no new stories worth telling. Times change. Cultures change. Relevance matters. (The very definition of a classic — the amazing aspect of a work that has staying power — is that it transcends the moment.) Every new generation needs pathfinders to light the way. Sometimes such cultural leaders are constructive, sometimes consumptive. Compare Hemingway to Fitzgerald for glaring examples of powerful writers in their own moments.
You’re right that old stories work on new generations because they haven’t ever heard them before. I have no problem with this — or even with the idea of spending your time reinventing the wheel if that’s what interests you. But do so consciously, not because somebody else sold you on a trend. (And by ‘you’ I don’t me you specifically.)
Disney has built an entertainment juggernaut on the premise that it can endlessly recycle its old stories to new audiences. Every ten or fifteen years they plow through all of their classic movies, along with creating newer, hipper version of the same thing I saw when I was a kid. They’ve got enough in the trunk to put two or three guaranteed hits in play for any given year, for a decade straight. (One of the all-time great business models.)
They know kids are going to keep being born. They know parents want to entertain their kids. Presto. Great big piles of cash. (The dark side of new generations is that the cigarette manufacturers have pretty much the same attitude. Get them while they’re young.)
You know i never thought of the business models of those industries in that way. Evil Genius i say, evil genius.
I completely agree about recycling stories based on the current trend (posted about how this affects YA today). I usually feel bad for the writers who go through all the motions and pains of the craft just to satisfy the trend.
Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is that our individual perspective on any story is unique (or at least i hope so), maybe thats what gives us the cojones to tell an old story with a straight face.
I’ve eaten any number of bacon cheeseburgers, but that doesn’t mean I won’t like the next one because it isn’t new.
On the other hand, you’d look a bit daft holding up a piece of meat between two pieces of round bread, claiming that you’d invented something brand new.