Creationism vs. Evolution as Metaphors for Writing

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.  – Samuel Beckett

There are all kinds of cultural narratives that address our place as tiny creatures in this vast and cold universe. One popular story says–and I’m reaching waaay back to my days as a Mormon missionary here–that we humans are the pinnacle of all creation, cut from the divine template, the masterworks of God.

Evolutionary biologists have a different story. I’m not a scientist, but it’s my understanding that their story tells that our species, as well as every other living thing on this planet, are the products of billions of years of natural selection and genetic drift. And there’s quite the cast of characters: the mate-absorbing anglerfish, octopods that disguise themselves as walking coconuts, and omnipresent tardigrades that can actually survive and reproduce after 10 days in the vacuum of space.

And then there’s us, homo sapiens, full of wonder. Our hands are complex machines, our processing and memory are aided by 100 billion neurons stuffed into our skulls, and we’re self-aware and we tell amazing stories. But biologists remind us that we’ve got tailbones and appendixes and pinky toes (specially adapted for causing pain) and genes that increase the chances that some of us will die painfully from cancer. And then there are our genetic cousins that didn’t make it: homo neanderthalensis and homo erectus and many others. In fact, for every plant and animal species alive today, there are potentially a thousand that couldn’t adapt, or reproduce, or were killed off by other species. Not only is every success the product of many failures, but each species today contains all kinds of genetic imperfections, and will most likely fail in some future environment.

I see these narratives as metaphors for how we approach our writing and other creative projects. I’m trying to shake the Creationist approach–in my attempts to become as God, I’ve pressured myself to craft stories without flaw–characters that burn afterimages in your brain, prose like a gaucho’s bolas, plots as perfect as the London Tube map. But I’m not Ted Chiang. And now that I think of it, most of my favorite authors aren’t goddesses or gods, either. As John Ruskin said, “No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.”

So here’s a challenge to myself, and to you, fellow writer, to begin to see our craft as an evolutionary process. We need to conceive dangerously, mix with radical ideas, and give birth to utterly divergent stories, products of literary risks and mutations of the imagination. We need to send them out into harsh environments–to critique groups and to editors and to publications, and then we need to prepare ourselves for failure, for harsh critiques, for form rejections.

But we won’t subject ourselves to total failure–each little death will prepare the way for stronger works, better adapted to the perilous world that is specfic publishing. And some will survive. Some will thrive.

I’d like to close with a couple of favorite quotes on failure:

To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare to fail…failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion. – Samuel Beckett, “Three Dialogues”

To be great, we must attempt so much that not only are in danger of forever failing, but that we do fail, and in the failure create something greater than if we had set our sights lower. – Jeff Vandermeer, Booklife

Please note that this is not a debate about creation v. evolution, so please don’t turn it into that. But please feel free to discuss them as metaphors for approaching writing and other artistic and creative endeavors.

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  1. Kristina
    21/01/2011 at 10:14 pm Permalink

    Excellent, as always! Let’s pick up our writing tools and evolve!

  2. Andy R
    21/01/2011 at 10:24 pm Permalink

    insightful as always, John.

    I now have this image of the writer as merciless deity, driving mewling, helpless stories into the pitiless jaws of the crocodiles lurking by the riverbank, as Marlin Perkins narrates “death will prepare the way for stronger works, better adapted to a perilous world…”


  3. Luna Flesher Lindsey
    22/01/2011 at 12:06 am Permalink

    Thanks for this post. I was raised Mormon myself, so it was especially apropos. I often struggle with perfectionism, and it prevents me from just sitting down and /doing/. The persistent striving to be like the Creator when I create is still there. I should try to be a little more like nature, which does whatever works to survive, be it angelic and beautiful like a butterfly, or practical and disgusting, like a parasite. Thanks!

  4. Shadow
    22/01/2011 at 12:45 am Permalink

    Very nice post. At reading the headline, I thought you might be discussing outlining vs organic writing, but I am glad you went this route. This was much more heartfelt from your core. Excellent.


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