The Black Box

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J.J.'s Mystery Box

J.J.’s Mystery Box

There’s a black box. Inside this box is a mystery. It’s contents are unknowable. You can put something inside the box, or many somethings, and the box, via unknown means, produces something else. How it works, why it works, and all manner of technical questions are fundamentally unanswerable. It just works.

The Black Box is a trope in fiction. There’s the Tesseract (and other Infinity Stones) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an object of immense power the characters do not understand. There’s the Source Code in Source Code. The Machine in Contact. There’s the magic box in LOST (kind of—more on this one below). The trope is a bit like a Deus Ex Machina* meets a Macguffin—the audience does not understand it, and most of the time the characters don’t either, but it is what wills the plot forward.

Got unknown alien technology? Black Box. Hyperspace drive? Black Box. Zombie virus? Depends on the show/book/movie, but yeah. Magic spell? Might be a stretch, but I’d put it under the black box umbrella. To use a Potter example, a witch may say a magic word, a wand may translate the word/gesture/intent, and out pops the result of a spell. How does it work? Rowling never explains, because she doesn’t have to. It is irrelevant, which can be a feature of a Black Box.

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn't been found

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn’t been found

This is a common trope, especially scifi, but it is also a phenomenon in the real world. Radiolab did an episode about it a while back, with three fascinating examples. The one I liked the best was the Piddingtons. I wholly recommend listening to the show, but here’s a brief breakdown of the story:

The Piddingtons were a married couple who had a popular radio program in the 50’s. They performed feats of telepathic prowess, the husband ‘communicating’ with his wife over some distance, to some stunt location, where she would repeat some phrase verbatim after divining it out via psychic waves. In short, they were doing a trick, the same thing a David Blaine or Cris Angel do today. Their job was to present something that the audience, no matter how determined, could not figure out. Like any magic trick, it was a misdirection. They forced you to focus on one aspect of the trick, trying to figure out the code or whatever, when the truth was much more mundane.

That’s the beauty (and the danger) of magic acts. The truth is, it’s a trick. No one bends the laws of physics. There’s no such thing as telepathy, levitation, talking to the dead, and so on. The good ones (see: Penn and Teller and The Amazing Randi) do not obscure this fact. They openly admit to lying. They are entertaining because they utilize a black box, which is usually their own minds. They know the truth, they know how the trick works, and they use that knowledge to misdirect you. It isn’t what’s inside the box, or what it does that matters, but the box itself is the draw, the thing that creates wonder and excitement.

The Prestige is one of my favorite films. A recurring theme of the film is the secret behind magic tricks, and whether or not the secret should be known. Radiolab, a show that is about science and getting to the bottom of mysteries, presents you a choice. On their website is a clip from Penn Jillette, in which he explains how the Piddingtons probably did their trick. You, the audience, are presented with the challenge: look inside the black box, or let the mystery remain. You might drive yourself nuts trying to figure out the secret, but if you take a step back and think about the entire situation, you may discover that the entertainment isn’t about what the secret is, but about how it affects you.

This, I think, is the key to speculative fiction. Every piece of fantasy, scifi, and lots of horror, requires a black box of sorts. It may not be a literal object or process in the story, but a more meta assumption that the rules expressed in the story just work, and that you don’t need to know how. The Force has an input—the focus and intent of the Jedi or Sith. It has a result, levitation, premonition, lightning, etc. How does it work? We don’t need to know. It is better without knowing.

A black box in science is what drives careers. A black box in fiction can make—or break—a story. But there’s another black box, that may never see the light of day, and that is the human mind.

A few years ago, J.J. Abrams did a TED Talk. In it, he described a mystery box he got as a child. He never opened the box, instead cherishing the mystery. It became a metaphor for the creative process. It even appeared in an episode of LOST, where Ben tells John Locke about a ‘magic box’ on the island that can produce whatever you want. John takes it a little too literally, and Ben has to remind him it’s a metaphor. To me, the black box is a perfect metaphor for that weird, nebulous thing we called inspiration.

Where do ideas come from? We can sort of trace their roots. The musician Josh Ritter once described it like a monster you must feed constantly.You read/listen to/watch whatever the monster inside decides it wants you to absorb, and once in a while it will regurgitate something useful, artistic, profound. In classical mythology, the Muses also fit the bill.

This is the ultimate Black Box. How do my story ideas become? How, even, do my thoughts become? I know I see and hear stuff, and I produce things for others to see and hear, but I don’t really know how it happens (this is different from learning the craft of writing). There’s a lot out there about philosophy of mind, cognition, archetypes and the collective unconscious, and all that jazz, but it has only ever told me half-truths, patterns, and how to recognize patterns. How do ideas happen? I don’t know. I’m not sure I need or want to know.

We can accept a black box in fiction because we ourselves are a black box. We are the trope, and while it may puzzle most of us for a while, if we take a step back, we find it isn’t how it works that ultimately matters, just that it works.


 

cover3I know what inspires me in my current series, Gone To Wonder: theme parks, steampunk, coming-of-age stories, new technology, and crazy adventures. I don’t know how they Check out the first episode in the series, Absent Hero, available for Kindle.

Music To Write To: Gone To Wonder Edition

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Culloden

Happy Monday everyone. In lieu of my normal long post, I’ve decided to do a special Music To Write To post today. Of July, I plan to preview my forthcoming series Gone To Wonder, with some behind the scenes posts, tidbits, maybe some art (if I can do an art that I won’t be mortified to post), and some general fun related to GtW.

First up is one of the songs that most strongly inspired me. It is called “Mo Ghile Mear“, an Irish song that translates to “My Gallant Darling”, written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill in the 18th century. “Mo Ghile Mear” is a beautiful song, with or without translation, and has been recorded by many musicians over the years. It is a lament sung by Ireland herself about the exiled Bonnie Prince Charlie. The version that I love the most is sung by the University College of Dublin Choral Scholars, and is available on iTunes.

I’ll embed a live version below, but I encourage anyone to download and listen to the mp3, it is a wonderful track (and the rest of the EP is great as well, especially their rendition of “The Parting Glass”).

Why this song? What does it have to do with Gone To Wonder? This song inspired the opening scene of the novel, in which the heroes watch what is called the Hero Ceremony. Every night inside the indoor theme park Finnegan’s Wonder, a person is selected from the visitors present to be the Hero of Ganton. They are chosen based on the story they act out during the day, and the actions they take within the story. The person whose story is the most heroic is selected as the Hero, and the centerpiece of an elaborate show/parade. The highlight of which is the music. The song that is sung? Yep, “Mo Ghile Mear.”

It resonated with me in other ways, too. The song is a lament, and the characters of Finnegan’s Wonder are in lament. They lament their missing hero, Edward the Clanker. And their are other thematic connections, which I’ll leave for the reader to discover as they may.

One of the reasons I’ll be doing this for all my MtWt posts for the next month is to illustrate a bit of my creative process. I’m sort of a mix between the obsessive outliner and the seat-of-my-pants style writing. I’ll plan things out carefully, but then as I’m writing, if inspiration in the moment takes me down a different path, I’ll follow that to see where it goes. But I also actively seek out things that will catch my attention, my interest, and my inspiration. Most of the time, that ends up being music. When I stumbled across the UCD Choral Scholars on Youtube, I was hooked. And when I heard their “Mo Ghile Mear”, I knew the opening scene of the whole Gone To Wonder series. The inspiration snowballed from there.

Come by next week for another music selection that inspired me as I wrote.

(Bonus share: A Scottish rendition of “Mo Ghile Mear.” When I visited Culloden this past September, the song was a perfect companion.)

Don’t Be Inspired, Just Write

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There is always the question of what to write.

Even as I start on this blog post I am not sure what exactly I want to write. That is how I start with most of my writing. I come to a blank page with no idea of what I am going to write. Either that or I will come to the page with small idea of a starting point but no idea of where I will finish. Most rare for me is the development of an entire idea from start to finish before I come to the page. It happens, just not very often.

One thing I hear a lot of people say is that they need to have inspiration before they start writing. But let me tell you — inspiration is not a Writer’s friend.

Inspiration, the notion that ideas come to you from out of the blue, is an outright lie. Inspiration is just the accumulation of an idea. It is the point where an idea or series of ideas has festered in your mind long enough to come forward as something that needs to be written. But you know what? If you just keep writing, I mean write every day for an hour or so, you will find that your inspirations are really just ideas. They are just ideas that you didn’t take the time to write down when you first had them. There are so many things going through the human mind at one time that an idea can easily escape, twirl around for a while, and then reappear later on as what you think is a bout of inspiration.

This is also why I don’t believe people who say that they can only write when inspired. Remember, you are waiting for that idea to come back in the form of “inspiration”, and it may take days, weeks, years, before that idea will come back in any way shape or form.

Waiting for inspiration to hit is just a form of Writer’s Block. In fact, it is the worst kind of Writer’s Block because it is purposefully self-inflicted. Writer’s Block isn’t real, but at least people who say they have a case of Writer’s Block realize that there is something stopping them from writing. At least they can realize that there must be something they can do to stop the block and start writing again. However, with Inspiration, a writer is just waiting around or an idea to come.

Basically, a writer is refusing to do anything with an idea because the only time they can write is when they are inspired. They are saying, “Sure, I can write, but only under certain, pristine, conditions.” They are purposefully limiting themselves to a window when they can write, a window that may only come about every once in a blue moon and may not last longer than a few minutes.

If you claim to be a writer, then write. Do not wait for inspiration to move you into a condition where you will be able to write. Inspiration should not be a scape goat. Every idea, even at the very start, is a form of inspiration. Every idea should be documented (not in your head, but in written form) or acted upon.

Do not wait around for your ideas to fester into “inspiration.”

Instead, why not:

– Get a journal and write down your ideas as soon as they come.

– Spend an hour a day writing. Even writing junk will help to get your out and help you break through your misconception that you need “inspiration” to write.

– Don’t limit yourself to your “inspirations.” Even great stories can start out as small trivial ideas.

If you call yourself a writer, get out there and write. If you wait around for inspiration, you may end up waiting forever.