Books for the future: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang donates manuscript to the ‘Future Library’ project

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The Nordmanka forest, outside Oslo, where the trees of the Future Library are growing. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

In a forest just outside Oslo, one thousand trees have been planted to supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

This is part of the ground-breaking Future Library project – and each year, everyone is welcome to join in and participate in a handover ceremony with that year’s author.

The Man Booker International prize winning South Korean novelist Han Kang is the author contributing a manuscript for the Future Library project in 2019. She will hand over her writing on Saturday, 25th May in an intimate ceremony within the Nordmarka Forest, Oslo. Visitors can join Han Kang walking through the trees to a clearing filled with one thousand four-year-old spruce saplings: the Future Library forest.

Future Library is a public artwork by Scottish artist Katie Paterson that will unfold over a century in the city of Oslo, Norway. Han Kang is the fifth writer to participate in Future Library. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood was the first author to contribute, followed by British novelist David Mitchell, Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón, and Turkish author Elif Shafak.

An unknown future

Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hope of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Following the forest ceremony, Han Kang will give a public talk at the Deichmanske Library, Oslo. Speaking ahead of the ceremony, Kang said:

“I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Ultimately Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

No more “fast food thinking”

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

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Watching your gait: how walking helps your writing

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In 2014, researchers at Stanford university found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while
they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when
walking.

This research builds on studies conducted by other academic institutions, including
the University of Michigan and Illinois that confirmed what many Neuroscientists had
previously identified: that the non-thinking ‘default state‘ of consciousness is key to
creative thinking. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are
buried in the subconscious.

Probably the perfect potion for positive peripatetic philosophy

The implications of this research upon writers and other creatives is clear (we should
all be walking more to spur the creativity needed to overcome things like writer’s
block and conjure unique ideas). Yet this perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising.
After all, writers, artists and other creative thinkers have been extolling the virtues of
physical exercise – and walking in particular – for years.

Indeed, the founding fathers of philosophy – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – were all said
to use walking as a means of conjuring creative thought (Aristotle’s habit of walking back and forth as he taught earned the Lyceum the name of the Peripatetic School [from the Greek word for walking around, peripatetikos]). Meanwhile, Darwin walked what he called his “thinking path” twice daily while Dickens walked all over London, three or four hours at a time.

And, to make a pop-cultural reference, Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he wrote lyrics
to his acclaimed musical Hamilton during Sunday walks with his dog.

Walking and writing: enriching your soul

Soren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, has said of his habitual perambulations that “I have
walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

Walt Whitman said walking left him “enrich’d of soul”; while William Wordsworth (to stick with the poets with alliterative, w-led names), said that walking was “indivisible” from writing poetry. Note here a curious calculation by Thomas DeQuincey that Wordsworth walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime
(between 6 and 7 miles a day, every day).

There is a clear suggestion here that to write well, one must also be willing to get up from the writing desk. This is something American writer Henry Miller, fervently believed in, saying: “most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever”.

How it all works

The reason for this link between writing and walking is perhaps not dissimilar from
that between writing and long-distant running or other solitary physical activity
(check out our article on this right here at Nothing in the Rulebook on this very
topic). Walking – and other solo activities like it – provides just enough diversion to
occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts
mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the
surface.

There is also a clear link between the physical experience of walking and the rhythm and beats of our writing, our poetry and our music. This is the rhythm of our bodies, our steps, and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech and our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre.

A life less dangerous: why walk and write?

But the value of walking also extends beyond improvements to our writing and creative abilities. It also helps us, as individuals, escape from a world of distractions – of music pumped into waiting rooms and public spaces, of a life plugged into phones and tablets, where we are constantly on-call, working increasingly longer hours and forced to keep up the appearances of our social media profiles. As Norwegian writer and publisher Erling Kagge, author of ‘Walking: one step at a time’ notes: “Today, you can live a life in a car and behind a screen, and never see the people who live around you. It’s dangerous.”

A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

Creatives in profile – interview with Katie Paterson

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Katie Paterson. Photo by Giorgia Polizzi. 

In 2114, 1,000 trees planted a century previously in the Nordmarka forest in Norway will be cut down. From their wood, the pages of 100 texts from 100 authors will be made and published.

How can we make such predictions? Well, this is the end-goal of a generation-defying artistic project called the Future Library. Conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, and supported by library curator and entrepreneur Anne Beate Hovind, it is an idea that has captured global imaginations.

Celebrated authors Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Sjón have already committed works to the project, with Turkish novelist Elif Shafak set to add her manuscript to the project at a handover ceremony in early June 2018.

This is a living, breathing, organic artwork that spans time, literature, ecology and human mortality.

So how does one first conceive of such a project? The Nothing in the Rulebook team were honoured to catch up with Paterson – widely regarded as one of the leading artists of her generation – to find out.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us about yourself, where you live, and your background?

PATERSON

I’ve recently moved back to Scotland, I live in Fife, before that I was in Berlin for about 6 years and before that I lived in London. I studied at Edinburgh College of Art and then the Slade School of Fine Art. I graduated nearly 10 years ago, which is frightening!

INTERVIEWER

Is art your first love, or do you have another passion?

PATERSON

It definitely is; it was the most obvious direction I was going to go in. I knew that from a young age – I was always a daydreamer and spent time lost in other worlds. Of course, it’s difficult when you’re at that age to have any sort of clear vision of what the future is going to hold. I would never have predicted or been able to visualise what has happened in the years that have followed.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a bit about your journey from making that decision – to pursue art – to where you ultimately are now, particularly with the Future Library project?

PATERSON

Throughout my career I’ve remained open to different disciplines. At art school I was wondering around and changing between sculpture and fine art and fashion – and later astronomy and geophysics – and I couldn’t settle on a discipline. It makes sense now because I still don’t really settle when it comes to any disciplines.

I’ve always been quite resourceful when it comes to trying to make projects happen – it was quite clear to me from early on that the kind of ideas I have are complicated and they were never going to happen unless I worked really hard to make them happen – they were going to need willpower and dedication; not just from me but also from other people who would need to be invested in the projects.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting you mention the need to rely on others and pitch them often quite complicated ideas; because, as Anne Beate says in her interview with us, when you first get approached with the idea for a project that is for 100 years in the future, it can be quite crazy. But you were quite aware of that?

PATERSON

Oh absolutely – I am so lucky that I met her! She is an absolutely remarkable woman – it takes a lot of dedication for somebody to take on one of my projects; they’re not simple by any means! And especially Future Library. It’s the sort of project that you throw your life into.

INTERVIEWER

With a project of such scale, how did you first conceive of the Future Library?

PATERSON

It was simple I’ve got to say. As these things often can be at the beginning – or at least, it seemed simple. I was drawing tree rings, and as I was doing that I very quickly made a visual connection between tree rings and chapters in a book and paper and trees and time. And I had a vision of a forest that was growing a book, and that the book was made of chapters of tree rings – and it would evolve and grow over time.

That all happened in a snippet of time and then, from there, it grew. I met Anne Beate and it became a stronger concept once I realised that it could happen in reality – even though in my mind it had been one of the wilder ideas that I’ve had.

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Tree rings. Future chapters. Photo by Giorgia Polizzi.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of just the practicalities of actually making an idea like that a reality – what steps did you both have to take at that point?

PATERSON

The very first step was proposing it to BI, the producers: ‘I’ve got this idea to grow a forest over 100 years’!  Incredibly, they said yes – and then we built the idea slowly, ‘brick by brick’.

I called Anne Beate when I got back to Berlin a few days after the proposal and asked if I could come back to Norway immediately and go to a forest and stay for a while. She was quite surprised, then set it up and I stayed in her relative’s cabin deep in the woods where there was no electricity, no running water.

INTERVIEWER

How did it feel to get really back to basics in that way?

PATERSON

It was a remarkable experience – until then the idea for Future Library was so abstract, I felt I had to go and be in a Norwegian forest for some time to visualise it becoming a reality. There, it became a more solidified idea, imagining the authors and the time scales and how we might build in a ritual every year with the ‘handing over’ ceremonies.

 

From there, there were several different stages, including finding the forest. Anne Beate liaised with the City of Oslo, who donated us the land and the trees. And then there is the library aspect; we’re creating a silent room inside the new Oslo public library that will open in 2020. It’s going to house the manuscripts for the future, I’m designing it with the architects of the library.

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Designing the silent room in the Oslo public library where the manuscripts will be stored for the next one hundred years. Photo credit: Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem

Many aspects were in place before we started inviting the authors. We didn’t approach Margaret Atwood until we felt like this was really happening.

INTERVIEWER

Until it felt more real and tangible.

PATERSON

Exactly. The trees had taken root.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any expectations for the project at all? Did you realise it was something authors would want to get involved in, or were you sort of cautious when you first approached Margaret Atwood?

PATERSON

Oh sure we were so shocked and amazed and delighted. It was such a wonderful moment when she said yes, it was a huge seal of approval. Margaret Atwood was a remarkable writer to open the project. Even though we’d planted the forest it was at that moment when I realised ‘this is it; this is something that is going to continue for the rest of our lives’.

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Margaret Atwood was the first author to donate a manuscript to the Future Library. Photo by Giorgia Polizzi

From there, it just grew and grew; it’s gone from a project that was quite theoretical to a living artwork that is really taking form. We’re now on year four – the handover with Elif Shafak is next week (2 June) and we’re working with next year’s author too. Future Library is a major part of our lives; it’s intertwined with daily life, and the ritual that repeats each year is a defining moment.

INTERVIEWER

There’s something striking about the rituals built into the project and how they are set to carry on for a hundred years. We live in this age where everything is so focused on the present and the here and now, that we have lost track of ideas that span across generations. Was the idea of longer term, ‘cathedral’ thinking specific in your mind when you first came up with the idea? Or is it something that solidified more as the project progressed?

PATERSON

It wasn’t specific at the beginning; the initial idea appeared in a flash, the repercussions of the idea were unclear. Future Library is evolving into something far more complex than I could have imagined.

The ‘cathedral thinking’ you mention is really interesting. I continue to be inspired by a place I’ve visited called Ise Jinju in Japan, a Shinto shrine near Kyoto. Here shrines have been built and rebuilt in exactly the same form every 20 years, for a few thousand years. And the community have been growing the wood for the shrines in a special forest, over this vast expanse of time.

I love the idea that you need to plan hundreds of years ahead for something to last or exist; it seems the antithesis of the current mode. Instead we live in a ‘one click’ world.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it feels there’s a certain ‘unreal’ element to our lives in that respect? As you say we spend all this time clicking on social media; but not actually participating in our social lives. It definitely seems to stand in contrast to those things that are real – a forest and nature, but also an actual physical printed book.

PATERSON

Exactly. Of course, I’m absolutely part of this technologically driven culture, too. Though when I am inside the forest there are moments when I am acutely aware of the timelessness nature of trees. It could be any era on earth there, just about! You could be standing thousands of years in the past in the same forest or you could be standing there thousands of years into the future and it could almost be the same place.

I love that feeling to be sort of outside of time or inside of time – to be somewhere, where time is drawn out, and to not have this ‘instant-ness’ feeling that seems to be there in many other aspects of life.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel that sensation of time slowing down – especially during the handover ceremonies or when you’re in the forest – affects you at all? Is there a spirituality to it?

PATERSON

Last year, we had a golden harp brought in for the ceremony and the musicians were warming up with us there early in the morning – there was such quietude, a serene moment that’s hard to define, when everybody was gearing up amongst the trees – time slows down and it’s just precious. Then the authors arrive and walk in the footsteps of the previous authors and those of the future and it’s all part of this rite we’ve created that will continue for the next 96 years. Elif Shafak uses the term ‘secular acts of faith’ and I believe Future Library is one of these acts.

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A golden harp for the 2017 handover ceremony. Photo by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

The relationship with nature is clearly so bound up with the project – do you think that the project speaks to people partly because we live in an age where we are also suffering the effects of environmental break down?

PATERSON

I think so. The planet is being destroyed and it’s affecting all of our lives. In that sense nature feels really close – you can’t help but think how even the rain falling on our heads is connected to the changing climate and the way the planet is trying to survive.

I think appreciating our natural environment is something Norway does exceptionally well. Our forest is a tiny patch inside the larger forest that surrounds the whole city of Oslo, which is protected under law so developers aren’t allowed to encroach on it. Oslo’s citizens deeply appreciate the forest too, and I think in a way this cultural link with the forest is why the city have been so supportive of Future Library.

INTERVIEWER

It seems really appropriate in that sense how links up the timeless nature of writing – you think of Shakespeare, Shelly, Austen, Joyce – and how writing and literature can stretch across centuries; just as trees and forests do, too. How do you think authors today can write for the readers of tomorrow?

PATERSON

A book is an object that survives time and passes voices through time.

It’s so easy to forget that books come from trees! I am an e-reader and use technology all the time; but how can we improve on the printed book? It’s not possible! Who knows what the methods of reading will be like in a hundred years’ time. The form of reading may be something that’s so far beyond our imagination right now.

If you jump back a century – that generation would never have guessed the authors that are writing now – it’s unimaginable – it’s too long a gap to perceive of. I find it odd that the authors right now will be authors from the past, many will be dead. And then the authors at the end of this project will still be alive and be read by their contemporaries.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a certain sense of mortality tied up in the project. Do you think about that or dwell on that at all?

PATERSON

I do; and it can be disconcerting. Of course, I did conceive this project so that it would be going on beyond my lifetime so I was always aware that I wasn’t going to be around to see it through – it’s about getting everything set up to ensure it keeps going after we’re gone.

The question of mortality is there – even the legalities of artist’s contracts have to contain clauses relating to death. I had a child this year and so he’ll be coming with me to the handover ceremony. He won’t quite be one years old at that point; I’ve thought how I deeply hope he will be around to read these books.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking about the future, do you have an idea or ideal in your head about what the final ceremony will be like. Or are you very prepared to let it go?

PATERSON

My greatest hope is that it’s still there at that point and that there is a ceremony and that the world hasn’t collapsed in on itself! It’s an emotional thought, the final ceremony, and the idea of those vast trees we know so well, being cut.

We’re always troubleshooting with Future Library and thinking what could happen that we need to prepare for –  but it’s the unpredictable things that worry me. But ultimately you have to have trust and hope and I think those are key concepts within the project.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever think about the authors and what they’re actually writing and the stories they are going to produce – is there anything you are hoping for?

PATERSON

We leave it entirely up to the authors, it’s important that they have free reign to write whatever they chose. The only rule we have is that there are no illustrations – just the written word. I like to imagine what is hidden within their manuscripts, but it’s more satisfying to not know because in some ways that’s the key to it all – that none of us know and it’s going to be a complete surprise to those in the future.

Each author brings a completely different perspective to the project, and that’s important, it doesn’t concern one set theme – it’s about bringing people together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel there’s a certain sense that each author brings something different but complementary to the project, in that case?

PATERSON

Yes, I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t that the truth of so many artists and writers in general; we’re all in conversation with one another.

PATERSON

Absolutely. And here they are each having a conversation with the authors that have come before; but also those who are still to come.

INTERVIEWER

And what’s still to come from you – could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

PATERSON

I’m actually working on a book myself at the moment – called ‘A place that exists only in moonlight’. It’s a collection of over 100 short texts that are similar to haiku; they are ideas for artworks to exist in the imagination. I have a lot of ideas for artworks but not all of them turn into real forests! So I’ve been writing them as text works, they come alive in the reader’s minds.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a certain lightness there it sounds like to be able to note down these ideas without necessarily having to worry about putting them into reality. And it’s interesting to consider what you mentioned earlier about not ever committing to an artistic discipline and possibly pigeon holing yourself into that. Do you think that creativity is something that can be defined or is it something we can pursue in many different ways?

PATERSON

I’m so open when it comes to creativity – that’s what creativity is; it’s about being as open and curious as you possibly can be. For me creativity flourishes most when I don’t pay attention to boundaries or limits. It doesn’t matter whether an idea exists as something real or not – it’s about letting the imagination go as far as it possibly can – even to the point of absurdity.

INTERVIEWER

If you had one piece of advice for people – artists and writers – what would it be?

PATERSON

The imagination needs tending to. Take good care of it.

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Tending trees as you must tend to your imagination. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

The tricks of the essayist; a sympathetic summary

Essay

In his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation – Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and a Guide to True Politeness –  Arthur Martine provided the following advice for those who find themselves in “disputes upon moral or scientific points”:

“Let your aim be to come at truth, not conquer your opponent. So you shall never be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

In these heady days of the babbling Twittersphere and online trolls; of half-baked, half-formed comments on the echo chambers of Reddit and Facebook; it is fair to say that such advice is rarely heeded. Indeed, the artillery we deploy when hidden behind computer screens and keyboards is less reasonable argument and more simple menace: it is reaction, rather than response. They are opinion, rather than critique.

Yet it needn’t be this way. Rather than believe the falsehood that we must be right at all costs, it is surely preferable that we all engage in active discussion and conversation – and look to deploy skills that enable us to better understand the world around us, and in turn advance the collective understanding of humankind.

Into this may step the non-fiction essay. The written argument or critique, which unfortunately often shows signs of disintegrating in response to the culture of the online newspaper comments section. Indeed, with a few exceptions – most notably the Guardian’s George Monbiot, perhaps – the opinion or comment pages on most of the UK’s newspapers, from the Guardian and the Independent on the so-called establishment left, through to the corporate propaganda at work in The Times and The Telegraph, are increasingly falling short of the high standards necessary for advancing human thought and consciousness through debate, discussion and reasoning.

What is lacking in so many of our debates and so many of the essays available to us, is the necessary rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the art of countering potential criticism, which takes charge of conceivable counterarguments and thoroughly challenges them, seeking ultimately to debunk or disprove them. This is a problem for thinkers of all philosophical and political persuasions, because they are neither able to refute the arguments of others effectively, nor have their own arguments held up to the necessary scrutiny. How can Owen Jones, for instance, improve his argument when the only charge levied against him from those who disagree is that he is “a loony lefty”? Equally, how can those who challenge him hope to advance their own opinions instead, when Jones can easily dismiss such charges out of hand?

As is often the case, there are countless examples from history that illustrate how we can reinvigorate our arguments.

That’s so Blaise

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the ‘three elements of persuasion’ – attunement, buoyancy and clarity – French physicist, philosopher, mathematician and inventor, Blaise Pascal, intuited these same mechanisms as he arrived at what he saw as the great truth about the secret of persuasion: that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping it in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In his work Pensees, he examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion into its essence:

“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

On the origin of effective argumentative strategy

Two centuries on from Pascal’s intimations, Charles Darwin – who surely needs no introduction – provided supreme practical proof of the French philosopher’s insight, as he changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth.

Indeed, Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of pre-empting criticism and effectively countering counter arguments before they are levied at our arguments, is explored by New Yorker contributor and essayist, Adam Gopnik, in his book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterworkOn the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

“The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.”

As the book progresses, Gopnik advances in more detail his thoughts on what lies behind this habit of “sympathetic summary”, and considers the essential principle, which lies at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical excellence, which in turn illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

“A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.”

The marriage of ideas and argument

What Pascal and Darwin illustrate in abundance, then, is the necessary ability to marry visionary ideas with a mastery of argument. But of these two aspects, it is perhaps the latter that is the vital requisite to convincing others that your argument bears most weight.

Think, for instance, of Alfred Russel Wallace, known for arriving at the same conclusions of Darwin – concerning natural selection and evolution – but failing to take any credit for this discovery for decades after his death.

The idea both men advanced upon is fundamentally the same: but could Wallace have posited his thesis as effectively as Darwin, and brought about the cultural revolution in thinking that Darwin did? He might have written the words and evidence in support of his own idea, but could he have answered the objections Darwin faced? The likelihood is not: because at its heart, the Origin of Species is a book of answers to questions that are expected to be asked, but have not yet been spoken, and it provides examples and evidence and counter arguments to faceless opponents yet to emerge.

An act of charity

Daniel Dennett, described as “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russel”, picks up on some of the elements present in Darwin’s and Pascal’s works, as he probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics necessary within essay writing. Most pertinently, asking the question “just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?”

In his work, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, Dennet offers what he calls “the best antidote for the tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a set of rules, or steps, laid out below as a simple starting guide to all aspiring and established essayists.

“How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

Such a strategy is ultimately simple in its theory, yet remains cuttingly effective. For it transforms your opponents – faceless or otherwise – into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion, and the argument. Thus avoiding the risk that all philosophical and political debate becomes the sound of a single record stuck on repeat, exposing retried and reconstituted, regurgitated facts, figures and opinions round and round on a ceaseless merry-go-round of nonsense.

At its heart, this strategy is about seeing what people might say, turning it into what they ought to say, and then answering.

If only such a code of conduct could be advised and followed to all critical commentary online – though doing so in 140 characters might be a feat too far.