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Story Brain Wrap
What we don't talk about when we don't talk about what we're writing
This afternoon, I had a phone conversation with a screenwriter friend (or, actually, a screenwriter/actor/producer friend) that really threw into relief something I’ve often observed about myself, namely: that my critical story brain works a lot better than my creative story brain.
Here’s what I mean when I say that. Early in the conversation, she told me about a new script she was working on—a science-fiction thriller. She readily and easily described the story, introducing me to the major characters, the world, the main conflict, how it is resolved, and describing the tone and themes of the film. I listened, asking some clarifying questions along the way so I understood the rules of the world and the significance of key plot points. I think I got it. And then I gave her some big-picture story notes. I don’t know whether they were the right notes from her perspective—that’s for her to decide—but I feel confident that what I was saying made sense as such in story terms. That is to say, if they feel right to her in terms of the story she wants to tell, I feel confident that they’d make the story stronger.
Then it was my turn. As it happens, I’m also writing (well, mostly neglecting) a science-fiction thriller script, something I’ve never written before. I’ve already written a 30,000 word document that includes a complete summary of the story, character bios, buckets of world-building information, and so forth. I wrote the first draft of that two years ago, and am now actively writing (well, mostly neglecting) the script itself. I should, in other words, have some idea of what my story is and how to talk about it.
I couldn’t. I was a basket case. I wandered deep into the world-building weeds, I failed to prioritize important information about my characters, I couldn’t narrate the major plot points in order—I gave her no real clue as to the story arc. It was an embarrassing spectacle. There’s no way she could give me any meaningful notes on the story since, by the end of my blathering, I’m sure she had no idea what my story even was.
Does that mean I don’t know either? Perhaps. If that’s the case, it’s not too surprising that I can’t use my story brain as effectively to reveal it as I can with other people’s work—that’s fairly normal, as it’s easier to be objective about other people’s work. What it certainly means, though, is that whether I know what it is or not, I’m in no position to talk about it. And because I’m in no position to talk about it, I’m in no position to get any kind of help shaping it, focusing it, clarifying it. Because of my inability to describe what I’m doing, I’m isolating myself, leaving myself more alone with my story and its problems than I would be if I could talk about it more clearly. Which makes me very sad, as I love sharing, love collaborating.
Well, hopefully when I’ve got a complete draft I’ll have an easier time talking about it. If not, hopefully I’ll convince someone to read it without my having to frame it for them, and they can tell me what it’s about.
This wrap actually covers two weeks because I completely neglected this Substack during the week of February 7th, which I’m quite ashamed about. So even though I had only one column this week at The Week, I’ve still got last week’s to link to.
Fortunately, it’s far from obsolete, since it’s about how Ukraine undoubtedly regrets giving up its nuclear weapons in 1994, and how that should help us understand what might be driving Iran’s thinking today—and other states’ thinking tomorrow:
1994 was a banner year for nuclear non-proliferation efforts. It was the year the United States and North Korea entered into the Agreed Framework, which provided North Korea with light water reactors in exchange for them shutting down their existing nuclear power plant, which was far more useful for supporting a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The agreement was made at the last minute, averting a confrontation that could easily have led to war.
But within a decade, it was undone, with both the United States and North Korea blaming each other for violating its terms. North Korea acknowledged it had been conducting a secret nuclear weapons program with support from Pakistan, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, and within a few years had become a full-fledged nuclear power.
Also in 1994, Ukraine agreed to destroy the vast nuclear arsenal it inherited with the collapse of the Soviet Union, accepting the assurances of the Budapest Memorandum in exchange. Ukraine had limited choice in the matter — they had no operational control of the weapons, and both the United States and Russia firmly pressured them to relinquish them. Nonetheless, the agreement was widely hailed as a landmark of nonproliferation.
Once again, diplomacy failed to hold over the long term, but with very different consequences. Ukraine now faces overt coercion by Russia, its nuclear-armed neighbor, an outcome that was predictable — and predicted — in 1994.
The lesson American hawks tend to take from contrasts like the foregoing is that diplomacy is futile and America should rely instead on threats of force. If Iran doesn't give up its nuclear program, we should destroy that program militarily. If Russia doesn't stop threatening Ukraine, we should be prepared to repel them.
But this is a doctrine premised on frankly fantastic assessments of American power, and an appalling indifference to the terrible costs of war. Indeed, it doesn't even reckon with the ways in which America's penchant for interventionism has undermined the nonproliferation regime we claim to be enforcing. After our catastrophic war in Iraq, undertaken ostensibly to end the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, Libya revealed and dismantled its own clandestine nuclear program to avoid a similar fate. When NATO attacked Libya several years later, the lesson was well-learned in capitals around the world.
That lesson is the truly important one that connects Ukraine and Iran: Nuclear weapons are too indiscriminately destructive to be very useful as offensive weapons. But they are quite useful for states under threat from large and powerful neighbors, or from more distant but hostile great powers. In an era characterized by great power competition rather than cooperation, that obvious utility may be increasingly hard for diplomacy to overcome.
Read the whole thing to learn what other countries I think might rationally want to acquire nuclear weapons in the daunting world aborning.
Climate Adaptation and Competitiveness
One of the core difficulties of tackling climate change is that it’s a collective action problem. The country that steps up pays the cost of doing so, while other countries can spend their resources on other things that give them a more immediate economic edge.
So I try hard, when I write about climate issues, to frame pieces in terms of how not being a leader in tackling climate change will make us less economically competitive. That’s easiest to explain in terms of investment in new green energy technology development, manufacturing and deployment. Solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal are going to be growth industries, and if China develops them first they’ll get the benefit of having those products to sell, and the expertise to develop future generations thereof.
This week’s column at The Week applies the same logic to climate adaptation efforts:
Climate change is going to accelerate the depreciation of a host of very large and expensive assets. It's going to cost more and more money to keep those assets viable — to protect coastal cities from storm surges, to protect arid areas from water shortages, and so forth. In some cases, no amount of money will suffice: If snowmelt dries up, power from a hydroelectric plant run by that meltwater will dry up too.
As markets start to factor that reality into their valuations of those assets, we should expect to see a shift, in some cases, from building back better to abandoning and moving on — not only from particular dams and roads but from entire cities and regions. . . .
From an international perspective, countries with more opportunity and ability to build right the first time are going to have a significant competitive advantage over countries with a lot of vulnerable assets to protect. This is a phenomenon already familiar from technological transitions. Countries that never built wireline phone systems, for example, were able to leapfrog directly to cellular phones and achieve widespread connectivity at a much lower cost. Countries today with large and growing power needs have the opportunity to meet them with green energy technologies that are much cheaper than they were only a decade ago, and thereby avoid some of the transition costs of decarbonization.
The same is likely true for climate adaptation. China has engaged in a historically unprecedented building boom over the past generation, constructing entire new cities along with massive transportation and power-generation projects. To the extent that they ignored the prospect of climate change in their plans, that was an enormous missed opportunity that, had they made the opposite choice, could have contributed massively to their future economic competitiveness. Countries like India and Nigeria, which will face enormous infrastructure needs in the future even without climate change due to the combination of demographic expansion, economic growth, and rapid urbanization should not make the same mistakes.
Once again, read the whole thing.
Stupid Culture War Tricks
For my sins, on here this week I waded into an idiotic culture war fight, in this case the outrage over an inane New York Times advertisement:
The ad is about a person named Lianna who is described as queer, non-White, a crossword-lover, and a Times reader. I don’t know whether Lianna is supposed to be an example of the kind of reader the Times is looking for, or an example of the kind of person that prospective readers of the Times want to imagine as their fellow readers—it doesn’t really matter. The point is to suggest that the Times has lots of different stuff in it for Lianna, that this is evidence of the broadness of the Times’s appeal, and hence is a reason to read the paper.
Well, one of the things Lianna is into is “Imagining Harry Potter without its Creator.” That is why the ad is attracting criticism. Apparently, this is now the equivalent of erasure or cancelation, which, if more evidence were needed, is the final proof that those concepts have no meaning anymore whatsoever.
It is probably a sign of how old I am getting that I am mystified that this still needs to be said, but imagining a text loosed from the control of its author’s will is what we call “reading.” The voice of the text is the voice we hear when we read, and what is engendered inside of us by our response to that voice constitutes our experience of reading. The reading we achieve may be profound or shallow, sophisticated or simple, informed or naive—but regardless, like any experience of life it will be ours. It won’t really be under our control, not entirely. But it most certainly won’t be under the control of or belong to the author.
The author was pronounced dead before I was born. People have been fooled that she’s be resurrected, but what they’ve really sighted is not the author but a Frankenstein’s monster of misbegotten cultural ideology and corrupt intellectual property laws. Both suggest that there is something akin to theft involved when you “appropriate” a work of art by letting it grow inside of you and thereby become yours, and engender new creativity of your own. But while they can try to restrict our freedom to speak, write and create, potentially even to read, they can’t change the way imagination works, the way reading works.
Based on the comments to the piece, I feel like my point needs to be clarified. I understand that the Times ad is premised on the idea that J.K. Rowling deserves to be shunned. I was in no way defending that view; I think it’s ridiculous. My point was that if you believe J.K. Rowling is a dreadful person (which I do not), then what the ad says Lianna is doing is precisely what lovers of art and freedom should want her to do: find a way to continue to read her work that she loves by imaginatively separating the work from its creator.
Beyond that, my point was that even if you don’t care about J.K. Rowling’s views about trans issues, the notion that she in some way is the decisive interpreter of her work is simply false to the experience of reading. You can choose to interpret the work in light of your understanding of the author’s intentions, but that conception of those intentions is also a creative act on your part—even if part of that creativity goes into trying to avoid flights of fancy and construct a version of the author that is plausible based on the evidence you can find. And further beyond that, my point was that the kinds of intellectual property laws we have that don’t merely guarantee artists a fair return for their work, but allow artists to exercise control over it, can be pernicious and destructive.
Feel free to disagree with that view and say that, no, if you like Rowling’s work then you owe it to her to remember her authorship, and to acknowledge that someone with her views—views you despise (remember, that’s who we’re talking about; not me or you, but Lianna)—is the source of what you love. I can see how that might lead one interesting places; it’s led me interesting places in the past. But I really don’t believe you owe it to her. Your imagination is as free as hers was when she created the work in the first place.
And now, I think I’ll go watch that Cosby documentary and see whether it changes or confirms my views on this subject.