Monday, January 30, 2012

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Don’t Fear the Future

I recently read about the publication of Modernist Cuisine, a 2,438-page, five-volume book on cooking history, theory, chemistry and microbiology. Its primary author is Nathan Myhrvold, a chef at the vanguard of modernist cooking (or what some call molecular gastronomy). The main thrust of a ‘modernist’ approach to cooking is deconstructing ingredients to their essential qualities and then reassembling them into food dishes that have never been seen before. Imagine Liquid Pea Ravioli—pea soup presented as a stand-alone sphere on your plate.

Does that sound appetizing? Not to me. I recently started learning to cook, mostly standard comfort foods: mac and cheese, meatloaf, ‘plain old’ split pea soup, stuffed peppers. My tastes run toward traditional dishes.

I was turned off by the whole concept behind Modernist Cuisine as I read. Cooking is fine without all the test tubes and centrifuges in the kitchen, thank you. But I caught myself. I began to wonder, what if I took the same attitude toward my own craft?

What if I approached storytelling this way? What if I only appreciated canonical writers like Herman Melville or other dead white guys? What if I firmly believed that a book was meant to be read, not listened to in the car, not viewed on an e-reader? Well, I’d consider myself to be a literary snob who was missing out on all sorts of interesting writing and innovations going on around me.

It’s important to appreciate traditions and study how things were done in the past. But I think it’s even more important to be open to new ways of doing things. Progress marches on whether we want it to or not. This is especially true in the world we live in, where technology develops at dizzying speeds and affects every aspect of our lives, including how we write and tell stories. And this has always been the case when you think about it, only it’s happening at a more rapid pace now.

Storytelling began around fires, cave dudes and prehistoric chicas finding entertaining ways to pass the time between hunting and gathering outings, pantomiming the day’s kill or painting on the cave wall. Mesopotamians took to writing on clay tablets. The Greeks moved storytelling to a theatre stage, adding a chorus and music. Medieval Europeans told their stories on the tapestries that hung in their castles to cover drafts. Gutenberg dreamed up the printing press and revolutionized how stories were shared. Then books on tape.

Today, we have e-books, another revolution. We can weave audio and video clips into a story, or guide the reader to a universe of relevant information through embedded URLs. Storytelling has gone through many transformations, and we stand at the threshold of another.

While I love traditional books, as an artist, I’d be limiting the scope of my own creative possibilities if I didn’t start exploring what I can do with writing and storytelling now in the e-book era. It’s a little scary and I’m likely to produce some poor art along the way as I incorporate this new toolset into my craft. That’s where I want to be as an artist – willing to leap into the unknown and see where it takes me. But I’m still not going to try the Liquid Pea Ravioli.

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