The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, February 24, 2006

Writing and Philosophy

Writing and Philosophy

Clarifying your “reality map” is a way of saving energy
as well.  If you have no map, you drive around in
circles until you run out of gas.  No fun.  A philosophical
position on life is a theory of how the world works, or
people behave, or whatever—it is an heuristic, in
other words, that saves us time in decision making.
  Saving time and energy and confusion is one outcome
of such tools.  Coming up with great story ideas is another.

Let’s take a fine example: Ursula LeGuin’s classic story
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  In this
three-page gem of a horror story, a perfect, glittering
society is described in radiant detail.  There is only one
fly in the ointment: down in the deepest dungeon
squats a disfigured child, smeared with its own feces,
screaming in terror and misery. If anyone helps the
child, the society will crumble.

Those who have studied philosophy will recognize her
critique of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy, an
extension of Jermy Bentham’s “happiness calculus”
suggesting that “the greatest good for the greatest
number” is the best form of society.  Taken to its
extreme, you get Omelas.

And this is what a fine writer does.  Studying the
great thinkers of the ages, the writer exaggerates
or personifies their positions, lampoons or investigates,
asks us to assume positions and  question our
assumptions.  This is both art and craft in the service of mankind.

What do you believe?  Why do you believe it?  Under
what conditions would you think yourself right or
wrong?  Change your position?  Strengthen it?  Can
you create stories that represent each of these
questions?  Can you think of movies and books that
explore them? 

There is a lifetime of work in finding ways to dramatize
the great thoughts of history.  I can think of no
better way to spend my time and energy.