Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Friday, January 26, 2007

Intelligence, Hope, and Writing

Recently, I read an article by a very famous author who mentioned how important hope and perseverance is to any writer. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, she used a scientific study to illustrate her point, and I was suddenly reminded of my days as a biology student and how easy it is to think you are testing one thing, when you are in fact testing something else entirely. The study she mentioned in her article was fundamentally flawed.

Of course, the problem could have been in how the study was described, or in the author’s interpretation of it, rather than a flaw in the design itself. I have no idea what the actual thesis was under evaluation or how the test was framed. All I know is how this author described it and her conclusion.

What was the study? Two groups of rats were thrown into tubs of water. Group A was thrown into a tub of water that contained nothing but a lot of water. Group B was thrown into a tub of water that contained a small, submerged island. If Group B swam around enough, they could find the island and stand on it, thereby being able to rest and breathe.

When the two groups of rats were thrown into another vat of water without an island, low-and-behold, Group B kept valiantly swimming around, looking for that darn island. Group A pretty much just gave up.

Now the conclusion this author came to was that if you have hope and start from a positive place, you’ll keep going long after the others have given up. This is really critical for a writer because sometimes it takes a lot of rejections over long years before you finally get find the right editor and get published. And you’ll go longer if you can find and treasure any encouragement along the way—sort of like those submerged islands.

However, what this test really showed had nothing to do with hope or even the beneficial effects of positive thinking upon perseverance. It was really more about learning. Maybe even intelligence.

Group A learned very quickly that the faster they gave up, i.e. stopped swimming, the sooner they’d be rescued and put back into their nice, warm cage with food and water (assuming they wanted water after this). Who the heck wants to stand tip-toed on a submerged island in a bucket of water, gasping for air, when they can be removed and put back in their nice cage? Group B never learned this because they were given a crutch to lean on, er, an island. They never learned that if they just pretended to drown, they’d be taken out of the cold, nasty water and put back in their nice habitat.

In effect, what this proved was that you’re stupid to persevere. The faster you give up all efforts and hope, the sooner you’ll be back in your nice, old rut where you can grow fat, dumb and happy until the end of your days.

So is it better to be smart or is it better to be hopeful?

If you’re a writer, it’s definitely better to forget about being smart, because being smart just means giving up before you waste all that time, effort, tears, blood and sweat over something which may never pan out and which will probably not grant you the luxurious living you know you deserve, anyway. And even if you do succeed, do you really need all those reviewers hacking your work apart with snide comments about how your work has degenerated lately?

Mankind did not get where it is, however, by just giving up. Stupid or not, all of our great strides forward and all of our works of art, including literary, were made by people who, like Group B, never learned any better. Or if they did understand how futile their efforts might be, they decided to just keep on swimming anyway and hope to find that little island. And they were willing to drown to do it.

While the test itself was flawed (at least how it was described by this author) and did not support the author’s argument, the author was still right. If we are going to accomplish anything at all, we have to keep working at it despite all the naysayers and evidence that says we are idiots just wasting our time. Is writing really more a waste of time than, say, watching television each night?

Every one of us has a dream, something we’d like to accomplish in our very short lifetime. While striving to attain that dream may not be the intelligent or sensible thing to do, it is the important and hopeful thing to do and it brings out the best in us. We would attain nothing, be nothing, create nothing if we did not continue in the face of adversity to go for the gold.

So, strangely enough, even though that famous author used the wrong example, she was still…right. Maybe not so intelligent, but certainly hopeful.

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