A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal asked some leading thinkers to describe a scientific term or concept that they believed should be more widely known in the coming year. I was struck by a little piece from Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who, as his bio states, is one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. (Those of you have read my How to Edit e-book will recognize Pinker as the guy who describes the curse of knowledge as the source of bad writing. Pinker’s original piece on that topic can be found here.)
What Pinker chose to write about for the series on scientific concepts we must know in 2017 is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is the law that states, basically, that things tend to fall apart. “There are so many more ways for things to go wrong,” he writes, “than to go right… it is in the very nature of the universe that life has problems.”
Pinker is a poet as well as a scientist (you can just tell by the way he puts words together) and he concludes his short piece by saying, “It’s better to figure out how to solve [these problems], by applying information and energy to expand our niche of life-enhancing order, than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.”
I was particularly moved by this sentiment – and decided that he was, in fact, speaking to writers. Because applying information and energy to expand our niche of life-enhancing order sounds pretty much like what writers do every day.
We take wild ideas and wrangle them into orderly argument.
We take crazy fantasies and weave them into beautiful stories.
We take words and emotion that in the real world don’t often make sense and put them on the page in a way that makes meaning.
This past week I received a few emails that drove this truth home for me. These were two notes that came to me from readers just like you, who for whatever reason, decided to write to me at the exact same moment.
These notes came into my inbox one right after the other – two writers from two far-flung places, who were both, in profound ways, experiencing the reality of life falling apart.
The first writer wrote this:
I was preparing my application [for your course] when my husband passed away suddenly on January 4th. I am drowning under paperwork and arrangements. Would you consider a late application before the start date? If this is not possible, please tell me when the next course begins and I will apply for that one. I'm serious about my novel, and after reading two of yours (Red, and Genius) and one memoir (Victoria's Secret), I would definitely like to have you for my coach.
The second writer wrote this:
I SO want to do your course one day! You are all so wonderful… What can I say?!
I'm just headed to [big city] because my mom, whom I was looking after for a long time with Alzheimer's (managed 2 1/2 book drafts during, however), has had a few strokes and I need to be with her all through her remaining days to try and bring her back, as much as we can… At the very least entertain and comfort her.
I'm not sure how much work I can do from her nursing home bedside… Maybe a little, maybe a lot -- likely some of both, at different times! ;-)
As soon as I'm free… I'm joining in the next course you're offering!!!!
Thanks for being who you are
SO looking forward
I had to stop and read these back-to-back letters several times to wrap my mind around what they were both saying – which is that in the face of death they wanted to write.
They had to write.
Writing was the thing which was going to give life-enhancing order to a life that felt like it had none.
There is a lot of chaos in our world right now, a lot of divisiveness, a lot of distrust, a lot of fear. I like to think that writers have a place at the center of this storm. As Pinker says, “I believe that [the Second Law of Thermodynamics] defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.”