On Cliche Plots and Writing From Experience

They say “write from experience.” I’m not sure who “They” are. Perhaps “They” are like Bourbaki – not a real person, but a collection of people writing under the same name. “They” are certainly good at giving vague advice. “Write from experience” is a good example.

I have a nifty little journal which amounts to a vast assortment of scrap paper. This box of scraps has accompanied me from city to city since I moved away from my childhood home in 2001. Inside is a cache of the brain dumps of a young 20-something. Every now and then I sift through these, looking for something that can be worked through with the help of five to ten years more life experience. When that doesn’t work out, I can at least salvage a chuckle.

At one point I decided I would try to define “God” along the lines of “the cumulative knowledge of mankind.” Of course, that’s a spiritual no-no. God is considered to be all-knowing. But if you combine all the knowledge of mankind into one big ball-of-knowledge and stick that ball into one man, he doesn’t become God. A simple proof handles this claim.

Claim. The sum of knowledge of mankind, plugged into one man, doesn’t produce God.
Proof. My cat likes to pee on my couch. At first we (my wife and I) thought that, perhaps, his litter box was unacceptable. We cleaned it. That wasn’t it. He’s not mad at us. Trey, the dog I had growing up, used to like to leave “mad poops” whenever we left home. Milton, the cat, doesn’t do that. Every self-help cat owner’s guide on the Internet failed to provide an answer. And, in fact, the Internet is nearly the sum of knowledge of man-kind. If you throw in Google, and perhaps Jeeves, nobody can tell me why that cat likes to pee on that couch. The answer: God only knows. We sure don’t. Hence, the sum of the knowledge of mankind doesn’t produce all knowledge which can be learned.

With that out of the way, my home-brew philosophy needed a new concept of “cumulative knowledge of mankind.” This became The Perfect Man, the man who has learned everything there is to learn in the universe. But, the perfect man doesn’t exist.

The idea is that at any point in history, any single man has only accumulated a finite amount of knowledge. Put them all together and you still have a finite collection of knowledge. It’s a bit like counting an infinite number of sheep. While you can keep going forever, no matter where you pause, you’ve only counted a finite amount.

The next bit was that mankind is converging to “The Perfect Man.” More or less, as time progresses, the huge ball of knowledge grows bigger. Conceivably, given an infinite amount of time, the ball could accumulate to everything there is to know. We’ll ignore the plausible heat death of the universe because it’s convenient to do so. I’m a mathematician, not a physicist.

I stopped about here because I found better things to occupy my time with. The last scrap had some sort of definition of “happiness” that revolved around the idea that seeking perfection was a lose-lose proposition. There’s no obtaining it, because it would take an infinite span of time to do so. Instead, one should find happiness in progressing toward it. It’s the journey, not the end, that makes life worthwhile.

I actually don’t think it’s a bad conclusion to live by. I’m certainly no longer a perfectionist, and likely better off for it.

As for writing fiction, the implication of all this is that it’s more or less impossible to write about something which you know nothing about. You could probably pick up any book on creative writing and find that piece of advice. But hearing it from a mathematician comes with bonus stories about the antics of cats.

All this also means that no matter what wild plot you concoct, it’s touched in some way by what you’ve done in your life. And I think this is what can make it acceptable to pursue tired, worn-out plots. In short, put your own spin on it. If you’ve lived a rich life, and have the skills developed to tap from it in your writing, it’s suddenly easy to breathe new life into anything. Every person has a unique set of experiences. Every person has a unique set of interpretations of their experiences. All you have to do is learn to extract them and get them on paper. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The art of fiction writing is knowing how to do that well.

Which brings me back to the phrase “write from experience.” What I tend to take it to mean is: Draw from the knowledge you’ve acquired, the sights you’ve seen, the feelings you’ve felt. Draw from the interpretations you’ve made and the conclusions you’ve reached. Write something that you’ve put you into. If you’ve succeeded in doing so, you’ve written something unique.

A Brief History of the Wiener Dog

Presenting the short that started the An Orthogonal Universe project.

A Brief History of the Wiener Dog
Original Compilation Date: Spring 2003

Cavern carving of a wiener dog

Carving found in an ancient city in the Mesopotamia region

Even as far back as the last centuries B.C, the wiener dog astounded the populations of the world. Many carvings in stone walls and caves depict the mysterious “giant dachy”, a wiener dog not much smaller than a house. They were feared creatures, often worshipped as gods. Though their overall size has decreased by far, their shape is still similar to the wiener dogs of today.

The ancients described the creature as “of generous proportions of length relative to width and height.” Though no one knows for sure what happened to the giant dachy, it is hypothesized that natural selection took its toll, leaving a much smaller breed adequately sustained by a decreasing food supply. A few maintain that they were all abducted by aliens, perhaps in exchange for pyramids. Nevertheless, their disappearance came as good news to the first cities, which no longer needed dachy lookouts. These massive towers were adorned with elaborate images of the dachy, and their decline is a disappointment to many enthusiasts of ancient sculpture and craftsmanship.

Smaller wiener dogs became popular as pets amongst the nobility of the middle ages. Lords and barons were known to keep hundreds of them in private forests. Kings may have thousands. Their possession became a show of wealth and power. By the 12th century, many kingdoms outlawed a person of lower status having a wiener dog. This act led to much uproar in the American colonies during the 17th century. A little known fact about the Declaration of Independence is that it originally read, “Life, liberty, and equal possession of wiener dogs.” Jefferson, an obvious dachshund enthusiast, was asked to change the line to its current form by his peers. He argued, “When you find a wiener dog, you find a very good thing.” But others agreed that “pursuit of happiness” would make for better history. Many historians joke they were victims of giant dachy attacks in their former lives.

In the states, the wiener dog became popular as a household pet during the latter half of the 19th century. Their international appeal, however, did not take off until the early 20th century, when a U.S. over-population of wiener dogs lead to their export and re-introduction into Europe, East Asia, Africa, and Australia. Despite their popularity, wiener dogs did not spread into the Middle East until the mid 1990’s. Low on oil reserves, the U.S. started its “Oil for Wiener Dogs” program. Though they made excellent pets, the people needed food. The program was changed to “Oil for Food” shortly after the introduction of the previous program. Nevertheless, wiener dogs had returned to the Mesopotamia region once again, the first time since the extinction of the giant dachy.

What is An Orthogonal Universe?

“Mathematically” speaking, an orthogonal universe is a universe which is orthogonal to ours. Orthgonality can be thought of as synonymous with perpendicular, but a bit more general. Think of a pencil standing straight up, on its eraser. It is orthogonal to the table.

The whole reason this comes up is because two parallel universes can never meet. Time and time again I hear the expression “when two parallel universes collide” and I, being a mathematician, know that can never be. However, an orthogonal universe will collide with ours. It’s just a matter of when, and if you happen to be standing in the way when it hits.

It is also the title of a project I started way back in 2003, when I was an undergraduate mathematics major at the University of Tulsa. It didn’t always have that title, but the project has more or less always followed the spirit of an orthogonal universe. It was a frame story about a driver and a hitchhiker who tells a story. The “orthogonal universe” was the hitchhiker’s story-world which collided with the driver’s.

Originally, the project was a series of short stories, trades between the driver and the hitchhiker, each trying to outdo each other in terms of outlandishness and ridiculousness. The original title was the title of the first story, History of the Wiener Dog.

History of the Wiener Dog was a two-page story about how the dachshund had subtle influences on history – sort of a Forrest Gump approach, but with less Tom Hanks and more long dogs.

A second short, A Brief History of Number Theory, really paved the way for the current form of An Orthogonal Universe. The number theory short was a take on the history of mathematics. Like with the wiener dog story, I had no intention to even come close to historical accuracy. Sadly, almost the entirety of History of the Wiener Dog has been eliminated by the battle axe of literature. Much of the plot of A Brief History of Number Theory, though, became absorbed into the larger project.

And that brings me to just that. In Fall 2006 I began my Ph.D. in mathematics at NC State University. The first year of doctorate studies is dominated by a series of exams called qualifying exams. The aim is to ensure the student knows enough to carry out independent research. The exams are just about as fun as the name implies. The following Summer (2007) I began preparations for the Fall tests. Needing some sort of creative escape to maintain my sanity, I dusted off the old History of the Wiener Dog and began banging out the first novel of a series of four.

And that is what An Orthogonal Universe is today – a series of four novels, each a story in a different historical era, told by the hitchhiker (referred to as stages for stages of history). Technically, the one I wrote in Summer 2007 was the second stage, not the first. But the seeds were planted, and for the next five years I tinkered with the story.