Monday, September 28, 2009

Google and the novelist: more on how technology is impacting the creative process

Any of us who work in marketing know that technology is having a dramatic impact on how commercial artists and writers work in all kinds of double-edged-sword ways, both offering amazing new tools to help us get work done and challenging our value props.

But I’ve been interviewing creative people across the creative spectrum—from poets to TV producers--and some of my more surprising findings are coming from writers and artists who aren’t involved with marketing at all. Their stories demonstrate how even fundamental elements of new media are transforming the art they make.

The writer Justin Cronin put it this way, “The easy availability of almost any fact has turned me into a different kind of novelist.”

I don’t normally think about Internet Search as having a transformative impact on the creative process, but for Justin, and I’m sure for other writers., it has.

A little background might help illustrate the dramatic nature of the change I'm talking about. Justin was a classmate of mine at the Iowa Writers Workshop where he wrote beautifully crafted lyrical stories that were in the tradition of contemporary realistic fiction. After graduation, he published two well-received, prize-winning novels which, I think he’d agree, were also in that tradition.

More recently, however, he’s been writing a post-apocalyptic Vampire trilogy which—as widely reported—he’s already sold for a big pile of money. The first volume of the trilogy—The Passage—is being made into a major movie by Ridley Scott.

Now, how does a literary writer suddenly turn himself into an instant master of high-concept futuristic thrillers? Part of the charming story is Justin's native talent. Another part is that the plot was inspired by conversations he had with his daughter while she rode her bike alongside him on his daily run. In order to help pass the time, he told his daughter they were going to plot a novel. What should it be about? She replied, “A story about a little girl that saves the world.” A winning idea if there ever was one.

But the part that interests me here--is the power of the Internet to make available a set of experiences Justin had never tried to imagine before as part of his subject.

Again, in his words, “If I need to know how to hot-wire a diesel engine, well, I can just Google it and it's right there. If I want to know what the dashboard of a military vehicle looks like, it’s there too. ”

He didn’t need to go to the library or interview people or take a trip to a military base. It’s not that Justin stopped doing original research. He told me one story about hiring a guy to take him to a firing range so he could experience what it felt like to shoot assault rifles.

But he acknowledged that the immediacy of search helped him stay in the writing process. The instant availability of facts and images and video helped him quickly fill his imagined world with the stuff that his characters needed to go out and save the world. As he put it, “I might have been able to write this book without the internet but I don’t think I could have written it as fast or as well.”

He also said that the process of imagining more unusual experiences liberated him from an impulse to rely on autobiographical material for his plots. While all artists and writers tend to draw from their own lives to some degree, especially early in their career, the Internet has accelerated or at least help enable that transformation. In this way, the title of his first novel in the trilogy--The Passage--could also double as a metaphor for his own evolution as an writer.

When thinking about technology and creativity, it’s easy to fixate on works that make use of new or sophisticated technology: augmented reality and data visualization. But sometimes it’s the more fundamental elements—like search--that make the biggest difference. It's the question I'm continuing to explore now: asking other writers and artists if Google has helped inspire them to make leaps of imagination into new genres, media and forms.


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