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August 3rd, 2010

book and glasses

The soul of a story, the heart of a writer

Writer Anil Menon, guest-blogging on Jeff VanDerMeer's "Ecstatic Days", just wrote a very interesting post".

I think what he is asking, amongst other things, is simply this: does a piece of writing have a soul? And what imparts that soul - and does the simple fact of a purely mechanical creation negate the very idea of that soul completely?

The thing that he has brought to my attention is this site - and here is what Anil says about it in his post:

"...a program based on Propp’s formalist theories.

The formalist, Vladimir Propp, had studied some hundred odd Russian folktales and found they all followed a story-line with a sequence of thirty-one events or “functions.” Not all of the events were necessarily present, but the order of the events was always the same. Brown University has an automatic story generator based on Propp’s scheme. You check the event boxes, click “generate,” and voila! there’s a story. I started with one such automatically generated story. It didn’t make much sense, but by adding four or five strategic lines and tweaking a few words, an interpretation became possible. "

So I tried the experiment. I went to the site, looked over the boxes available to be checked, decided on a few, and hit ENTER, and this is what the program came up withCollapse )

...Unh. Interesting imagery. Story...? Not so much. The thing feels as though I dragged a silver fish out of the story ocean and then left it to flap and gasp, flailing on the ground and slowly drowning in air, as I stood back dispassionately and took notes on the manner of its dying.

I don't know. I don't know that even the purest and most powerful AI we can come up with - even one that surpasses us in intelligence and reasoning power - will ever quite be able to duplicate the awe-inspiring, beautiful, rich chaos of human sensibility and imagination. And by that I don't mean the imagery itself - the story above puts paid to that, the imagery is there - but the ability to make SENSE out of that chaos so that other human beings can wander in the lush gardens of your own vision and actually make sense of what they are seeing, actually feel themselves affected by it, by a sense of poignancy, or power, or sorrow, or laughter, or understanding. A computer which understands story at its mos basic level cannot, yet, comprehend this added dimension - but does that added dimension equal a soul...? Is soul what a human hand, a human mind, a human heart adds to the mix of the story? Is the soul of a story part of the soul of its creator...?

Anything can be dissected and precisely understood in terms of its basic function, eventually. This is what Vladimir Propp's story program did - it analysed story, came up with component parts that seemed to be integral to story as a functional entity, and then stored those integral parts separately, allowing them to be mix-and-matched into another "story". But there is no hand on the helm. The resulting "story" is no more a living story than a collection of two arms, two legs, two eyes, a nose, a liver, a stomach, a couple of essential sphincters, a heart, and a head of hair make up a living human being.

This is what maps, in one sense, to that part of writing that cannot be TAUGHT. The craft can be, and people can be trained into the telling of most perfectly polished stories, glittering like precious stones fresh from the hands of a master cutter. But the stone itself, the raw thing that you begin with - that's not really teachable. All you can do in that context is begin to teach a willing apprentice where and when and how to look for those raw stones - but the finding of them, and the nature of them if they are found, are things that are beyond the control of either the teacher or the taught. The manner of telling a tale can be imparted, one to another. But the tale, ah, that is each true writer's own, only their own, and only they can give it life. Only they can give it... its soul.

Where do YOU think a soul of a story lies...?