Jarred McGinnis: Writing is the Only Magic I Still Believe In
Jarred McGinnis will share his passion for stories and demonstrate the power of words from Speech Act Theory to the genius that is the children's book 'That's Not My Pirate'. Jarred is an American living in London, and the co-founder of the literary variety night, The Special Relationship. His fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio 4, and appeared in journals in the UK, USA and Ireland. He is wickedtomocktheafflicted.com. In addition to writing fiction, he holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence.
Transcript of this TEDx talk
I want to start by apologizing for the false advertisement. If anybody here was looking for a bearded man, frankly I'm just tired of being overshadowed by it.
So, magic comes easy to children, right? We teach them, we encourage them to believe in it. Stories about storks and cabbage patches are much easier explanations for the arrival of a younger sibling. The story of Adam and Eve is a much easier tale to tell than explaining genetics to a four-year-old. Heaven is a nice place for a family pet, or possibly a grandma. Now, growing up is the process in which we exchange these stories for more mundane magics. For example, compound interest or the metabolization of alcohol. It's a terrible trade, but we all make it.
Now, I was a precociously serious-minded child: it was a terrible habit, and my mom will attest to it. And while my peers were deciding whether to be a fireman, or a ballerina, or an astronaut, and possibly the President of the United States, I knew in my heart I wanted to go and get a philosophy degree. But despite that serious-mindedness, I still wanted magic. And luckily, I picked up my mom's habit of reading. My childhood is filled with memories of her laying on the couch on the weekend with a stack of books behind her. She prefers horror books, and she can burn through them like a chain smoker. And so, possibly inappropriately, my first adult novels were horror novels, and specifically Steven King. And there's still one novel I remember to this day, one of the first one's I read of his, and it was a fantasy novel called Eye of the Dragon. It was a pretty standard, if enjoyable affair of evil wizards, and dragons, and magic and all that. But what still sticks in my mind to this day— and it was that kind of eureka moment, that this is truly what I'm interested in and I want to do this— was he had this character from the point of view of a dog, and it was just a simple idea that the dog scented in color. When he was following someone's trail, it was electric blue, or whatever. And I just remember being profoundly struck by that idea. And it's been love ever since, and wonder.
Now I did eventually get that philosophy degree, and like most people, my chosen vocation was to go back to school and get another degree. So I became a scientist— I became a computer scientist, but I still had that love of words and communication. And so what I focused on was mimicking the way humans interact, the way they interact, in software. When people asked me what my thesis was about, I told them I taught machines how to argue.
Now, it's a common misconception that science is the antithesis of magic, and that's not right. My education has only kinda further strengthened my sense of wonder of the language we use, of the stories we tell. So I'll give you an example; there's something called Speech-Act-Theory. Now, we're all very comfortable with the idea that our physical actions affect the world in a profound way, right? So, the discussion of climate change is exactly that. We're very comfortable with the idea that humans break things, they create things, we consume and we produce. But Speech Act Theory argues that actual utterances, the things that we say, change the world just as profoundly. So I'll give you an extreme example; take the act of one person killing another person, right? That physical act profoundly changes the world, certainly the victim, but also for the world itself: that's one person fewer. Now we fast forward to that trial, when the judge at the end pushes air out of his lungs, over the vocal chord membrane, shapes the words with his mouth and tongue and says, "We find you guilty," and if we're in Texas, "I sentence you to death." Now, that act of him saying that changes the world very profoundly. First of all, we're no longer talking about an accused— he's a criminal now. And the society itself now has to support the maintenance of this person. A less extreme example is a wedding ceremony. Think how the world changes when two people pronounce the words "I do" in that situation. So, if anything, you know, understanding that, it's added to my (kind of) wonder.
And we do amazing things in software: Siri. It's a toy that we all have. And the fact that we're taking to something no smarter than a toaster, but yet we all complain about how, you know, how poor it is, or the fact that a human child would be even more creative and dynamic in its use of language.
So, the previous speaker talked about Hemingway's famous "Six Word Story." So I think I can do one better, and in crass quantitative terms, 33% more efficiently than Papa. So there's a book for children— meant for a pre-verbal audience, think about how post-modern that is— and the title of that book is That's Not My Pirate. And I suggest to you that that is a complete story in four words. Probably a more commercial one than the depressing baby shoe. So let's break it down; pirates, we're talking about pirates. Guaranteed adventure, right? We're talking walked planks, sharks, buried treasure, parrots (who doesn't like parrots). But in that question, we already know we're on a quest. The narrator is looking for their pirate. But in addition to that, that simple sentence, is also suggesting that there's a selection of pirates. And somebody's offered, "Is this your pirate?" "No, that's not my pirate." So hopes are raised, and then dashed. This is good fiction. And while your brain is kind of reeling about the dense narrative I've just picked for you, think about this: she owns a pirate! Lost dogs and cats, I get that... but she owns a pirate. Are we talking slavery, or is it my-best-friend? What's going on there?
And that's just a kid's book, that's just a title of a kid's book. You start thinking about what's capable when you think of a novel, um, Gogol's Dead Souls. I am separated as an American in the 21st century, only able to speak fluently in English. I am separated by a vast distance from the author of that book, right? A Russian two-hundred years ago. We are mediated through a translator, yet even then, when I read Dead Souls, it is laugh-out-loud funny. And that is an incredible, incredible thing. We take poetry: for example, I just reread "A Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy. It's basically a poem about a guy talking a walk in the winter, and he hears a bird. But every time I read that book, I have to pause and ponder it again, it's just that powerful.
Now, the curse of mortality is: we get one life, one point of view, and a single point in time at most. If we're lucky, we know a few languages to access to world and understand it. But writing cheats that because we read stories, we write stories, we can experience a vast number. And it's hard when you think about that. That this writing, these stories we tell, isn't magic.
Now I'll give you one further example; science is a very methodical task. You build a hypothesis, you test that hypothesis, you refine it, you test it again, it's very methodical. You build it brick by brick, and at no point, at any step, is it not necessarily followed by the previous steps. But in writing— although it is a methodical task— you spend a lot of time on your own, staring at a ceiling, deleting yesterday's work. But at a certain point, the alchemy begins. And what you want the characters to do— if you've done your job right— what you want the characters to do at this point in time while you're writing doesn't matter. What dictates their reactions, the way they talk to the other characters, is by the previous ten thousand, twenty thousand words. I've only experienced this a few times, but every time I do that, it is an absolute wonder and a magic to me. So it's through these reasons, despite being a very earnest child, being trained as a scientist, that I still believe writing is magic.