If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.


If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.

On Creativity, Storytelling and Life

It was the London Book Fair earlier this month and the week coincided nicely with the launch of the Art of War paperback, which meant I got to have breakfast with my editor, a very wonderful, inspiring individual who is also the publisher of Transworld. It’s not until you’ve been behind the scenes that you realise that the Publishers are gods: they make the decisions that make things happen, they sow the vision of what is possible, they reap the rewards, we hope, in sales.  Some gods are functional, some are inspiring: mine is one of the latter.

In the heart of a wide-ranging discussion, he enthused about a book he’d published recently, ‘Creativity, Inc.’ by Ed Catmull, the co-founder (with Steve Jobs and John Lassiter) of Pixar – and now Pixar and Disney – the animation studio which was first to bring a fully computer-animated film to the cinemas.   His book is an autobiography of a kind, and given this is the man who brought texture mapping to the world, the plain detail of how he did it would be fascinating enough to those of us with a geek-absorbed mentality.  But it’s far more than that.  In the course of one volume, Catmull explores the nature of creativity, what it is to make something raw, from ideas that collide and spark of new ideas – and more even than that, he outlines how he and the others fostered the creative spark at Pixar, how they created an environment where everyone was free to do what s/he did best, where everyone pulled together, where creativity genuinely became a group process.

It’s an utterly inspiring book and if we can’t all work for Pixar (and there is a bit of all of us that will want to, I think, long before we get through this) then at least we can work with other people who find the concepts outlined in here utterly inspiring and want to make them work.

And so, because I do work with people who find these concepts inspiring ( Jen Toksvig, introduced me to Open Space Technology, which was also a source of mind-blowing inspiration in the same week), I’ve been thinking about creativity, and the nature of creation,and storytelling, and life…

And it seems to me that for almost all of human evolution (leave now, please, if you don’t believe in evolution), we have sat around fires in the semi-dark and listened while women and men wove stories of women and men we could admire, or not admire, but learn from.  We listened to the words and we built lives in our heads of people we might never have met, never seen, never before imagined.  And they became real to us, and entered our dreams and our waking lives, and we learned more of what it was to be human.

And then we invented writing and began the journey where black marks on white paper were translated by the alchemy of writing into those same lives in our heads, of women and men we might admire, or not admire, but learn from.  And in the beginning, we read those things aloud to each other, so that reading, too, was communal.

Then, really very recently, we changed and reading became a solitary occupation.  But then we invented moving pictures, and once again, the process of immersing in a story became communal, and we shared the wonder of a powerful narrative.   Then we invented computer games, which have their own narrative, however clunky, and the immersion in story became solitary again… until computing power evolved and we were able to share that story across the world in the Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs to those of us who like aconyms).

The evolution of the silicone mind meant that we could create animated movies, too – and good people, who understood how our hearts worked, were able to create moving storylines out of dots on a screen.

And now, it seems to me, we’re on the threshold of being able to merge the active imagination of a book, with the utterly compelling, addictiveness of the best games, and the communal experience of a movie/film.  I am not sure entirely what form that will take, but it feels to me that’s it’s on the horizon, waiting to be born and that when it is, it could alter the nature of humanity.  This may be because I’ve just finished reading The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams , a particularly prescient book by a particularly prescient writer (the immediate predecessor in the series predicted the moment when Turkey banned Twitter with remarkable accuracy) that provides a dry, witty, fascinating look into Hollywood’s underbelly while at the same time showing what games – and the NSA – are capable of doing. But I don’t think it’s just that.  We’re hovering on the edge of the technological singularity.  When the idea was first mooted, those who believed in it said that 2014 would be the point when we (humanity) would design and build the computer that could design and build its own successor – at which point we become redundant in the evolution of intelligence, and the silicone mind will expand on an exponential curve.

What is left then, is the mind game which asks what is it that makes humanity unique – and every time this has been asked, the consensus has been that it’s our creativity that sets us apart, not our ability to balance a hedge fund (creative tho’ that might be) or fight wars (ditto) or fawn over celebrity.  What makes us worthwhile is the not-yet-real things we can make in our heads, and invest with such passion that they feel more real than the world around us.

So we need to do more of this. In all ways, we need to do it more: with words, with images, with music, with our bodies and our souls, and with our dreams.

All of which is why I am currently writing a book which has no obvious niche, which steps so far off the curve of what I’ve been writing so far that it’s on another horizon (tho’ those of you who got the dreaming in the Boudica:dreaming series will get this, if only because it’s an obvious evolution of my own spiritual exploration).  With every new book, we come back to the terror and tyranny and absolute mind-blowing potential of the blank page, and we see what grows on it, which is often not at all what we’d planned. I have no doubt that I’ll settle back on track when I’ve had the necessary meetings with agent/editor and we’ve looked at the three outlines I sent them -any one of which (or none) could easily be the book to follow INTO THE FIRE. But in the meantime, there’s an amazing, exhilarating wild kind of magic in facing the blank page and coming up with something utterly unexpected – which is what creativity is all about.  Long may it continue.

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