I hated history at school (except for the drawing, I liked some of that, especially the diagrams of motte-and-bailey castles). I was utterly bored with the endless lists of English monarchs, the sleep-inducing accounts of meaningless wars and tedious revolutions and labour marches within which no one thing related to anything else, much less to my life at the time. I slowly drowned in an ocean of free-swimming facts.
Later in life, I started picking up history books again, this time for a purpose. The novel I was working on required me to research a number of historical periods ranging from early neolithic times through the Roman Empire, all the way up to the Victorian era. While I was reading, it dawned on me that all the disparate dots joined up. History isn’t a series of islands in a river. History is the river.
It was a revelation. I’d always assumed that in school I’d been given the wrong pieces of the puzzle. If only they’d teach me the stuff I was really interested in, maybe I’d stand a chance. I was wrong. It was never about the individual pieces. I’d just never seen the picture on the front of the box.
It was a useful lesson, for this writer at least. If history is all about context, you can be damned sure story is too. Take a good novel: everything’s connected, isn’t it? All the dots join up. In the very best novels of all, you get the sense that the lives of its characters extend beyond the mere covers of the book. The hero hasn’t just been hanging around on page one, waiting for you to start reading; he’s been busy living his life. For him, page one isn’t a beginning; it’s just another landing place on the bank of the river.
That’s how I got interested in the big picture, and one reason I’m addicted to writing stories. If writers were photographers, they’d be the guys with the biggest zoom lens of all, the one that lets you not only focus right in on the grain of the text, cropping tight so as to make every syllable sing, but also lets you go as wide as you like, expanding way beyond the panorama and fish-eye settings all the way out to some theoretical Hubble Deep Field view where you see the shape of the entire story, its relationship with the fictional world inside which it exists, and with the real world beyond that. A state of combined narrative and optical grace in which you can see everything.
I’ve recently become fascinated with the work of the Long Now Foundation, whose purpose is ‘to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.’ The Foundation was established in the year 01996. (That extra zero is less a numeral and more a mission statement, existing as it does ‘to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years’.)
The foundation’s two most prominent undertakings are the 10,000 Year Clock (an immense timekeeping device currently being built inside a mountain in west Texas) and the Rosetta Project (a publicly accessible digital library of all human languages). It also runs events and seminars and, oh, a ton of other stuff. All the while it keeps its lens firmly on the widest setting, expanding its vision beyond the fleeting concerns of fashion, politics and all the other frippery that comes and goes with insect-speed. If its aim can be summed up at all, it’s to keep its eyes on the big picture.
I think that’s a valuable thing to do, not just in writing, but in living our ordinary lives. It’s not always easy but, hey, it’s something to shoot for.
To find out more about the Long Now Foundation visit their website. Before you do that, however, I recommend reading this excellent article (PDF) on the foundation by author Michael Chabon.