Probabilistic Fiction

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“The universe is not deterministic; it is probabilistic, and the future can’t be determined with certainty.”

–Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How it Drives Science

The best book about writing that I’ve read recently isn’t a book about writing at all; it’s about science. In Ignorance, Columbia neuroscientist Stuart Firestein challenges the prevailing view of science as answer-driven; instead he encourages a much less orderly view of scientific inquiry, questioning the permanence of facts, the tyranny of coherence, and our fear of ignorance. He writes that the scientific goal should be to think about “ignorance and how to make it grow, not shrink,” by asking good questions and pursuing them until they produce further questions.

A natural interdisciplinarian who spent twenty years in theater before obtaining his PhD (his research focuses on olfaction, the sense of smell), Firestein credits his writing group, made up of both neuroscientists and Columbia MFA nonfiction students, with helping him workshop Ignorance into the accessible and compelling book that it is.

When I read this book with the incoming class of the Ohio University Honors Tutorial College, as we’ve done the past two years, it provides a great opportunity to reassess how we think about science, of course, and to appreciate the nature of open-ended inquiry more generally. But Firestein also has a lot to teach us about how we might approach writing. Many of my students are in the habit of thinking about writing in a way that Firestein might categorize as deterministic—i.e., they know what they want to say before they begin writing, and know how to select evidence that backs up their argument. The essay, then, becomes an apparatus to support conclusions they have reached long before the writing process even begins.

What’s lacking in this approach (though it has worked for many of them over and over again), is a sense of uncertainty, of discovery. It can be effective, but at the same time, it’s limited. It’s writing that provides answers but often never asks real questions. To have writing be a true process of discovery—one that leads to learning on the part of the reader and the writer, we need to embrace the notion of writing probabilistically.

What does this mean, and how do we do it? Based on Firestein’s analysis of science, I put together a loose set of principles for my students to help them think about the tendencies of writing from these two starting points. The goal is less to privilege one approach over the other (though I certainly have my preferences), and more to open up the writing process to allow more variation and surprise.

Characteristics of Writing Deterministically

–Has a clear sense of the thesis before writing starts

–Has a clear sense of structure

–Often works from a tightly constructed outline

–Can sometimes select only evidence that confirms thesis

–Can sometimes interpret evidence in a narrow or predetermined way

–Can lack spontaneity or creativity

–Can sometimes be limited only to small improvements in revision process

Characteristics of Writing Probabilistically

–May have only a vague idea of thesis before writing starts

–May struggle to develop clear structure

–Often works from a loose assemblage of notes or phrases

–Is open to a wide range of evidence

–Is willing to go “where the evidence takes you”

–Embraces spontaneity and creative approaches to the project

–Requires recursive and intensive editing process

As you can see, each of these starting points has its benefits and challenges, and each can influence the other in useful ways. One cannot write entirely probabilistically, of course, anymore than one can write entirely deterministically. I encourage my students to see these approaches as existing on a spectrum, rather than being diametrically opposed. There are plenty of times when we need to draw on our deterministic selves as writers; when we gain confidence in an idea, the focus and structure of writing straight toward that idea can help us pursue it with clarity. But at the same time we must constantly reassess the value of what we’re saying. Is there some way our idea can be nuanced, pushed a little to the side, opened up to reveal new angles—or perhaps even discarded in favor of something slightly better?

Writing probabilistically becomes even more important, I would argue, for those of us working in creative writing. Fiction writers, especially—who after all, can invent whatever they might need to make a story work—can benefit from remembering that putting together a story is all about adjusting based on the probabilities. As the story evolves, we must constantly reassess. How has this character changed from my initial (inevitably more limited) conception? How does that change the choices he or she is likely to make? And how can less likely—but still possible—choices open the story to new ground and new opportunities?ignorance

Many of my beginning fiction students believe that once they’ve figured out the ending to a story, they are ready to begin writing. But those of us with more experience know the traps involved in that kind of thinking. Writing toward a preconceived ending—writing deterministically, in other words—can help you finish a draft. But it can just as quickly lead to airless, overly managed stories. Only by opening up the story, again and again, can we really find its territory. Probabilistic fiction, so to speak.

There is a pleasing line of uncertainty that runs all the way from scientists like Firestein to artists and writers at the seemingly opposite end of the disciplinary spectrum. In The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young writes, “At any moment the poet must be ready to abandon any prior intention in welcome expectation of what the poem is beginning to signal.” Let the social scientist revel in the outliers, the data that skews and redirects the graph. Let the sculptor honor the cracks as they appear in the wood. Let us all shimmer in the possibilities.


One thought on “Probabilistic Fiction”

  1. Tantra Bensko says:

    Absolutely agree with this.

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