Complex Machines

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


After nearly twenty years flying for the Navy, I'm pretty used to the reaction when people learn I'm a pilot.  The general flavor of the response varies from mild reverence to downright aww-shucks-I-jus'-met-a-rockstar astonishment. 

It's easy to understand why.  Airplanes and helicopters are complex machines, constructed of literally thousands of components designed to hold together, create lift, produce thrust, and, for some larger aircraft, convey several hundred thousand pounds of passengers, fuel, and cargo into the heavens--to travel thousands of miles and touchdown with nary a scratch at a distant airfield at the other end. 

I suppose people figure any guy or gal who knows how to safely operate that kind of equipment must have half a clue.

On the other hand, tell someone you're a writer or you want to be a writer--I don't have a lot of experience with this one yet, but I think I've got a reasonable sense of it--and you get a very different reaction.  Unless you're on the New York Times Best Seller List, or had your latest novel made into a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon and Kate Beckinsale (or whoever the latest Hollywood A-listers are), you aren't likely to get much of a reaction at all.  Perhaps some mild interest, perhaps a few questions about who you write like, or a comment about the horrible novels the questioner was forced to read in high school or college. 

Don't get me wrong.  People LOVE writers; they're just not all that impressed when they meet one on the street.

I think this is wrong.  Here's why: take a look at these two pictures. 





Which one--an aircraft or typewriter--do you think is more difficult to operate?

By now, you've probably figured out what I'm gonna say.  The answer IMHO is that the typewriter is more difficult to operate--especially when writing fiction.

Before you decide I'm off my rocker, let me fill you in on my logic.  Sure, there are two million switches in that there cockpit, and what the hell are all those dials for?  I mean--just look at it!  It looks like something out of Star Wars or something.  That's what you're thinking, right?

Then there's the lowly typewriter--now grownup into a computer.  Forty-eight keys--give or take--and the durn thing don't even need electricity!  What could be simpler?

But I tell ya, I've been flying for nearly twenty years and writing fiction on and off for ten.  What I've learned in that time is that, when flying an airplane, all those gages and dials are telling me where to go.  The entire inside of an aircraft cockpit is designed to feed as much information to the pilot as possible, and pilots are generally talking to ground control on the radio to get directions on their next heading, altitude or frequency change.  As complex as it looks, in practice the whole process is pretty much paint by numbers.

But sit in front of a typewriter and figure out where to go next.  The typewriter gives you no information.  If you think the inside of an aircraft cockpit is intimidating, consider a blank page when you're writing fiction on deadline.  What's the next thing to happen in your story?  What does your MC do?  Geez, it ain't easy!  :D

That's why I think writers should get more respect.  And that's why I'm in this game.  Writing fiction is, hands down, the hardest thing I've ever done--and that's why I'm still trying to get on paper the stories I've been carrying around in my head all these years.

So what do you think about my little theory?  Met any really cool writers recently?  How do you measure the complexity of writing fiction against your day job?  :D

7 bolts from the blue:

DL Hammons said...

I LOVE this post!!!! Well stated and eloquently argued. You must be a writer, because I follow your logic. :)

Agnes said...

Some people (writers) make it look so easy. Pilots too. They know what they are doing so it looks easy to the rest of us. Richie Sambora and Eric Clapton play the guitar like it's no big deal. I think getting to a point where it's "effortless", where you are so familiar with your instrument/techniques that it's all truly part of you, takes a LOT of hard work and practice.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

And since I've been around pilots most of my life, I do have to admire the ability of the good ones.
Even as a published author, I get more questions about my day job than my book. You're right, low respect.

Jon Paul said...

Thanks DL! I appreciate the compliment!

Agnes--You're absolutely right. In fact, after feeling so comfortable with flying all these years, learning to make writing a part of my life is one of the big challenges I've been facing lately.

Alex--Yeah, and I think it's totally backwards, right? People just don't understand the hard work, vision and perseverance needed to write a novel, let alone get it published.

Thanks compadres for stopping in!

Liza said...

This is so true! Fantastic JP. Even though people know I am an aspiring writer, when I am not working at my paying job people say: "What are you going to do today Liza?" Now I just tell them, "I'm going home to write." That tends to put an end to all conversation.

Jon Paul said...

Liza--Yep! And I find myself wondering why that is. Are we writers just such a different breed of creature that 'normal' people can't relate, or is it simply that people don't feel they can chat about with any real level of knowledge.

It's very weird, since writing is all around us and such a part of daily life--yet the people who produce that writing are many times kept at a certain distance.

Things that make you go 'hmm' indeed! :D

FurnaceGirl said...

Speaking as a non-writer (or 'normal' person, as Jon has put it :P ) I think he's right. It can be a little difficult for us to relate and really 'get' what writing is about in a way that we can 'get' what being a pilot, for example, is about. Those of us less creative people have a harder time wrapping our heads around the whole writing process and the amount of work and energy that goes into it.

This is not to say that writing isn't an exceptional thing to do, I think Jon's comparison in this post is spot on. Flying a plane just seems more glamorous because there is a sense of danger in failure at the task however, when you get down to it, writing is much more of a challenge and carries quite a bit of potential to crash and burn.

Waddaya wanna say?

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