Creative writing and software development (part 2)

More about the creation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven as he himself delineates it in The Philosophy of Composition (see Creative writing and software development (part 1).) As I read it, I thought about the tendency towards seeing software development as a purely rational activity. Although you might get the impression from reading Poe’s essay that he’s incredibly rational, what he describes is, in fact, an exploratory process in which I’d say his intuition plays a significant role. It can be seen as an attempt to create a solid framework around a contemplative process. It’s think that while some people thrive on fuzziness, others do need such support from a clearly defined process.

I also read an interview with Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman, who would fall into the “fuzzy” category. She works for several years with each book, having to first wait for images and ideas to come to her. She says that deadlines don’t work for her, that things can’t be rushed. She also talked about how she used cut-out paper clouds in different colors to represent ideas that might make it into the book. She stuck them onto a piece of cardboard on the wall, so she can shift them around. As she turns an idea into text, she replaces the cloud with a square; I guess this helps her visualize the progress. This is probably an attempt to concretize something that is very vague and unclear; she said that writing novels that are as structured as hers requires planning. At the end of the interview she said that it’s impossible to describe the process – that it comes out seeming as more rational as it actually is – it isn’t a linear process, she said.

Then I read an excerpt from Stephen King’s On Writing, where he writes something that was repeated by several interviewed writers in the book: that good stories write themselves. He described writing as something resembling archaeology, where the story already is there, but you have to dig it out of the ground yourself. In order to do it quickly, you need blunt tools that do a lot of damage to the find; with fine tools, however, the story is gently excavated, but it takes time. He also writes that his books seldom turn out the way he thought they would at the beginning: the story turns out to be something else, and the characters seem to take on lives of their own. But the fact that he doesn’t know what a book will be isn’t something that keeps him from starting to work on it.

Lastly, I read an essay by Swedish writer Torbjörn Flygt, who wrote about the importance of structure in the work: the more rigidly structured and planned the text is, the more freedom in writing the prose. This suggested the importance of a powerful metaphor, or common vision, for the system being developed, giving freedom to the individual team members. Individual freedom is something very powerful, if the team has a common goal. Contrast this with a team that simply executes a very finely detailed architecture and design, created by a master planner.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on January 3, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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