On Building Planes that Fly Backwards

After a long and frustrating and anxiety-ridden 2020, I think everyone is hoping to start fresh with 2021. Unfortunately, it looks like things will be more of the same for a while, so it is up to us to take what inspiration we can from the start of a new year.

This year, I’ve begun by trying to develop a meditation practice that I’d largely given up a couple years ago, and continuing to try and read more. I am usually very skeptical about habits that are begun at the start of a new year, but I started this one a few days before Christmas so maybe it’ll stick.

That’s not the point of my writing, though. The point is, in part, to get another post out. It’s been awfully long and not much has happened. I am going to try to become more diligent about writing down post ideas that come to mind and making something of them. Oftentimes they’ve got a way of appearing and disappearing and being lost forever. The more salient point, though, is to comment on some musings I’ve been having.

While listening to a recent podcast provided through the “Waking Up” meditation app, I was thinking about the nature of imagination and it occurred to me that one of the reasons imagination becomes so much more difficult to conjure as we get older is that we understand so much better how the world works. In the podcast, the interviewee, Loch Kelly, was discussiong consciousness and the functioning of the human mind. When discussing the functions of the mind and how thoughts appear and how consciousness may be a necessary result of a high-functioning brain, he drew the comparison to a child watching a plane. He made the point that if you ask a child to imagine the plane flying backwards, he or she probably could. However, the more a person learns about the mechanics of flight, the more and more improbable it is that such a person can imagine a plane that flies backwards.

This immediately struck a chord with me and I related it back to worldbuilding in the science fiction and fantasy contexts. I remember as a child that I could believe almost anything. The classic show “Rugrats” (and before that, “Muppet Babies”) made it a running gag. Kids have wild ideas, unteathered by the confines of things like physics and history and economics and cause and effect. It’s amazing how much of that we lose.

When I write, I start with an idea. In my current project, which is untilted and began life as a short story called only “The Carriage Ride”, the idea was “What would it be like in a world which is post-post apocalypse–where society has already passed those initial stages of falling apart and coming back online, but where a lot of what was once known has become lost.” And then I hit the ground running.

For some people, that may be good enough. But the more you start to look at things, the more you begin to see places where if you think about it, the plane is flying backwards. How does this place have water? How does the city planning function? What are sources of economic growth? How did the people in power get in power? And how did they stay in power?

When I’m writing, I find that the ideas come fast and easy, but they often take some massaging to ensure they really hold up. And designing an entire history? Well that’s divine if you can do it, but I have a continuing fear that if I dig too deep, I’ll find that the whole thing has been built around a sort of fundamental logical error that will invalidate the whole damn thing.

I’d love to have a deep metaphysical punchline to this, but I don’t. Just frustration and maybe a little melanchonly. The best I can offer is this: don’t be too hard on yourself. Build the best plane you can, get it up to speed, and cross your fingers. And if you can search out and find the wonder of a child, tap into it all you can.

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