Beta Culture: Drowning Puppies So You Don’t Get Dogs

I’m a professional editor. I’m also a professional writer. I can tell you which one is easiest: Editing.

When I sit down to a blank screen and have to write, oh boy, is it a challenge. Normally I write with what I call “the fire.” I might wake up in the morning with a … well, call it a shape in my head, the shape of an essay or short story, and I can sit down and write the entire first draft in no time at all.

When I don’t have the creative fire – annoyingly, it seems to come less often as I get older – writing is like shoveling dirt. Every word comes hard. The whole piece, whatever it is I’m writing on, is a beastly chore. Ugh. It’s so laborious that sometimes I walk away from it. And sometimes I never come back.

But editing! Oh man. Whether it’s my own work or somebody else’s, I can gleefully wade in, slashing, burning, chopping, wielding the machete of my editing skills to shape what is already there. No back-breaking creativity required!

But even editing requires this certain sensitivity to the creative act: You have to hold yourself back, maintain the awareness that you’re participating in building something, rather than tearing something down. In other words, the gleeful slashing has to be controlled. Aimed at bettering the thing you’re working on. You’re not a 5-year-old leaping into a roomful of Lego towers with a baseball bat, you’re a co-builder, there to correct, to fix, to HELP CREATE.

Editing is sculpture rather than demolition. Body-building rather than murder. Shaping, polishing, enhancing, bringing out the best of the sketchy, raw effort you’re handed.

To switch tracks for a moment:

I still remember how delighted I was in my youth when I came across the idea of brainstorming.

Are you familiar with it? Brainstorming is when you get a bunch of people together to come up with creative solutions, or just new ideas, and then evaluate them according to some eventual aim.

It’s a two-step process. First you generating ideas and options. Second – and separately! – you evaluate, critique and refine them.

It’s a lot like writing and editing. It works only when the initial creative process is allowed a certain amount of free rein, ample time to generate the ideas before the critiquing and criticizing kicks in.

One of the magazines I worked at, we had this problem we were trying to solve – how to save money so we could stay in business. I suggested we brainstorm our way to solutions. I got the core crew into the conference room – the owner/publisher, the illustrator/designer, the page layout guy, the ad sales lady, and me-the-editor – and briefly described the brainstorming process to them. “Remember it only works if you separate both steps,” I said. “First you create, then you critique. In this first meeting, we will only generate new ideas. We’ll list the ideas, I’ll print out a copy for everybody, and we’ll come back in a few days to talk about them. The aim in this first meeting is to COME UP with ideas, NOT to critique them. Quantity first, quality later.”

The meeting started with me throwing out the first idea: “Let the building cool down to just above freezing at night, then begin warming back up at 6 a.m. so it’s ready when we come in at 7.”

My thinking? That it was silly to heat the entire cavernous building all night long (this was winter, obviously). We’d cut the energy cost by 25 percent or more. A new programmable thermostat to make this possible would cost something, but it would be a one-time cost. The savings from it would go on and on.

The publisher jumped in with a smile. “That won’t work. When the furnace kicks back on in the morning, it’ll have to heat the whole building from almost-freezing, and you’d burn up anything you saved by having it off at night.”

No, I tried to explain, if you take the average temperature of the building over any 24 hour period, it will obviously be lower with the heating-off-at-night model, and that translates into substantial energy savings. If the average daily temperature is 10 degrees lower, you’d save thousands of dollars over the year. He wasn’t haven’t any of it, and we got bogged down in that discussion for a good 20 minutes.

That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the session. Whatever good ideas might have come out of the creative group gathered around the table were killed by timidity in the face of the boss’s blithely resistant criticism.

Though the meeting went on for the full hour, I’d mentally thrown up my hands in the first ten minutes. At the end of the meeting I dispiritedly handed the publisher the notes I’d prepared for the session, more than 70 of my own ideas, thirty pages of ideas.

Guess how many solutions the meeting generated? Zero. Not one single idea was put into practice, not one penny was saved. We might as well have sat there talking about the weather. We never tried brainstorming again.

As for Beta Culture, we’re in that same sort of brainstorming phase. I’ll be speaking on the subject at Eschaton2012 in Ottawa at the end of November, presenting the idea in public for the first time (outside my little blog, here, anyway).

Afterward, I hope to talk about it in a LOT of places, spreading the concept and enlisting aid to get the ball rolling. At some point, there will be a book, a website, local groups, large-scale crowd-sourcing, a creative buzz roiling with possibilities. And then … something magnificent and new will begin to take shape.

It’s a puppy of an idea at present, and I know it. Something little and clumsy, with rumpled fur, maybe a little bit stinky, somewhat silly as it stumbles its way into the daylight. But also, I hope, something happily magnetic. Something that makes you want to pick it up and study it for its hidden possibilities. Something that makes you want to snuggle it and unconsciously think “I like this little guy! Let’s keep him and feed him and train him! I want him in my life. I want to see what he grows up to be.”

That effort, which I picture as eventually worldwide, will require the good-natured, well-intentioned early creative input of hundreds, then thousands of people. Creators. Sculptors. Architects of this new cultural concept. Both idea people and critics who understand that the goal is to build.

I know there will be some large portion of “That won’t work because …” and that’s complete understandable. We’re all editors of the ideas and personalities around us, and some of us are not always aware of whatever larger goal might be included in each new endeavor. I’m guilty of it myself on occasion. And certainly every new thing deserves a liberal amount of critical study.

What I hope, though, is that there will be enough of the brainstorming desire among the people the idea is meant to appeal to, a willingness among them (us!) to say “Hey, cool idea! Let’s have fun with it, see what we can come up with!” to keep it alive through its stumbly, gawky puppy years.

Because at some point, I think we atheists and humanists and progressives, we environmentalists and war-resisters, we fans of freedom and social justice and economic opportunity, we people who want to actually survive on crumbling Planet Earth, are going to very much wish we had a loving, protective Big Dog on our side.

  • machintelligence

    *Disclaimer* This is going to come across as a plug for Destination Imagination, a creative problem solving competition. In fact it is, but it is a program that teaches kids about how to be creative. */Disclaimer*

    How do you teach creativity? And more importantly, how can you do it in such a way as to have kids like it? One way is to make it into a team sport, and to keep the adults on the sidelines. Destination Imagination (an offshoot of Odyssey of the Mind, a smaller but still active program) is doing just that. Each year there are “challenges” in various fields (technical, scientific, artistic performance, improvisation, and structures) that are solved by teams of students from elementary through college level. The solutions must be entirely done by the kids, since outside interference by adults or non team members results in penalties and lower scores.
    The teams are taught brainstorming skills along with how to work together to solve problems. Most important, they are allowed to fail. Not all solutions prove to be workable, and sometimes it is necessary to back up and start over, sometimes all the way to the beginning. Since no team is expected to “reinvent the wheel” teaching of skills is encouraged, but the teams have to do all of the design and building themselves.
    There is a second element of problem solving as well: thinking on your feet. This is the Instant Challenge part of the competition, where the team is presented with a new and less involved challenge that they have to solve in under ten minutes.
    Colorado is a hotbed of DI activity with over 900 teams statewide and 50+ teams going to the Global Finals in Tennessee last year. I have been with the program in various capacities for 20 years and I believe it is a great way to encourage independent thinking and teamwork. I like to think we are generating the basis for Beta Culture.
    http://www.destinationimagination.org/

  • F

    From the example, there was one idea left: Fire the owner/publisher, and find someone with more flexible thinking and a better business model. The deeply entrenched can be very self-destructive.

    • Hank Fox

      F, I did fire him! I went job hunting a few months later when I was on vacation, found a job that paid a LOT more and required fewer than the 60 hours a week I was working for this guy, then went back and gave notice.

  • dgrasett

    I have already adopted your puppy. And I love brainstorming. The separation concept is EXCELLENT!!. Lets do that thing.
    Appoint someone (or several) to wield a newspaper to stop the criticism.
    Newspapers/puppy, right?
    Are you still looking for a hat? A special hat?

    • Hank Fox

      The “special hat” is going to be part of my talk! I expect it to take decades to make THAT decision.

  • Ysanne

    Hank,
    I know that this is a tangent, but the question of whether it is more economical to keep the temperature up in a building overnight or not is one that can be properly modelled and calculated using ordinary differential equations, which take into account the insulation etc. What I really agree to is that there’s no need to waste and ruin everyone’s motivation by discussing opinions on a question that has an actual right-or-wrong answer.

    • machintelligence

      You believe in right-or-wrong answers? Where is your sense of postmodernism? */snark*

  • lcaution

    Editing is indeed, imo, easier than writing but good editing is still hard. A good editor enhances the writer’s voice. A bad editor replaces the writer’s voice with his/her own. An awful editor changes the content as well as the voice.


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