Know Your White Rabbit

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little," said Agnes de Mille, the great American choreographer.  "The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”


Yet oftentimes we find a way to compensate by journeying into the dark with a crutch. When facing down a blank screen, a looming deadline, a vacillating client, a creative person will likely turn to something for support. I’m not talking about coffee or other performance enhancers, or a team of interns. The crutch is the thing that jump-starts the creative process, ushers one through the entry-point of excitement.

We often get into trouble when we forget to remove it from the final product. It may have helped us brainstorm and kept us company in the dark. But to the audience that will consume the work, the crutch sticks out, an unnecessary distraction.  Don’t forget to thank your crutch and put it away. You may never see it again, and that's the point.

How do you identify the crutch in your work? It’s the noisy thing that’s giving you the most trouble in the editing process, and raising questions again and again from those tasked with reviewing your work. It's the "quietest parts" of our stories--the elements that don't receive extensive feedback from others--that we should listen to and eventually let lead us. If that doesn't work, the final warning sign is the number of head-banged-against-the-wall attempts to make the crutch fit with the vital whole. The whole is healthy, and doesn’t need the crutch; take it away.

Last night, I discussed the topic of a crutch outlasting its purpose with an accomplished illustrator working on a graphic novel. He’s having a rough time getting his latest project off the ground and ran the story by me. Right away I could tell which elements of the story were there for me—the audience—and which were there for him, keeping him company in the dark as he worked. I told him to cut the meandering overcomplicated bits, streamline his story, and kill off what is not essential yet fun, to him.  

The novelist Zadie Smith gave a now famous lecture at Columbia University about her process for writing novels that includes advice on this same issue. She calls “the crutch” scaffolding. (One could even call it following the White Rabbit—it’s the adventures and singing flowers and mad Red Queen that make the story; the White Rabbit just gets us there. (As much as we love the White Rabbit, Alice's story would be the same if she simply fell down a rabbit hole. (Yes, I know the White Rabbit is awesome, but thinking about him is my crutch for remembering not to take my crutches so seriously and to eventually remove them from my work. (Well then, shall we continue?)))) Here is Smith’s brilliant plea to remove the scaffolding/crutch/White Rabbit from your work, once it's no longer needed:

When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it. Each time I’ve written a long piece of fiction I’ve felt the need for an enormous amount of scaffolding. With me, scaffolding comes in many forms. The only way to write this novel is to divide it into three sections of ten chapters each. Or five sections of seven chapters. Or the answer is to read the Old Testament and model each chapter on the books of the prophets. Or the divisions of the Bhagavad Gita. Or the Psalms. Or Ulysses. Or the songs of Public Enemy. Or the films of Grace Kelly. Or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or the liner notes to The White Album. Or the 27 speeches Donald Rumsfeld gave to the press corps during his tenure.

Scaffolding holds up confidence when you have none, reduces the despair, creates a goal—however artificial—an end point. Use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, you infinitely extend the distance you need to go.

Later, when the book is printed and old and dog-eared, it occurs to me that I really didn’t need any of that scaffolding. The book would have been far better off without it. But when I was putting it up, it felt vital, and once it was there, I’d worked so hard to get it there I was loath to take it down. If you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later. Or if you’re determined to leave it out there for all to see, at least hang a nice façade over it, as the Romans do when they fix up their palazzi.

Image Credit: SammyDavisDog/Flickr

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.