Cargo Cult Writing

Cargo Cult WritingI had a shakeup recently due to some personal stuff and I broke the gigantic writing streak I had going. I skipped writing for a number of days and lost my discipline in a number of other habits that I have been cultivating. I was amazed to find, though, that my streak was all that broke. My book didn’t break. The world didn’t end. My need to write didn’t extinguish immediately. My love of words didn’t crumble to dust.

I had come to rely so completely on my routine to push this book out that I started to think that it was the routine that was doing the work and not me.

There is a concept known as cargo cult science. Richard Feynman introduced it in a speech awhile back (I love Richard Feynman…here, go listen to him talk about how rubber bands work).

Feynman was talking about science when he introduced the cargo cult concept, but it’s pretty fascinating and it applies to many fields.

Basically there were tribes on various islands during World War II that were isolated from civilization. And on some of these islands there were temporary military airbases set up. So these tribesmen watched soldiers lay out a runway, and set up a control tower, and then watched as planes began to land. And these planes brought amazing things to the island in their bellies, and some of those amazing things made their way to the tribesmen via trade.

And then the war ended and the airbases were discontinued and goodbyes were said and the tribesmen were alone again.

Here’s where it gets weird.

The tribesmen missed the riches that were brought in by planes, and so they decided to bring the planes back.

They had no idea what the planes were, really. They had no idea where they had come from, or the vast networks of goods and services that had created the stuff they liked so much, or how it had been shipped to these airbases.

They just knew that the planes came and the goodies arrived.

And, from their point of view, the planes had come because the soldiers had built a runway and set up an air tower.

So what did they do?

They built a runway and set up an air tower…out of bamboo and coconuts.

They had a guy up in their bamboo tower with coconut headphones talking to someone, because the soldiers had put a guy up in a tower talking to someone.

Cargo CultThey had a guy on the runway directing things around with brightly painted sticks, because the

soldiers had put a guy on the runway to direct things around with brightly painted sticks.

They had a guy monitoring the wind by looking at a piece of cloth tied to a bamboo pole, because the soldiers had a guy to monitor the wind by looking at a piece of cloth on a pole.

These proceedings basically became a religious rite, a sacred dance, an intricate movement of people and signals that, they thought, would summon the cargo airplanes again with their bellies full of goods.

Obviously the planes they were hoping to summon never arrived.

The point?

The point is that it is nice sometimes to remember where the cargo comes from and how it gets there. It’s great to have an intricate system set up to facilitate its arrival, but it’s also important to remember that even if your runway and control tower get blown to hell for some reason, that doesn’t mean the goods that were being loaded onto the plane have disappeared.

And, going the other way, it’s pretty important to remember at times that the point isn’t to mimic the proceedings that have produced writing in the past.

It’s not the mimicry of odd practices that brings about stories, it’s the writing itself.

Routines are fantastic and they enable us to take on mammoth tasks by breaking them into small pieces which can be tackled each day. But for someone who is trying to pull a totally new world into this one, sometimes sitting far away from the computer and coloring with crayons while thinking about the universe can be a much needed change of pace.

Shaking up your routine isn’t going to break your writing. It will just break your routine.

And sometimes that’s not bad.

Now, seriously, scroll back to the top and click on that link and watch Richard Feynman talk about rubber bands.