As a novelist married to a software engineer, I’m often struck by how opposite we are. The most glaring difference is that my husband’s computer screen is a jungle of coded symbols, while mine is a maze of thorny paragraphs.
Then there’s the grand divide in our daily habits. When it’s my turn to cook, I hastily start throwing food into pans and only then realize I’m out of three crucial ingredients. Dan does up weekly menus that include what to do with leftovers, and even prints out spreadsheets for meals with more than two courses. I do stand-up comedy for fun, but he relaxes by mixing martinis and binge watching apocalyptic zombie shows.
Yet, the longer we’re married, the more I realize that we are, in fact, more similar than different in how we work. Dan writes software, then tests and refines it, fixing bugs along the way. Sometimes he’ll think of a way to make it work better and will rewrite entire sections. Then he’ll test the code again before putting it up for review by his colleagues, who will no doubt see problem areas and get him to refine it even more.
Like Dan, as I write a draft of a book, I trim overgrown sentences, plant new words, or compost entire chapters when the book isn’t moving along at a satisfying pace, the chronology of the plot is error-ridden, or the characters lie flat on the page instead of living and breathing in the reader’s head. Each of us is likely to solve problems at odd times; when our brains are supposedly relaxing, we’re apt to jump up and scribble down new ideas magically generated when different parts of our minds go free range creative. (After writing these two paragraphs, Dan pointed out that it makes him sound like he’s in pest control and I’m a gardener, but don’t most gardeners worry about pest control, too?)
Currently, Dan is a software engineer at Rethink Robotics in Boston, home of Baxter, a big red robot designed to work in factories alongside humans. He’s writing code to help Baxter perform certain tasks efficiently, like picking things up from assembly lines and packaging them. Dan is part of a team of people determined to figure out the best ways for humans and robots to interact effectively.
Meanwhile, I’ve just launched a new novel, Beach Plum Island. I probably wrote five entire drafts of this novel before teaming up with my editor, copy editor, publicist, and marketing experts at Penguin Random House to polish the book and help it reach the right audience.
Will Baxter make it? Will my novel? Dan is optimistic, and so am I, that our creations will successfully find their places in the world. If we weren’t optimists, we couldn’t possibly be creative, because we’d quit before we started. It takes a certain kind of foolhardy courage to believe that you can make something new, whether it’s a robot or a book. It’s that kind of risk taking and persistence that makes you put in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell is famous for calculating as the amount of time it takes to become proficient at something.
But that’s part of the fun. As cyber illusionist Marco Tempest, who recently engaged Baxter as his magician’s assistant, said in a recent TED Talk: “I combine magic and science to create illusions.”
Like Tempest, Dan and I don’t just rely on creativity to do what we do. We also depend on science and technology: hypotheses, experimenting, problem solving, testing, reviewing by committees of peers, and lots of revisions along the way. That magic a robot performs on stage or on the factory floor, or those illusions a novel delivers to a reader, come about through a complex mix of problem solving, risk taking, drive, and teamwork. Novelists and engineers, like Tempest the magician, are cyber illusionists in pursuit of art.