Monday, April 4, 2011

Serendipity and the Writer

This word has always fascinated me. I finally located its source in a Persian fairy-tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” There once were three princes from Serendip (also known as Shri-Lanka) who set out to find something and always found something they weren’t looking for. After reading this tale, Horace Walpole, a British literary figure of the 1700s, coined the word “serendipity”, meaning, according to Webster, “an assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

Examples of this gift are many, especially among scientists. Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist, discovered penicillin while looking for something entirely different. It was his powers of observation and the preparedness of his mind gained through his work that enabled him to notice that a certain mold had a deleterious effect on bacteria. Another less dramatic example of serendipity was the employee at Procter & Gamble who mixed up the formula for Ivory Soap and caused it to float. He was criticized for his mistake and probably fired, but another employee realized that this attribute would be an asset to the product, and the company has been making hay out of it (er…soap) ever since.

But how can serendipity help the writer? That is the question I asked myself. This is what I came up with.

A writer has an idea for a book. He or she begins to write. As he writes in one direction, he bumps into an idea that takes him in another direction. The new direction is an improvement over the old. But the writer would never have run into the new direction if he hadn’t started out in the old direction. In other words, you have to take action—travel, work or write before you can benefit from serendipity. You can’t sit around in a vacuum and do nothing. You have to begin the journey before you can stumble on a new or better direction.

The reason Fleming was able to notice the beneficial effect of the mold  was because he had a prepared mind, honed by hours working in the laboratory. He had enough knowledge and experience to recognize and understand what was going on in that Petri dish. Another person might not have. As writers we also have to have prepared minds. We have to know the language, have the vocabulary and the writing skills to make use of the new idea when we stumble on it. We have to understand that even though we didn’t plan it that way—it wasn’t in our outline or our synopsis—we should grab it, and use it, to make a better book.

Robin Hathaway

1 comment:

  1. Robin, I love this! When my characters start doing things I didn't expect them to do, I know I am on to something. BTW, another example in the laboratory: a researcher at 3M was studying barnacles to find a glue that would bind better than any on the market. When he synthesized the barnacle glue, he wound up with something that stuck, but was easily removed, but could then stick to something else. He started to put it on bits of paper so the members of his church choir could use them to mark the pages in the hymnal for Sunday Mass. Soon his friends and colleagues were asking him to make some for them to use ar work. This is the back story to Post-It Notes!