the Searchlight Effect

I once heard a joke a long time ago about a drunkard looking for his lost keys under a street light. A police officer comes along and helps the man look for his keys. After a time the police man asked the drunkard, “Are you sure that you lost your keys around here?” To which the drunkard replied, “No, I lost them in the park but the light is better over here.” Amusing but far from the hilarious observations made by the late comedian, Mitch Hedburg.

It was only recently that I discovered the term “the streetlight effect” is used in reference to observational biases in the fields of social sciences and research. Scientists often look for results by taking information that is available instead of taking the time to explore the darker regions of undiscovered sciences. Modest measures are suggested as solutions and then hastily disproved. In other words, the scientists often found someone else’s keys in the light.

I have heard this system of thought applied to the search for extraterrestrials in that cosmologists are searching for signals on a very small spectrum of the overall wavelengths of the universe and that we are very unlikely to find intelligent life using our current flawed system of research techniques. Imagine that radio telescopes are listening for alien EDM (I imagine aliens probably prefer classical music, but for the sake of this argument, the aliens rave at the Andromeda disco) and the Kepler spacecraft is looking for earth like exoplanets that have life similar to our own, but the intelligent life out in the universe is somewhere in the spectrum of non-carbon life. Stephen Hawkin supposed this might be true along with the hypothesis that if there is intelligent life out in the universe that it would likely be malevolent and be stockpiling nukes (his actual words). Oh Stephen, you loveable, lazy, optimist in your tiny, smart car.

So, how does this whole observational bias about a silly drunkard looking for his keys under a street light apply to me, Mr. Brian Philipsen. Other than the drunkard part (which I am happy to say that I am two and a half years sober) I have found that this process of thought applies to me and my process of creative writing. I don’t know if it is true but Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.” When I have trouble finishing a chapter that I am writing because the prose doesn’t fit I simply look to change a few words here and there using a thesaurus as if the problem is that the word doesn’t sound right. The problem isn’t the word I use or even the situation the word is being used in. It is the effect of the writing process that blocks my creative self from effectively communicating my ideas to my deliberate self or the conduit of thought to paper.

I am in the midst of analyzing my writing process and of those around me to discover new pathways for the thought to reach the page and eventually the reader. I know I am a creative person. I have ten stories in a bare-bones and scaffolding kind of outline just waiting to be put on the page. I don’t have any problems with writer’s block (it is more like what to sit down and work on writing first). I have trouble making my words come alive and not sound wish-washy or repeating ideas into redundancy. I understand that I am still finding my voice and this can take years but I hardly patient enough for such a thing.

I have learned in recovery to take it one day at a time and that helps me be mindful of the moment but there is always a nagging self at the back of my mind kicking me in the butt and telling me to make up for lost time. I wasted my twenties getting wasted and not writing, although, I did daydream and brainstorm some very good ideas which are now the brick and mortar for the material I will build my future novels with.

Writers Unite! Is a workshop/writing group I am putting together to figure out all things writing and networking. I have read many books about process and they all give different scenarios and exercises to better the writer but I need something more interactive– something with interaction, experimentation and discussion of results and sharing those conclusions with other like-minded people.  It is my hope that by doing a workshop I will be able to share what I know and learn what works for some and what might get me out of my own tragic opinion of my juvenile prose.

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