Nearly Three Miles of Invention

In a recent post I wrote about the thought bubbles of our private selves, the stories we generate as we go about our lives, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Those thought bubbles continually rise and fall within us, but what are the geographical perimeters of that “within”?

I remember seeing a television special years ago, hosted by the science writer Timothy Ferris. In that special, he tried to demonstrate how long it took for life to develop on earth. He did this by driving a racing car across 4.5 kilometers (nearly three miles) of the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, a desolate place that seems to go on forever.

Bonneville Salt Flats

His starting point was a line representing the formation of our planet, 4.5 billion years ago, and then he drove for three kilometers until he came to a line representing the origins of single-celled life, bacteria and algae, about 1.5 billion years ago. From there he drove for a kilometer until he came to the line for the beginnings of multicellular life, in the Cambrian era, a half billion years ago. He then raced on for another half a kilometer past the rise of reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals.

Finally he stopped the car and walked the last few yards (let’s dispense with the metric system for the clincher, okay?), which corresponded to the origin of our earliest human ancestors. A half a yard from the very end marked the first appearance of Homo sapiens, and much less than an inch from the finish line, the narrowest sliver of highway represented all of human recorded history.

Now why not transpose the little sliver that Ferris calls human recorded history and call it instead the tiny portion of us that is available to others in any daily face-to-face contact. That sliver is the present moment, and behind it, equivalent to the long drive across the Salt Flats, are all the years of your experience and the multitude of your thoughts and all the stories of your life. So much of us remains hidden, inaccessible. That’s why humans invented language, why we invented storytelling.

So whenever you’re about to fashion a short story or an essay out of someone in your life, remember, fiction writers—and take caution, nonfiction writers—that any person’s mystery offers you nearly three miles of invention.

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  • 2 Comments

    1. Midge says:

      I love the notion of “three miles of invention” and can very much relate to that as a fiction writer (for me, a story always begins with that little sliver of a character or situation, and then the fun begins when I get to invent everything that came before — and after).
      Thanks for a great post!

    2. Ben says:

      Oh shit, it’s like you made a discovery with that line, “the tiny portion of us that is available to others in any daily face-to-face contact.” That really shook me. It helps explain the meaning of friendship and love too, that such things have meaning because those people (friends, partners, spouses) are the ones that can see farther back. What a great post.

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