Tom Sweterlitsch writes for a living. His first novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, was published in 2014. It takes place in a virtual recreation of a Pittsburgh that has been destroyed by a nuclear weapon, and follows an investigator who investigates unexplained deaths preserved in this “Archive”. His second novel, The Gone World, will be published this February. The Gone World also follows an investigator – tasked to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL’s family in a world where time travel is a reality. Sweterlitsch also works closely with director Neill Blomkamp and his studio, OATS, where he has co-written short films Rakka, Firebase, and Zygote. Blomkamp is also set to direct the film adaptation of The Gone World. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Sweterlitsch spent twelve years at the Carnegie LIbrary for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
So, what is the key to Sweterlitsch’s creative success? He says this lies in no longer controlling what you’re thinking. “There are three places where I get most of my ideas,” he begins. “The first is when I’m reading books. When I’m reading, there’s a different level of thought going on at the same time, and I get many creative ideas this way. The second thing is walks: Here in Pittsburgh there are some truly amazing public parks and I often go into the woods for long walks to let my mind wander. Finally, I’m really big into the lucid dream state. I take frequent naps throughout the day with narrative problems on my mind. There’s this period of five to ten minutes in between being awake and asleep where I get a lot of great thinking done.”
Those three pillars all share a common denominator: no longer controlling what you’re thinking. This can be generalized as unconscious thought. Perhaps the most prolific example of the relationship between unconscious thought and creativity comes from basic science – The Archimedes Principle. As legend has it, Archimedes, a Greek mathematician, was tasked with determining whether a crown was made of pure gold or an alloy. He thought and thought about this problem, to no avail. Finally, he decided to take a bath to relax. As he entered the bathtub, it struck him that he could measure the density of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced and dividing by its weight. He allegedly shouted “Eureka!” and ran from his home naked in his excitement, having forgot to dress.
How is it that Archimedes could struggle with a problem for so long and discover its solution in the bathtub? The answer lies in the creative process, which, while different for every creator, tends to go something like this:
Preparation – This is the information gathering phase. It usually involves questions like ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘When?’, ‘Where?’, and ‘Why?’.
Incubation – This is a period of unconscious thought where you’re not actively problem-solving, but your brain is unconsciously connecting dots and formulating creative ideas.
Inspiration – This is Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment – a clear vision of the solution OR a new creative idea.
Production – Finally, this phase is where the solution or creative ideas formulated during the Inspiration phase are deployed.
Now, it becomes clear that Archimedes as well as authors, artists, designers, makers – creators – often have their most creative ideas during this incubation phase. This is why Ken Levine has his creative ideas on runs, David J Peterson has his ideas in the shower, and Tom Sweterlitsch has his ideas in a lucid dream state (in addition to long walks and reading).
“You have your conscious thoughts that are highly controlled. Then, you have your unconscious thoughts, when the locks come off and you’re no longer controlling what you’re thinking. This is what happens to me in a lucid state, as well as walks in the woods and reading. I do a lot of reading about the surrealists, these writers from the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. They would sit with paper and just write as fast as they could. Any image, any word that come out. That’s something similar – they’re unleashing their unconscious minds.”
Sweterlitsch doesn’t believe that creativity or creative ideas are limited to certain creative folks. He just thinks some people don’t pay attention to their creative ideas. He says one of the instrumental keys to creative ideas is asking a simple question: ‘What if?’ “Going about your day, you’ve likely had daydreams regarding your surroundings, or you’ve looked at someone and wondered what their life is like. The common denominator there is the question, ‘What if?’. That’s a good time to pause and write down the creative ideas that come from that question. Most people have really creative ideas all the time, they just don’t keep track of them.”
The thing about creativity is that it can be influenced and bounded by anything from sleep, diet and exercise to parenthood, schedule and work environment. In addition to consuming obscene amounts of coffee, taking frequent naps and working from various locations, Sweterlitsch’s creativity is influenced and bound by his daughter. “I have a six-year old daughter who’s at school,” he says, “so my wake up schedule is getter her ready and dropping her off at school. After that, I fill me day until I pick her up – so in that sense, my work day is bound by her school day.”
“I started writing my first novel almost exactly when my daughter was born – the month of her birth. At first, I thought that timing was coincidence. I’d been working on short stories and was ready to try a novel. There wasn’t a ‘Tom Sweterlitsch, science fiction writer’ before I was a father. Now, six years later, I can point to differences in approach: I’m very much interested in writing commercially, because my interest in publishing is tied directly to the support of my family. In that sense, my being a father consciously directs what I choose to work on – if I have an idea that seems like nothing but a personal obsession, I’ll set that aside to work on an idea I think might have a broader appeal.”
Sweterlitsch’s background is in what he calls avant garde or experimental writing – that’s what he grew up loving. But that’s far from what he writes now. Currently, he writes science fiction mystery thrillers and publishes with Putnam books, a very commercial publisher. However, just because he pursues commercial publishing and writes his novels to fit into that niche, he recognizes not all storytelling is, or needs to be, commercial. “There are no rules in storytelling. In literary writing, you can try anything, and probably, people have tried everything. You can, for instance, have a television show with no beginning, middle, or end. You can make some brilliant art that way and push it. But at the same time, what you’re probably giving up is the chance for commercial outlets to pick it up. I think a lot of creativity in writing is becoming comfortable with the audience you want, or with your personal goals, and running with it. I think everything is equally valid in terms of how people write.”
Earlier, Tom spoke about a key question that influences his creativity: ‘What if?’. Another key question that influences Sweterlitsch’s creative ideas is ‘What would a society be like with that?’. He says, “You may have an initial idea with a science fiction hook, and I like to push that out in terms of the world building and say, ‘Ok, so there’s augmented reality and brain implants are not common, but what would a society look like with that?’, because all kinds of things would change.”
“Once you start to answer that central question, it starts to become very exciting. When you have your plot set and your characters set and you’re really experimenting with the language or answering smaller questions. That detail work is very exciting for me. I think that’s where you start getting those different ideas that really make the world come to life in a novel.”
Typically, creativity is in some form associated with innovation. In the field of writing, however, it can perhaps be postulated that innovation has played less and less of a role over time. After all, writing is just words on paper, right? Wrong, according to author Tom Sweterlitsch. “A writer is a product of their society, and when society changes, so too will the art associated with that society, and writing is no exception,” he says. “For instance, mid-century composer John Cage wrote a piece that is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and visual artists responded with all white or all black canvases. In storytelling right now, I’ve become fascinated with narratives that artificial intelligence programs come up with on their own. They produce these truly bizarre and uncanny videos, stories, and screenplays.”
Screenplays like 2016’s Sunspring, a short science fiction film starring Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch, as well as Elisabeth Gray and Humphrey Ker. Sunspring’s screenplay is written entirely by a recurrent neural network called long-term short memory, which named itself Benjamin. Benjamin’s data-bank is based on dozens of science fiction screenplays the film’s directors, Oscar Sharpe and Ross Goodwin, found online. From these, Benjamin learned to imitate the structure of a screenplay, producing stage directions and character lines. While its still unclear if these storytelling AI’s are authors, tools, or something in-between, it is clear that Artificial Intelligence is the next innovation in storytelling. “A lot of innovations have been in response to technological change,” Sweterlitsch says, “And that’s the case with the arts as well. As technology progresses, art will respond to it.”
“It turns out that the outputs of these artificial intelligence programs have these weird leaps of logic that humans simply don’t make. I find that fascinating because you can have an artificial intelligence program that makes leaps of logic that you then delve into as the human creator. I’d love to have access to an AI program to experiment with something like that.”
Though his second novel releases next month, Sweterlitsch is already hard at work on his third. “On my own, I would have gone off to a deserted island to detox a bit after finishing The Gone World” Tom says. “I think The Gone World is better than my first one, but it took a lot out of me to write. It was very difficult, and so getting back into the swing of things is a huge, emotional commitment.”
So, where does acclaimed film director Neill Blomkamp come into the equation? How has Sweterlitsch come to form a relationship with him and collaborate so closely together on Oats? The answer lies in the fact that 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to The Gone World right after he submitted his first draft to his publisher. Blomkamp became interested in the novel, and actually finished a first draft of the screenplay as Sweterlitsch was putting the finishing touches on the book. Since then, the two have formed a working relationship of creative collaboration on Oats titles Rakka, Firebase, Zygote and ADAM (in conjunction with Unity).
Creatively, collaborating with Blomkamp on these short pieces was vastly different than working on writing novels. “It’s different writing a novel versus a short story,” Sweterlitsch explains, “and then writing a screenplay is very different, and then writing the Oats shorts with Neill has been very different. Let me say that Neill Blomkamp is a creative genius. Over time, we’ve developed a good working relationship where visually, he knows that he wants, and from there, we bounce ideas off of each other. A lot of what I gave him fed into the creative vision he already had.”
“So for Rakka, he had a lot of those elements in place by the time I came into the fold. So I was able to feed into those. But with Firebase, we came up with that totally together. Within each of the Oats shorts has been a different creative process. For Firebase, I did a huge amount of writing initially and presented that to Neill. He told me not to worry about budget or constraints, and that he knew what he could direct and what would work visually. A lot of folks don’t have that luxury so it’s been amazing to work with Neill and just let her rip, creatively.”
One of Sweterlitsch’s observations while working with Neill Blomkamp on Oats is the dichotomy between collaboration and creative control. While working on a novel, Sweterlitsch has complete control. He is in control of every character, every word, every description – it is him and him alone. “Working on a film is so collaborative. I was very present for the first ten percent of so of the filmmaking process with initial ideas and screenplays. But then, a team of special effects experts, casting experts, prop masters, actors, and other talented people all contribute as well. I become just one piece out of 100. I had to tell myself that I was giving up creative control to serve Neill’s vision, and had a lot of fun with that. In general, both ways of creating: collaboration and independence, are liberating, but contain quite different creative processes.”
Oats is creativity and storytelling turned up to eleven. Oats is simultaneously mainstream and experimental. The Oats identity changes based on the dynamic needs of the market, the actual consumers, not production companies with profit demands to meet. In particular, Oats relies on the ideas of creating a world, and then telling a story in that world. In the case of their most recently released endeavor, ADAM, Unity first developed the Adam short as a demo for the potential of Unity in real-time filmmaking. A lot of people responded to the character and the world Unity created, and they approached Neill to continue that story. He created what is called the “Show Bible”, which introduces a whole new world ripe with stories to tell. And what we’ve seen thus far just scratches the surface of that Show Bible, just the same as Oats’ other shorts.
“Neill and I will often have conversations about one of the stories where we’ll talk about different ideas and he’ll say, ‘But this is what we know, it might not be what the audience knows.’ Everything has to plug into this greater plan, so we’re not contradicting ourselves or telling a story on the fly. Even if we don’t disclose all the information we’ve come up with, everything you see in each short connects into the greater world building for that short. I found that exciting, and a different way of working than I’ve ever worked before.”
Oats plans to crowdfund one of its shorts, Firebase, this February. Keep your eyes out for that on Kickstarter, and make sure to pick up Tom Sweterlitsch’s new novel, The Gone World, in stores February 6, 2018.