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  • The Value of Nothing: Out of Nothing Comes Something.

  • That was an essay I wrote when I was 11 years old

  • and I got a B+. (Laughter)

  • What I'm going to talk about: nothing out of something, and how we create.

  • And I'm gonna try and do that within

  • the 18-minute time span that we were told to stay within,

  • and to follow the TED commandments:

  • that is, actually, something that creates

  • a near-death experience,

  • but near-death is good for creativity.

  • (Laughter) OK.

  • So, I also want to explain,

  • because Dave Eggers said he was going to heckle me

  • if I said anything that was a lie, or not true to universal creativity.

  • And I've done it this way for half the audience, who is scientific.

  • When I say we, I don't mean you, necessarily;

  • I mean me, and my right brain, my left brain

  • and the one that's in between that is the censor

  • and tells me what I'm saying is wrong.

  • And I'm going do that also by looking at

  • what I think is part of my creative process,

  • which includes a number of things that happened, actually --

  • the nothing started even earlier than the moment

  • in which I'm creating something new.

  • And that includes nature, and nurture,

  • and what I refer to as nightmares.

  • Now in the nature area, we look at whether or not

  • we are innately equipped with something, perhaps

  • in our brains, some abnormal chromosome

  • that causes this muse-like effect.

  • And some people would say that we're born with it in some other means.

  • And others, like my mother,

  • would say that I get my material from past lives.

  • Some people would also say that creativity

  • may be a function of some other neurological quirk --

  • van Gogh syndrome -- that you have a little bit of, you know, psychosis, or depression.

  • I do have to say, somebody -- I read recently

  • that van Gogh wasn't really necessarily psychotic,

  • that he might have had temporal lobe seizures,

  • and that might have caused his spurt of creativity, and I don't --

  • I suppose it does something in some part of your brain.

  • And I will mention that I actually developed

  • temporal lobe seizures a number of years ago,

  • but it was during the time I was writing my last book,

  • and some people say that book is quite different.

  • I think that part of it also begins with a sense of identity crisis:

  • you know, who am I, why am I this particular person,

  • why am I not black like everybody else?

  • And sometimes you're equipped with skills,

  • but they may not be the kind of skills that enable creativity.

  • I used to draw. I thought I would be an artist.

  • And I had a miniature poodle.

  • And it wasn't bad, but it wasn't really creative.

  • Because all I could really do was represent in a very one-on-one way.

  • And I have a sense that I probably copied this from a book.

  • And then, I also wasn't really shining in a certain area that I wanted to be,

  • and you know, you look at those scores, and it wasn't bad,

  • but it was not certainly predictive that I would one day make

  • my living out of the artful arrangement of words.

  • Also, one of the principles of creativity is to have a little childhood trauma.

  • And I had the usual kind that I think a lot of people had,

  • and that is that, you know, I had expectations placed on me.

  • That figure right there, by the way,

  • figure right there was a toy given to me when I was but nine years old,

  • and it was to help me become a doctor from a very early age.

  • I have some ones that were long lasting: from the age of five to 15,

  • this was supposed to be my side occupation,

  • and it led to a sense of failure.

  • But actually, there was something quite real in my life

  • that happened when I was about 14.

  • And it was discovered that my brother, in 1967, and then my father,

  • six months later, had brain tumors.

  • And my mother believed that something had gone wrong,

  • and she was gonna find out what it was, and she was gonna fix it.

  • My father was a Baptist minister, and he believed in miracles,

  • and that God's will would take care of that.

  • But, of course, they ended up dying, six months apart.

  • And after that, my mother believed that it was fate, or curses

  • -- she went looking through all the reasons in the universe

  • why this would have happened.

  • Everything except randomness. She did not believe in randomness.

  • There was a reason for everything.

  • And one of the reasons, she thought, was that her mother,

  • who had died when she was very young, was angry at her.

  • And so, I had this notion of death all around me,

  • because my mother also believed that I would be next, and she would be next.

  • And when you are faced with the prospect of death very soon,

  • you begin to think very much about everything.

  • You become very creative, in a survival sense.

  • And this, then, led to my big questions.

  • And they're the same ones that I have today.

  • And they are: why do things happen, and how do things happen?

  • And the one my mother asked: how do I make things happen?

  • It's a wonderful way to look at these questions, when you write a story.

  • Because, after all, in that framework, between page one and 300,

  • you have to answer this question of why things happen, how things happen,

  • in what order they happen. What are the influences?

  • How do I, as the narrator, as the writer, also influence that?

  • And it's also one that, I think, many of our scientists have been asking.

  • It's a kind of cosmology, and I have to develop a cosmology of my own universe,

  • as the creator of that universe.

  • And you see, there's a lot of back and forth

  • in trying to make that happen, trying to figure it out

  • -- years and years, oftentimes.

  • So, when I look at creativity, I also think that it is this sense or this inability

  • to repress, my looking at associations in practically anything in life.

  • And I got a lot of them during what's been going on

  • throughout this conference,

  • almost everything that's been going on.

  • And so I'm going to use, as the metaphor, this association:

  • quantum mechanics, which I really don't understand,

  • but I'm still gonna use it as the process

  • for explaining how it is the metaphor.

  • So, in quantum mechanics, of course, you have dark energy and dark matter.

  • And it's the same thing in looking at these questions of how things happen.

  • There's a lot of unknown, and you often don't know what it is except by its absence.

  • But when you make those associations,

  • you want them to come together in a kind of synergy in the story,

  • and what you're finding is what matters. The meaning.

  • And that's what I look for in my work, a personal meaning.

  • There is also the uncertainty principle, which is part of quantum mechanics,

  • as I understand it. (Laughter)

  • And this happens constantly in the writing.

  • And there's the terrible and dreaded observer effect,

  • in which you're looking for something, and

  • you know, things are happening simultaneously,

  • and you're looking at it in a different way,

  • and you're trying to really look for the about-ness,

  • or what is this story about. And if you try too hard,

  • then you will only write the about.

  • You won't discover anything.

  • And what you were supposed to find,

  • what you hoped to find in some serendipitous way,

  • is no longer there.

  • Now, I don't want to ignore

  • the other side of what happens in our universe,

  • like many of our scientists have.

  • And so, I am going to just throw in string theory here,

  • and just say that creative people are multidimensional,

  • and there are 11 levels, I think, of anxiety.

  • (Laughter) And they all operate at the same time.

  • There is also a big question of ambiguity.

  • And I would link that to something called the cosmological constant.

  • And you don't know what is operating, but something is operating there.

  • And ambiguity, to me, is very uncomfortable

  • in my life, and I have it. Moral ambiguity.

  • It is constantly there. And, just as an example,

  • this is one that recently came to me.

  • It was something I read in an editorial by a woman

  • who was talking about the war in Iraq. And she said,

  • "Save a man from drowning, you are responsible to him for life."

  • A very famous Chinese saying, she said.

  • And that means because we went into Iraq, we should stay there

  • until things were solved. You know, maybe even 100 years.

  • So, there was another one that I came across,

  • and it's "saving fish from drowning."

  • And it's what Buddhist fishermen say,

  • because they're not supposed to kill anything.

  • And they also have to make a living, and people need to be fed.

  • So their way of rationalizing that is they are saving the fish from drowning,

  • and unfortunately, in the process the fish die.

  • Now, what's encapsulated in both these drowning metaphors

  • -- actually, one of them is my mother's interpretation,

  • and it is a famous Chinese saying, because she said it to me:

  • "save a man from drowning, you are responsible to him for life."

  • And it was a warning -- don't get involved in other people's business,

  • or you're going to get stuck.

  • OK. I think if somebody really was drowning, she'd save them.

  • But, both of these sayings -- saving a fish from drowning,

  • or saving a man from drowning -- to me they had to do with intentions.

  • And all of us in life, when we see a situation, we have a response.

  • And then we have intentions.

  • There's an ambiguity of what that should be that we should do,

  • and then we do something.

  • And the results of that may not match what our intentions had been.

  • Maybe things go wrong. And so, after that, what are our responsibilities?

  • What are we supposed to do?

  • Do we stay in for life,

  • or do we do something else and justify and say, well, my intentions were good,

  • and therefore I cannot be held responsible for all of it?

  • That is the ambiguity in my life

  • that really disturbed me, and led me to write a book called

  • "Saving Fish From Drowning."

  • I saw examples of that. Once I identified this question, it was all over the place.

  • I got these hints everywhere.

  • And then, in a way, I knew that they had always been there.

  • And then writing, that's what happens. I get these hints, these clues,

  • and I realize that they've been obvious, and yet they have not been.

  • And what I need, in effect, is a focus.

  • And when I have the question, it is a focus.

  • And all these things that seem to be flotsam and jetsam in life actually go through

  • that question, and what happens is those particular things become relevant.

  • And it seems like it's happening all the time.

  • You think there's a sort of coincidence going on, a serendipity,

  • in which you're getting all this help from the universe.

  • And it may also be explained that now you have a focus.

  • And you are noticing it more often.

  • But you apply this.

  • You begin to look at things having to do with your tensions.

  • Your brother, who's fallen in trouble, do you take care of him?

  • Why or why not?

  • It may be something that is perhaps more serious

  • -- as I said, human rights in Burma.

  • I was thinking that I shouldn't go because somebody said, if I did, it would show

  • that I approved of the military regime there.

  • And then, after a while, I had to ask myself,

  • "Why do we take on knowledge, why do we take on assumptions

  • that other people have given us?"

  • And it was the same thing that I felt when I was growing up,

  • and was hearing these rules of moral conduct from my father,

  • who was a Baptist minister.

  • So I decided that I would go to Burma for my own intentions,

  • and still didn't know that if I went there,

  • what the result of that would be, if I wrote a book --

  • and I just would have to face that later, when the time came.

  • We are all concerned with things that we see in the world that we are aware of.

  • We come to this point and say, what do I as an individual do?

  • Not all of us can go to Africa, or work at hospitals,

  • so what do we do, if we have this moral response, this feeling?

  • Also, I think one of the biggest things we are all looking at,

  • and we talked about today, is genocide.

  • This leads to this question.

  • When I look at all these things that are morally ambiguous and uncomfortable,

  • and I consider what my intentions should be,

  • I realize it goes back to this identity question that I had when I was a child

  • -- and why am I here, and what is the meaning of my life,

  • and what is my place in the universe?

  • It seems so obvious, and yet it is not.

  • We all hate moral ambiguity in some sense,

  • and yet it is also absolutely necessary.

  • In writing a story, it is the place where I begin.

  • Sometimes I get help from the universe, it seems.

  • My mother would say it was the ghost of my grandmother from the very first book,

  • because it seemed I knew things I was not supposed to know.

  • Instead of writing that the grandmother died accidentally,

  • from an overdose of opium, while having too much of a good time,

  • I actually put down in the story that the woman killed herself,

  • and that actually was the way it happened.

  • And my mother decided that that information must have come from my grandmother.

  • There are also things, quite uncanny,

  • which bring me information that will help me in the writing of the book.

  • In this case, I was writing a story

  • that included some kind of detail, period of history, a certain location.

  • And I needed to find something historically that would match that.

  • And I took down this book, and I --

  • first page that I flipped it to was exactly the setting, and the time period,

  • and the kind of character I needed -- was the Taiping rebellion,

  • happening in the area near Guilin, outside of that,