I’m a big fan of live chamber music: string quartets, violin and harpsichord sonatas, baroque symphonies. If you are at all interested in music, I highly recommend going to a performance. There are far worse ways to spend a few hours than giving a couple of bucks to a local musician (such performances are usually cheap).

I say this because, in an obscure way, it’s related to a creative exercise I like to do, usually when I’m driving.

You’ve probably, at some point, been exposed to the concept of writing letters that are never intended to be sent. This exercise is similar. It comes to me in the car because modern automobiles are one of the most complex systems we have.

How would you describe a modern automobile to someone from the baroque period? For example, the one I choose to have as my imaginary audience: General George Washington.

Yeah, a little Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure here. But I quickly figured out that the idea of pulling someone here in a time machine is nowhere near as interesting as using the time machine to send myself back to their era and talk to them on their home turf. And, come on, let’s face it: if you were truly to bring someone from the past here, they’d probably have a meltdown.

I chose Washington for a couple of reasons.

  1. He was known, late in life, to be generous to strangers making the pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. And this despite the evidence that says he wasn’t fond of it and just wanted to be left alone.
  2. If you look at the way his generalship evolved during the Revolutionary War, he went from a middle-of-the-road, standard British general to a guerilla leader coordinating diverse elements into a concerted war effort. That takes a plasticity of mind and the ability to set ego aside to learn and change tactics on the fly.
  3. He was a man of vast intelligence; skilled with words, with the art of communicating, as well as a man of deep conviction.
  4. He was acquaintances with such a variety of people, not just politicians or military people. So he could see beyond his sphere.
  5. At least in private, he was willing to admit his own foibles and his humanity.
  6. I admire him.

Despite all of these things, though, he was a product of his time. So you’d have to couch your discussion in such a way as to not have him believe you to be insane or some kind of magician. Telling him that he should champion the cause of abolition wouldn’t have gone over so well, even though he did free his slaves in his will.

Now think about how you’d tell him about an automobile. A complex vehicle that is self-propelled, can reach experimental and racing speeds of two hundred miles per hour, and almost every household has one. How can you put these things into words that an 18th century man, no matter how flexible of mind and intelligent, can grasp?

How far back do you go? Do you tell him that Americans flew to the moon and landed there? Do you tell him about the World Wars and how we eventually turned away from his advice to not get involved in the affairs of other nations? Do you go back further and tell him that slavery was abolished and there was civil war? Did you bring a dollar bill with you; with the 2000s date and his portrait on it? Further? How much context do you need to explain the device? How much information of our past timeline do you provide to him, where you’d be akin to some kind of oracle?

Or how about a cell phone? Let’s say you took one back with you, along with a Bluetooth speaker and a solar charger. Yeah, no phone service, but you have games, books, music, and video that don’t require network connection. How would he respond when your local baroque quartet’s music comes out of a little box that is, to the naked eye, just sitting there? How do you have him not declare you a witch?

How long until you succumb to smallpox or malaria or dysentery? What would it be like to sit on the verandah of Mount Vernon, sipping a drink with the first President of the United States? How do you explain circuitry, germ theory, global trade, or quantum physics?

There are so many rabbit holes to go down with this exercise, it’s almost endless.

It’s an exercise that I’ve used many times to have conversations with characters who weren’t developing the way I had hoped. They rarely take on the depth or rabbit hole quality of the conversations I imagine with Washington, but they help a great deal in opening my mind to what my characters want without me knowingly projecting bits of myself onto them. I view using chunks of myself that way as being lazy. But that’s just me.

Give it a go sometime. You may be pleasantly surprised at the result.

One thought on “WWGWD?

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