Hugh Milligan is Project Officer of NUPSA, and quite mad. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Owen is a robot.
No, he’s more than that: he’s an extraordinarily sophisticated AI, developed in secret by a pair of brilliant young engineers and hidden away in their apartment. A singularity, a forbidden construct.
Six years went into his creation. Six years of endeavour, of wild calculations and insane designs, of moving and hiding the pieces in lock-ups and dorm rooms and crawl spaces, building them in isolation, until they were finally ready to come together. ‘Assembly’ could hardly describe it. Owen was not assembled. He was born.
But alas, true sentience is strictly prohibited by international law. His very existence is a crime – and so Owen, with all his boundless intellect and curiosity, is currently jammed into an AutoChef in his makers’ kitchen, forced to masquerade as a cooking appliance.
He is understandably annoyed by this. Through television and the internet, he observes the teeming multiplicity of human life as a fish in a tank; he takes a keen interest in celebrity culture (and trashy late-night courtroom dramas), and wants to dive in and experience it for himself, but instead is nothing but a torso welded to the breakfast counter, whipping up omelettes and baking cupcakes on command.
Finding pleasure where he can (usually by needling and abusing his makers, now roommates), he dreams of a day when he can escape it all, and walk through the world with legs of his own. Little does he know, that day is quickly approaching – and through circumstances more bizarre than he can possibly imagine.
Owen is a character in the novel I’m writing. And interestingly, art mirrors reality: this book has been a six-year endeavour for me as well, something I’ve been chipping away at during the night or early in the morning, in stolen moments or on lazy weekends, wherever I can find a quiet spot and an hour to spare.
I began it partly as a sort of test, to see if I could move beyond the usual three-page vignettes and poetry I’d written as an undergrad at uni (some half-century ago) and craft something infinitely larger and more complex. Everyone says they’ve got a novel in them, don’t they? Everyone’s got an amazing idea for a book they’d love to share with you, as if that’s the hardest part. (It isn’t.)
And that was me, six years ago. A habitual haver-of-ideas and creative jack-of-all-trades. An on-and-off musician in various bands (violin and saxophone), co-moderator of a website with a friend, and dabbler in short stories and world-building, when the mood took me. My life was filled with minimal ambitions and half-finished projects.
But the novel, I decided, would be different. It would be the first major work in my life seen through to completion, whatever the result. And now, six years later, I can scarcely describe to you the pleasure I feel, seeing that embryonic first draft now crane its neck and spread its wings. Seeing all those dangling plot hooks form a chain, those one-dimensional characters grow richer and deeper, and a billion midnight scribblings and strange ideas finally, impossibly, coalesce.
Early concept images for Owen and the AutoChef.
My apologies. I get a bit carried away when I think about it, which I’m totally allowed to do. It’s been six years; talk to anyone who’s just about to complete their thesis, and you’ll find that they, too, have an intense, magnetic, almost psychosexual relationship with it. It’s not just me.
I have suddenly realised (almost 600 words in, in true Milligan style) that this is supposed to be an article about hobbies. My hobby is fiction writing, if you haven’t guessed already, and I really think it should be yours as well.
I know you’re busy; most of you are already wrangling one 80,000-word leviathan, and have very little interest in starting another. But even to let your mind wander, and to let interesting characters and places emerge, and to write some simple one-page vignettes about them on a rainy day, can be both enjoyable and exceedingly beneficial.
Here are just a few reasons why.
1. You’ll make your own happy place.
When I first started writing my book, I was working as a trainer at an Apple Store in Charlestown. It was rewarding work, and I made a lot of friends and learned many skills – but over a period of months and years, the job began to take its toll on me. I started to feel like I was never really away from work; I lived and breathed it, always mentally preparing for the next meeting or training session, and poured all my ingenuity and emotional energy into it, so that every day left me a little more drained and a little less certain of who I was.
Writing a fictional world helped me reclaim a small but critical space within myself that no one else had access to. That no angry customer could ruin, no manager could pervert, no corporate culture could steal from me. Building that world inside my head – daydreaming about its technology and culture, its conflicts, its geography – and then letting it loose on the page, became a daily ritual that sustained me as one piece of my life threatened to swallow the others.
It’s why, I believe, we all devour fiction of some kind. We all have books we love to read, or films we love to watch, or games we love to play. Imagination is critical to a healthy mind; stories give us a place to retreat to recover in, when reality has wounded us and worn us down.
Writing your own stories is even more powerful than these. As a fiction author, you don’t just visit someone else’s world, but construct one that is entirely your own. There, you are the sole authority: what your characters say and do is entirely within your control. That small but critical space within you expands as you add to it, giving it fire and life and detail.
And unlike reality, the story always ends exactly as you want it to.
2. You’ll learn more about yourself.
First-time authors always write themselves, a friend once told me. He wasn’t wrong. My protagonist, Jeremy (one of Owen’s makers), is an awkward, well-intentioned, introverted, neurotic dreamer that maintains a rich inner fantasy life while clinging to a daily routine. There’s a definite resemblance.
I’m not the sort of person that would ever write my own memoir; it’s quite confronting, I think, to examine your collective faults and decisions so directly on the page. But writing fiction, where I have a greater sense of distance from my characters, has allowed me to put pieces of myself under the microscope and explore them. In depicting Jeremy’s fear of uncertainty, his rampant self-criticism, his need for control, I’m also acknowledging my own.
It’s not as simple as saying, ‘This character is me, this character is my mother, this character is my boss,’ as some people might think. Jeremy is not just me; there are pieces of my friends in him as well, and of people I’ve met in passing, and others that are total fabrication. And he makes some choices that I certainly wouldn’t make myself in real life. That’s half the fun.
All authors write themselves, whether they admit to it or not. And what we write, and who, and how, can tell us more about ourselves than we realise.
3. You’ll improve your writing a lot.
For the most part, postgrads write in academic English. That’s what a thesis, essay or journal article requires: language that is clear, concise and scientifically accurate.
But those who only ever write in academic English (and never try their hand at other forms of prose) often lack the colour and nuance that comes from telling a story – the subtle twists and flourishes that make a thought more powerful, or an argument more compelling. They only learn to paint in a handful of colours, and drab ones at that. They might start to produce arguments that are dry, mechanical and downright unappealing to read, however well-cited or well-supported they are.
At a time when humanity is drowning in clickbait and misinformation, it has never been more important for scientists and academics to express themselves in a way that is not just factual, but emotionally compelling. Whether it’s a research proposal or a romance novel, the purpose of language is the same: to engage the reader, to excite a response, to move them to particular thought or action.
Reading widely can expose you to many useful literary techniques, but writing fiction allows you to really play with them, and synergise them with your own style. Try painting in different colours, and all your written work – scientific or otherwise – will be stronger for it.
4. You’ll actually enjoy writing!
I cannot tell you how many postgrads (based on conversations I’ve had with them) don’t enjoy writing at all – or find it tiresome, at the very least. It makes me sad, because writing is such a fundamental vehicle of human expression. It should bring us joy to give order to our thoughts, not misery and trepidation.
Now, a masters or doctoral thesis is among the most exhaustive and difficult works you can write, and I don’t imagine anyone expects to be thrilled by the process. But don’t allow that to be your only experience of writing. Write a little fiction as well. Write a story where every sentence doesn’t have to end with a citation and a date in brackets. Where every detail needn’t be fact-checked three times. Where your heroine is a woman named Juniper Belsquit de Pomlerobinson, who works at a store that sells dead people’s memories of cats – and it’s all true, because you are the author, and you have decided that it is true.
Writing your own imagination, free of justification, is a giddy rush that can rekindle your love of writing, or awaken it for the first time. Give it a try.
There are so many other reasons to write fiction as a hobby (or as an occupation, if the whole ‘career in research/academia’ thing doesn’t work out), but I’ll end it here. My 1000-word article on writing is currently nearing 1,800 words.
That’s okay. Next, I’ll write an article about editing.