As water falls from the sky, it lands on the uneven surface of the world and trickles down, pulled by gravity, to whatever lowest point it can find, along tiny channels, down little valleys, into small pools; then, overflowing those initial pools, it flows further, always tugged by gravity, down further grooves and hollows, into more pools and yet wider cavities, forming lakes and eventually oceans. Wherever there is a hole or gap or pocket, pouch, orifice, aperture, crater, or pit, there it will run, seeking always the deepest spots and forever the lowest place.
So it is with attention. We do not know as yet what to call the force, like gravity, which works on attention, except to say that Nature seems to abhor a vacuum. Nevertheless, motivated by this force, attention drifts to whatever deepest point it can find, along tiny channels, down little valleys, into small pools; just like water, it overflows its containers and travels down further grooves and hollows, into more pools and yet wider cavities. Human attention seeks to fill up the spaces that it finds: it is pulled into them, whether by conscious curiosity or simply instinctive need. Wherever there is a darkness or a lost thing or mystery, gap, oddity in a sequence, need, yearning, or threat of loss, there it will run, seeking always the deepest spots and forever the lowest place.
Many of our efforts are to try to dam this flow, to prevent ourselves thinking about the biggest losses, the darkest gaps, the most unanswered of questions. In fiction, we explore these cavities, these darknesses, these open voids, through characters and plots which are largely composed of vacuums.
A curious thing is that money tends to flow like water too. The deeper the hole, the greater the yearning, the more vast the need, attention is pulled towards it, and, much more slowly sometimes, so is money. Creaking like a vast glacier, wealth slowly edges its way along the path carved by attention.
It's easy to think otherwise. Natural disasters, threats of nuclear destruction, day to day terrible news, have the cumulative effect of making us think that we are heading towards our doom and that wealth is never going to get to the right places. But, from a public health and quality of life perspective, in matters of mortality, hunger, disease, and more, life is getting better for billions of people. For about 150 years (between 1820 and 1970) the number of people in extreme poverty continued to rise, and by the end of the 1970s, more than 2 billion people were classified as extremely poor - but since then, the number of people in extreme poverty has shrunk to 705 million from that 2-billion high as governments prioritise it and populations support its reduction. Attention is followed by wealth. Since 1990, the number of children dying before their 5th birthday has been reduced from 12.1 million down to 5.8 million in 2015, mainly due to advances and investments in simple, inexpensive measures in developing countries, as the flow of attention, followed slowly by the movement of wealth, catches up to the need.
Across the world, on every continent, people are eating more. In 1961, the average person consumed 2,200 calories a day. By 2013, the number had risen to 2,900 a day. All over the globe, labour laws mandating a minimum age for work have enabled the child labour rate to plummet for more than a century. For example, in Italy, about 64% of kids held steady jobs in 1881; in 1961, it was less than 4%. The world average hovers around 17%.
This article isn’t particularly about social change or global optimism - these examples are given to illustrate the ‘water’ analogy: attention, then wealth, flows towards the biggest holes, albeit much too slowly in some cases. Just like water, wealth tends to pool in places and remain static even when it is desperately needed elsewhere. But then part of what we can do as writers is to dig new channels, and, even more importantly, get others to dig new channels, to get the flows going where they are needed.
In fiction, we see the same process occurring on a smaller scale. We are drawn, our attention is drawn, towards a piece of writing by the devices used by the writer to attract that attention - the ‘vacuums’, as I call them in How Stories Really Work. Given enough ‘vacuum power’, the prospective reader opens up his or her purse and buys the book; given enough continuing vacuum power, he or she is fulfilled by the story and wants more.
Money is like water: it flows towards the deepest ‘hole’. Sometimes it is painfully slow, and all we see and feel is the gap that awaits its eventual arrival; but in our writing, we can make it arrive much more quickly by applying the engineering principles which will get it flowing in our direction like a torrent.
The world’s needs are eventually met; our needs can be eventually met.
As someone once said, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ If we work with that arc, we can have fulfilment too, and so can everyone else.